CEDAR FALLS — It was blastoff Saturday for Cedar Falls High School students who designed a rocket as part of a NASA competition.
Cedar Falls Rocket Club members on a team doing the NASA Student Launch traveled to Dixon, Neb., to shoot their nearly nine-foot-tall rocket about a mile into the sky. More than a dozen juniors and seniors in the club are part of the team, one of two that are in competitions during the next month.
Dixon is about 35 miles west of Sioux City. A National Association of Rocketry chapter in Nebraska made it possible for the team to find officials there who oversaw the flight and got Federal Aviation Administration clearance that allowed it to take place.
Originally, the club planned a trip to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for the launch, but a month ago NASA organizers scaled back the event as part of the precautions related to COVID-19.
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“You can launch in person down in Alabama, but probably no more than half of the 60 teams are going to do that,” said Zeb Nicholson, a teacher who is team adviser. A total of 16 teams are in the division that includes middle and high school students. The other 44 teams are in the college and university division.
Because teams can still launch their rockets through May 9, the Cedar Falls students don’t know yet how they did in the competition. An awards ceremony is expected to be held sometime in early June.
On Thursday, students gathered in a high school conference room and joined two hours of online presentations in preparation for their launch. It was the second week they had tuned in to watch presentations, which include vendors who sell products like software and other teams explaining their projects to NASA organizers. On Thursday, the Cedar Falls club also made its presentation.
“Our plan for that presentation is we’re going to go through just our project as a whole,” senior Harrison Redfern said shortly before they gave it. They were going to delve deeply into how the team designed the rocket – which stands eight feet, 8-1/2 inches tall and is 6 inches in diameter – and the payload. The students were also going to talk about the results of their first launch using the full-scale rocket.
“We did a test flight back in February,” said Redfern. The team made “a few minor changes after that, but we feel pretty confident.”
Normally, the presentation would be given in Huntsville as part of the in-person event.
“There are usually three days worth of in-person activities, tours, rocket fair, and guest speakers while we are in Huntsville, but this year the only thing teams are allowed to do is show up for the launch and then go home again,” said Nicholson.
The team has dubbed its efforts to design and build the rocket and its payload “Project Heimdall.” In Norse mythology, Heimdall is the watchman of the gods. He is also a character in Marvel comic books and movies.
Heimdall is depicted as the movie character on part of the rocket, which was hand painted by Mario Mata of the downtown auto body business Anderson Collision.
On the theme of being a watchman, the team’s payload includes three GoPro cameras, secured in a plastic container behind acrylic windows. Recordings from the cameras can be edited into a 360-degree virtual reality video of the flight. Students did that after their test flight and will create a new video from Saturday’s launch.
A circuit board that students built into the rocket collects data about movement during the flights. Graphic representations of that data are overlaid onto the videos by the students to provide information on things like altitude, speed and gravitational force throughout the flights. The test flight video can be seen at online at bit.ly/CFHSrcVideo.
Nicholson praised the students, saying he has never heard of a high school or college group creating anything quite as extensive as the virtual reality video.
“To me, that is a trailblazing project,” he said.
Students on the team made presentations to the Lions and Rotary clubs as well as engaging with the community through social media as part of the required outreach. They also led hands-on activities with 500 children at elementary schools and in Boy Scout troops – double the direct engagements necessary for clubs participating in the launch.
More than 20 students in all are part of the Cedar Falls Rocket Club, which raised at least $7,000 this year. That includes a $1,000 donation received Thursday from the Cedar Falls Education Association.
The money helps with a variety of club needs, but travel to the Washington, D.C., area for its other competition will be a major use. Another one of its teams with about six sophomore and junior members recently qualified for The American Rocketry Challenge national finals, taking place May 14. Any club members interested in participating in the trip will be able to.
Initially, 720 teams from across the country were competing in the challenge, but only 100 teams qualify to participate in the national finals.
Junior Carson Wirtz said TARC team members built a rocket that is about three feet tall and 2-1/2 inches in diameter. It must carry a payload of two raw eggs, which can’t break in the course of the flight.
A coin flip on the day of the competition will decide if the rocket has to reach a height of 810 or 860 feet and if it has to last 40-43 seconds or 42-45 seconds.
“It’s kind of an ‘adjust on the fly’ and trying to determine how to do that best,” said Wirtz.
With two teams actively competing, Nicholson said he appreciates the “amazing support” the club has received “from our entire community.” The students have had to work hard.
“I think it’s been a challenging year because we’ve never simultaneously competed in NASA Student Launch and the TARC competition,” he noted.