CEDAR FALLS — After finishing near the top of a national competition last spring, a Cedar Falls High School rocket club team is working with NASA on its next project.
The Science, Technology And Rocketry Students team was invited to submit a proposal to participate in the NASA Student Launch after earning fifth place during the Team America Rocketry Challenge in May. The top 24 teams in the contest were invited and the S.T.A.R.S. group was among 15 accepted Oct 6.
An email to adviser Zeb Nicholson, a teacher at the school, was received that day while the team’s six members gathered with him over the lunch hour.
“We were quite excited,” said team member Will Burken, a senior. “We had sparkling apple cider.”
Other team members include senior Ryan Ritter and juniors Randev Goonesekere, Erik Walther, Andre Bryan, and Duncan Meyer.
An intensive process lasting throughout the school year will culminate in launch week April 4-7. The team will travel to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and launch an 8-foot tall, 4.5-inch diameter fiberglass rocket weighing 15 to 20 pounds that the members are preparing to build.
Student Launch started at the high school level 17 years ago and later expanded to colleges. NASA works with students to “introduce them to a real-world technology challenge and maybe get them interested in working for NASA someday,” Fred Kepner, an education specialist at the center, said in a phone interview.
Work on the nearly 40-page proposal was done by the team at the beginning of school year and submitted Sept. 22. The students’ task was to propose a “payload” for their high-powered rocket. In this case, that will be solar panels and other equipment recording and transmitting data on how much energy they can gather and store during the rocket’s flight.
“These guys chose to measure the intensity of solar power at one mile of altitude,” said Nicholson, the height all participating rockets are designed to fly to. “They’re going to collect how much solar power is in the rocket in the air.”
As adviser to one of the invited teams, Nicholson attended a training this summer on participating in the Student Launch. NASA also requires teams to connect with a local mentor who is involved in amateur rocketry. But the students came up with their proposal to use solar panels on the rocket and collect the data after brainstorming ideas.
They go through four phases in completing the project: preliminary design review, critical design review, flight readiness review and launch readiness review — a process “which imitates a real NASA project,” said Nicholson.
“So we’re still in the design phase,” said Burken. “Early January is when we have to be done with our design phase.”
The team officially completes the preliminary design review next week when it holds an hour-long teleconference with the Student Launch panel. After the students present their design, the panel will question them.
Panel members will ask about “how they’ve refined their design and how they’re going to meet the requirements in the handbook,” said Katie Wallace, NASA’s Student Launch project manager.
Walther was tasked with guiding his teammates through the project’s rules and regulations. “I had to look it up and make sure we were following” those, he said.
While the students have built rockets before, this project is more sophisticated than in the past. Nicholson said they have put in “a combined total of a couple hundred hours” and have a lot more work to do.
Burken said, “We make it harder than it has to be, because we’re —”
“A little bit on the procrastinator side,” said Bryan.
“We’re high schoolers,” added Burken.
Before building the rocket, the students will construct and test a scaled-down version. The team must also launch its full-sized rocket before taking it to Alabama.
Solar power data will be collected on board the rocket and retrieved when it returns to earth. Other data will need to be transmitted while the rocket is in flight. A gyroscope in the rocket will sense its tilt, which will be relayed to the team on the ground through a transmitter.
“We had to figure out what kind of transmitter would transmit (the information) in a couple seconds,” said Burken.
Students are getting some advice and feedback from NASA engineer Herb Sims, a 1985 Cedar Falls graduate who got in touch with them after learning the team was involved in the launch event. They do a weekly 7 a.m. teleconference with him.
“He’s helping us out with all the transmitting and receiving we need to do,” said Burken. “None of us are that fluent in electronics.”
Despite the challenges and the time commitment, the students have enjoyed the process so far.
“New experiences are always fun,” said Bryan. “It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that most people don’t get.”