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CEDAR FALLS — Since bringing home two top awards earlier this year from the NASA Student Launch, Cedar Falls High Schools’ rocket club has grown.

Fourteen kids are now part of the Science, Technology And Rocketry Students team — up from six during the last school year. The group, more commonly known as STARS, was one of seven middle and high school teams invited to participate in the competition along with 45 college teams. Teams come from 21 states.

Cedar Falls’ larger team has been a positive change, said adviser Zeb Nicholson. “With this many kids it’s neat to see their independence and their motivation.”

Last year’s four remaining team members — all seniors — showed those qualities in ensuring it continued after Nicholson, who had been a teacher for six years, got a job as a mechanical engineer at Doerfer Companies in Waverly. Initially, it was not known if he or anyone else would serve as an adviser, which is needed for the school group.

“They stepped up and got the word out in the classroom,” said Nicholson, attracting 10 more students to the team and gaining support to continue it.

After winning the “Judges Choice” and “Best Rocket Fair Display” awards last spring, the team is preparing for the 2019 launch April 4-6 near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Senior Duncan Meyer, one of the returning team members, said that past experience doesn’t make it any easier to get ready for the NASA program.

“This year I feel like we have to prove ourselves more,” he noted. “I’m a little bit nervous about that.”

Students are working in vehicle design, payload, safety, outreach, and fundraising groups. They will build an 8-foot tall, 5-inch diameter fiberglass rocket.

Every four to six weeks, the team must submit a 50-page report and make a presentation to NASA engineers as part of the design, build, test, and review process. Students receive feedback from the engineers, including whether they’ve made enough progress to continue the project.

The team made its first 30-minute teleconference presentation in October, when the proposal was accepted. The students then built a sub-scale model of their rocket and successfully launched it earlier this month during an event at the University of Wisconsin in Platteville. Just last week, Nicholson said, they received the “official green light to do this project” from launch organizers.

Along with building a rocket that will reach an altitude of up to a mile, the team needs to plan a “payload” for the flight. Their idea is to design a nose cone that will separate from the rocket’s body and be guided to a set of GPS coordinates as it drops back to earth with the help of a special parachute called a parafoil. The nose cone makes up the top two feet of the rocket and will weigh about five pounds.

“Our main goal is autonomous guiding to a specific target,” said senior Randev Goonesekere. “We have to be below 400 feet before we activate” the autonomous aerial recovery parafoil system, or AARPS.

Nicholson said as the nose cone drops to the earth, the guidance system is “actively turning itself” so it lands in the planned spot.

“We’re going to have to write a program to control the parafoil,” explained senior Nathan Hoffman, as they work on the rocket’s navigation.

Students have continued research on the various components of the project during winter break as they prepare for another presentation to NASA during January. Those research efforts have gone well so far, according to Goonesekere. “It still doesn’t guarantee success, but we feel we have a pretty good shot.”

Senior Andre Bryan said if organizers give the team the go-ahead, then members will begin working on the rocket’s full-scale model with a practice launch planned for February.

So far, the students have raised $565. “We’re shooting for $10,000,” said sophomore T.J. Tomlyanovich, to cover costs from rocket components to travel. They are working to raise some of that money online at gofundme.com/cfhs-rocket-club-nasa-project. Checks can also be mailed to Cedar Falls High School Rocket Club, 1015 Division St., Cedar Falls, IA 50613.

More information about the group can be found through the team’s website at cfhsrocketclub.com. On Twitter, Instagram and Facebook search @cfhsrocketclub to find their pages.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Courier

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