Feature

Rocket Science en Español
05.21.07
Three students assembling rocket
Three teenagers and their mentor didn't let a little thing like a language barrier interfere with designing and building a rocket for the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The students -- Jose, Jose Luis and Oliester -- speak Spanish with some English, while their mentor Mike Murphy speaks only English.

Image to left: Oliester, Jose and Jose Luis assemble their rocket for launch. Credit: NASA

"A lot of it was pointing at instructions, because I don't speak Spanish," Murphy said.

The three teenage boys are in the eighth grade at Stone Middle School, a Title I school in Huntsville, Ala. They moved to the U.S. from Mexico a year ago and do not speak much English.

Murphy's wife, Barbara, teaches enrichment classes at Stone Middle. She coordinates activities for the school’s Hispanic students to give them opportunities to excel in their native language, while learning English. "Then they can do something like this and succeed and feel good about themselves," Barbara said.

Oliester, through his teacher, said he enjoyed the rocket activity "because I get to do something I haven't done before."

The students built the rocket for the Team America Rocketry Challenge, or TARC, an aerospace design and engineering event for U.S. high school and middle school students. The event, sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry, motivates young people to pursue careers in aerospace. NASA and the Department of Defense are government partners for the event.

Mike Murphy and students
Student teams design and build a model rocket to carry a payload of one large, Grade-A egg for a precise flight duration of 45 seconds, and to an altitude of exactly 850 feet. The egg must land without breaking.

Image to right: Mike Murphy and Stone Middle School students prepare to launch their rocket. Credit: NASA

Teams qualify for the national competition by launching their rocket for regional judges who certify the score. Scores equal the number of feet over or under 850 feet plus the number of seconds over or under 45 seconds. Thus, the lower the score, the better the rocket performed. The 100 best scores across the U.S. are invited to the national competition.

Mike, a support contractor for the Missile Defense Agency at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, began working with the students in November 2006. He first led the young men in building a model rocket from a kit purchased at a craft store. The purpose of that first model rocket activity, Mike said, was to introduce the students to the basics of rocketry.

The students also attended a model rocket class offered by the Huntsville Area Rocketry Association, a chartered section of the National Association of Rocketry. The class offers an overview of rockets and demonstrates rocket principles using models built by HARA members. HARA members also attend local teams' launches and certify the score sheets to qualify the flights for TARC.

Former HARA president and current advisor Vince Huegele said the language difference was not a problem for him. "Building a rocket is mostly a visual activity, so I would show the students how all the pieces fit and worked together, and they would do what I did," said Huegele, a physicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, also in Huntsville.

Rocket launching
Mike enlisted the help of three other defense contractor employees -- Gilbert Aguirre, Louis Rodrigues and Ernest Lopez, all Spanish-speaking engineers -- to assist with the project. The men not only helped communicate with the students but served as role models, too. "(The students) say to themselves, 'If he can do it, I can do it,'" Mike said.

Image to left: Stone Middle School's rocket launches. Credit: NASA

The mentor team introduced the students to SpaceCAD, a software tool used to design and simulate rockets. The students used the software to develop a rocket design and then used its flight prediction feature to select a rocket engine, adjust the launch weight and size the parachute recovery system.

The students used simple materials to construct the rocket: a cardboard tube for the body, balsa wood for the fins and a drinking straw for launch lugs. The recovery system is a small, orange parachute for the payload area and an orange crepe-paper streamer for the booster.

The rocket went through several redesigns as the students launched and adjusted, then launched and adjusted again, to get as close as possible to the altitude and time specified in the challenge. "When we started flying this design, we were reaching altitudes of 1,007 feet, which is way over (the limit)," Mike said.

They redesigned it, launched again and hit 874 feet, much closer to the target but not close enough. They adjusted the weight and got down to 861 feet, but the rocket was flying for 60 seconds -- 15 seconds longer than the goal. The final redesign lightened the load just enough.

At the TARC qualifying flight in April, the rocket soared to 846 feet in 50 seconds, giving the team a score of nine. "When we wrote the score down on the official sheet, I don't think the boys realized how well they did," Huegele said. "... I have worked with TARC teams each year since 2002 and never seen a score this good in Alabama."

Related Resources
+ Team America Rocketry Challenge

+ NASA Student Launch Initiative

+ NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

+ NASA Education Web Site

Mike said the next closest score in the regional launch was a 26. The Stone Middle rocket team is one of only two Alabama schools invited to the national fly-off, held in northern Virginia on May 19, 2007.

Representatives from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center attended the Virginia event and presented the NASA award to the top winners. NASA's partnership with TARC invites a teacher or mentor from the top 25 teams to the Advanced Rocketry Workshop at Marshall each summer. Those attendees also qualify to submit proposals for the NASA Student Launch Initiative, held in Huntsville, Ala. SLI is a hands-on engineering project where student teams submit a written proposal for designing, building and launching a rocket with a scientific payload. The rocket must travel one mile into the atmosphere. NASA awards grants and provides stipends to participating teams, averaging $10,000 per team.

Through support of the Student Launch Initiative and the agency's participation in TARC, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education. It is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on engaging and retaining students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines critical to NASA's future engineering, scientific and technical missions.

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services