Touch the Clouds
A rocket launching

St. Andrews' rocket -- the Pitot Cruiser RDV (Robot Deployment Vehicle) -- rises upward during its inaugural test flight in early 2008. Image Credit: St. Andrews rocket team

The explosive roar. The shooting flame. The rush of seeing rockets shoot a mile high in 19 seconds. These are the things that members of a Chicago-area high school rocket team say they find exciting about rocketry and aerospace.

"Just being able to say that you built something that blasts into the deep blue sky is a rush in itself," said senior Kenneth Johnson, a member of the St. Andrews Lutheran School rocket team.

"I love building, testing and experimenting with rockets," he added. "Being able to build a 10-foot, 9-inch, 45-pound rocket in one's garage excites me even more. It's kind of like adrenaline. It gets you going and you want more. My first rocket I built was about half a foot long and didn't get any higher then 50 feet, and now I build these monstrous high-powered rockets."

Team member Michael Williamson echoed his friend, describing "the pure childish rush one gets when they experience lots of fire, smoke and loud noises."

"When you spend so much time on a rocket, you really begin to love the thing," Williamson said. "The fact that this craft that you're slowly putting together is going so high up is just amazing. This work of art -- made by you and your team -- will touch the clouds. ... I feel a rush every time it streaks into the air."

But as exciting as those thrills are, these high school seniors are most excited about their futures. Johnson said competing in rocket challenges like the Team America Rocketry Challenge and NASA's Student Launch Initiative gave him the opportunity to show others -- and himself -- exactly what he is capable of doing.

"If I stay focused, applying hard work, anything is possible," Johnson said. "Being in rocket competitions teaches you to work as a team by communicating and to always be expected to work around problems."

Team members holding large sections of a rocket

Rocket team members Mike Cinquino, Michael Williamson, Ken Johnson and Leonard Johnson carry the components of their rocket at NASA's Student Launch Initiative. Image Credit: NASA

The team formed five years ago when Johnson and Williamson and friends Mike Cinquino and A.J. Witzke were just young seventh-graders. They started out competing in Team America Rocketry Challenge, an aerospace design and engineering event for U.S. high school and middle school students. Sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry, the annual event motivates young people to pursue careers in aerospace. NASA and the Department of Defense are government partners for the event.

The St. Andrews team placed in the top 100 teams from across the nation in their first year. In their third year, they placed 17th and were invited to participate in NASA's Student Launch Initiative. SLI is a hands-on engineering project that invites the top TARC teams to submit a proposal for designing, building and launching a rocket with a scientific payload to an altitude of one mile.

Teams with accepted proposals then build and launch their rockets at the annual SLI launch event, sponsored by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The project supports NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

At the team's first SLI performance, their payload landed within 20 feet of the target and successfully deployed a remote-controlled rover. The students were recognized for their SLI performance by one of their main sponsors, Numerical Precision, with the company's Liberty Cannon Award, which acknowledges special contributions in the field of aerospace. Numerical Precision assisted the team with machine-tooled hardware for the payloads on the rocket. The company has machined parts for several NASA missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

If model rocketry weren't enough, this past summer some of the team members worked on the real thing -- the Ares I-X test vehicle -- during internships at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Scheduled to launch in 2009, Ares I-X is the first test flight for NASA's new human exploration program, Constellation, and the Ares I launch vehicle.

Johnson, Williamson and a new rocket team member, Alex Klarfeld, were selected for NASA internships through the agency's new INSPIRE experience. INSPIRE stands for Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education. Through the project, high school students and those entering their first year of college can participate in student opportunities and internships at NASA centers across the country.

Johnson and Klarfeld were assigned projects on the Ares I-X Upper Stage Simulator that will be launched on the Ares I-X test flight. Tasks included writing assembly procedures for components to be installed on Ares I-X, documenting the width of bolts that will be used to connect the parts of the rocket together, and creating a work schedule of the rocket's construction at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, where it will be launched.

"It is amazing to be working on a pioneer rocket, the Ares I-X, signing documents that will help make history," Johnson said. "To say that I helped build the Ares I-X, the first of its kind, it's like saying I helped out on the Saturn V that got us to the moon."

Klarfeld added, "Not many people can say they spent their summer working on a multimillion-dollar rocket."

Rocket team members and Jim Halsell standing beside a rocket laid on its side

Students from St. Andrews Lutheran School discuss their homemade rocket with veteran NASA astronaut Jim Halsell, a five-time space shuttle mission commander. Left to right are students Mike Cinquino and Ken Johnson; mentor Leonard Johnson; Jim Halsell; and students A.J. Witzke and Michael Williamson. Image Credit: NASA

During Williamson's internship, he mostly worked on archiving information and data and using HTML coding to update and improve accessibility of a Web site. He also researched Traveling Wave-Tube Amplifiers, which amplify signals from satellites to Earth and vice versa, and worked on calibrating a super-cooler device capable of cooling air to minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

"There was so much knowledge that was ingrained into my mind," Williamson said. "My mentor and his co-worker were pure geniuses. And every once in a while, they would playfully banter about something or other, and within those little arguments lay a wealth of scientific knowledge that I gladly soaked up."

The young men say their internship experiences showed them many things, from what it's like to work a "real" job, to team work, to new career possibilities.

"I am now absolutely sure in what I want to do in life, and how to achieve it, due to advice given to me by my mentor and co-worker," Williamson said. "Without that knowledge, I'd still be floundering in my college choices today."

Klarfeld said opportunities like TARC, SLI and INSPIRE have helped him develop essential skills like teamwork and perseverance that he will need as he pursues a career in aerospace engineering.

"Although the rockets we're flying are on a much smaller level, the fundamentals of engineering are still apparent," Klarfeld said. "Although the technical skills of various disciplines of engineering may be different, all engineers are trained to problem-solve and think logically. Working with the TARC team has assisted me in preparing for my future, by helping me improve on these essential skills."

Related Resources
St. Andrew's Rocket Team   →
Team America Rocketry Challenge   →
NASA's Student Launch Initiative
NASA Glenn Research Center
Ares I-X
How Inspiring
Rocket Science en Español

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services