Feature

Blind Students Are Rocket Scientists
08.11.05
An orange and white rocket roars off the launch stand
Eleven blind high school students saw their hard work pay off early in the morning on July 21 with the successful launch of a rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.

The launch, conducted at 8:20 a.m., was the highlight for the students participating in "Rocket On!," a week-long rocket science academy of the National Federation of Blind's (NFB) Jernigan Institute in Baltimore and in partnership with NASA.

Image to left: A successful rocket launch was the perfect end to a week of hard work. Credit: NASA

The students arrived at their stations at 4:30 a.m. launch day in the Range Control Center and at the launch pad blockhouse to support the mission. During the hour and half countdown the students were paired with mentors from NASA Wallops. The pairing with the mentors provided an insight into the various roles and responsibilities in conducting launches including range safety, weather forecasting, telemetry and radar support, project management, recovery and surveillance, and public affairs.

They also played key roles in conducting the launch including control of loading the oxidizer for the motor and pushing the launch button.

During the first launch attempt as the countdown hit T-0, the launch button was pushed by one of the students. Everyone anxiously waited for the roar of the rocket. Nothing happened.

A student who is blind sits at a countdown console with a countdown book that is in Braille as a man stands and discusses the launch with him
The countdown clock was set to T-10 minutes and holding. The launch crew lowered the rocket from its vertical launch position, checked out the ground electrical circuits and installed a new igniter for the rocket motor. The student and NASA team was ready to give it another try.

Image to right: Students in launch control used countdown manuals that were printed in braille. Credit: NFB

The second launch attempt was flawless as the students heard the sound of the rocket from a microphone at the launcher. The students had a successful launch. The 10.5 foot rocket flew to an altitude of 5,829 feet. Data was received on all four student-built sensors. The sensors measured light, acceleration, temperature and pressure.

Following the launch the students returned to the Jernigan Institute to analyze the data from the onboard sensors. They presented the flight results and talked about their experience during a press conference Friday, July 22, at the Institute.

Four students who are visually-impaired gather around a table to study the rocket's payload
"This is the second year of the partnership between NASA and the National Federation of the Blind," said Phil Eberspeaker, chief of the NASA Sounding Rockets Program Office at Wallops. "We challenged these students to perform to their full capabilities and again they met the challenge. They were a wonderful group of students."

Image to left: Students check out the payload prior to loading in the rocket. Credit: NASA

Mark Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, added, "This collaborative effort between the NFB and NASA is working to eliminate the perception that blind students can not comprehend complex scientific concepts simply because they cannot see. With the right adaptive resources and encouragement, blind children can reach for the stars just as many blind NASA scientists and engineers are already doing."

Earlier in the week, NASA and NFB instructors conducted workshops at the Institute on the history of rocketry, rocket physics and electronics. In addition, the students learned basic rocket trajectory planning, built electronic circuits for the sensors they flew, and practiced pad operations for the rocket.

Students stand behind their orange and white rocket with the NASA logo and the year 2005 printed on the side as it lies on its side on a table
Image above: NFB 2005 Rocket On! participants. Credit: NASA
On Monday evening the students arrived at Wallops and spent Tuesday installing their sensors into the payload, conducting mission briefings with NASA personnel and loading the rocket on the launcher.

The students received a tour of operations at Wallops on Wednesday including the sounding rocket payload facility, the scientific balloon lab and the range control center.

For more information visit NASA education programs on the Internet.

Keith Kohler/GSFC