Science in the Sky
An SLI rocket is launched

The SLI rockets are designed to reach an altitude of one mile. Image Credit: Al Krause

NASA's Student Launch Initiative gives a new meaning to "rocket science."

The project involves good, old-fashioned rocket science, challenging students to build the best rockets they can. By the time they participate in SLI, the student teams already have proved themselves in this area. Teams are invited to participate in SLI based on their performance in the Team America Rocketry Challenge national competition.

As challenging as TARC is, SLI takes the challenge further. One of the objectives of the Team America competition is to build a rocket that will reach, as precisely as possible, an altitude of 850 feet. For the Student Launch Initiative, students target an altitude of one mile, or 5,280 feet.

But not only do SLI participants design, build, test and fly these powerful, reusable rockets, the Student Launch Initiative involves a different type of rocket science. Each rocket carries a scientific payload that captures data during the rocket's flight.

Fifteen teams from 12 states participated in the three-day 2007 Student Launch Initiative, which was hosted by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and sponsored, in part, by Boeing. The project is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Leading up to the actual launches, Marshall's Academic Affairs office offered a number of opportunities for the participants, from a tour of some of the center's facilities to a question-and-answer session with an astronaut. Students displayed their rockets in the lobby of the center's headquarters building and explained them to Marshall employees.

During his talk, astronaut Tony Antonelli told the students he was very impressed with their efforts. "When I got here, I realized I had written the wrong speech," he said. "I was going to tell you to dream big, but when I saw your projects in the fair, I realized you do dream big."

Antonelli talks with students

Astronaut Tony Antonelli talked with students about their projects during the fair at Marshall Space Flight Center. Image Credit: NASA

Rather than a competition, NASA's Student Launch Initiative is an opportunity for the nation’s best student rocketeers to come together as they work on their ambitious rocketry projects.

Each of the 15 teams that participated in the Student Launch Initiative had unique experiences preparing for the event, and each created a unique rocket:
-- The team from Benson High School, in Omaha, Neb., designed an experiment to study life in the Earth's atmosphere. As the rocket descended from its mile-high apogee, it collected bacteria in aerogel. The students were going to have their samples DNA-tested after they returned home. During the SLI launch event, Benson’s rocket reached an altitude of 5,066 feet.

-- Boy Scout Troop 39, from Marlborough, Conn., was the first and only Boy Scout troop team to participate in the event. At the presentations on the event’s first day, the troop members were able to show off only a few components of their rocket, Demon of the Sun, since the rest had been delayed in shipping. The troop was the year's worst victim of a not-uncommon SLI problem, the difficulties of transporting a rocket across the country. The rocket, which carried an experiment to measure solar radiation during flight, reached an altitude of 4,300 feet.

-- Byron High School, in Byron, Ill., had a similar problem when the team arrived at the Huntsville International Airport. They discovered that their rocket, the 10.5-foot-tall Achilles, had not made the flight with them. "Somehow, they lost this 90-pound, six-foot wooden box," one of the students explained during the talk, by which time the rocket had arrived. Achilles, the tallest rocket in the event at over 10 feet, carried an experiment to measure the tension on its drogue parachute. (Altitude data for the rocket was unavailable due to an altimeter malfunction.)

-- Members of the team from Covenant Christian High School, in Indianapolis, Ind., wore T-shirts with the slogan "We like to blow things up." While testing their rocket, they discovered the fins needed to be attached more firmly when the rocket's ejection charge blew off the fins and damaged the lower part of the body tube. Their rocket carried a payload that measured ultraviolet light. Due to a malfunction, the rocket reached an altitude of only 70 feet.

-- Lakewood High School, from Lakewood, Colo., was repeating the same experiment the team had conducted the year before, when its effort to research trans-sonic flight by breaking the sound barrier ended in an unintentionally high-velocity impact with the ground. "Hopefully, this year it won't end up three feet underground," one of the team members joked during the presentation. The team did suffer another malfunction, which caused the rocket to peak at an altitude of 1,976 feet.

-- Students at Lloyd C. Bird High School, in Chesterfield, Va., worked before the event to inspire those who will follow in their footsteps. Each SLI team is required to conduct an outreach project, and the Bird students helped local seventh-graders build small film-canister rockets to encourage their interest in science. The Bird High School team's rocket carried a payload that measured the effect of vertical acceleration on rotational motion, and reached an altitude of 5,206 feet during the SLI launch.

Two students examine a rocket on a launch pad

Students make final preparations to their rocket at the launch event. Image Credit: Al Krause

-- Madison West High School, in Madison, Wis., received the honor of having their rocket chosen as the "Gumby rocket of the year." Each year, the SLI organizers have carried on an unusual tradition. One rocket in the event is chosen to carry a small plastic Gumby figurine. In 2006, event organizers actually tried their hand at building their own rocket, and flew Gumby on the bright pink result of their labor. The Madison rocket carried a scientific payload of petri dishes containing thale cress to an altitude of 5,065 feet.

-- Plantation High School, in Plantation, Fla., was the only school to have two teams selected to participate in SLI during the 2006-2007 academic year. One team comprised students who had participated the prior year. Their rocket's experiment measured the frequency shift of sound during the rocket's flight, emitting and recording beeps as it reached a velocity of half the speed of sound. Their rocket reached the highest altitude of this year's event, topping the one-mile mark by another 252 feet.

-- The second Plantation High School team designed an experiment based on the first team's experiences at SLI the year before. During that event, the Plantation rocket was destroyed by pressure waves during flight. This year, the second team's rocket carried an experiment to measure the pressure exerted on the different parts of the rocket as it flew. This team’s rocket also flew higher than one mile, reaching an altitude of 5,383 feet.

-- St. Andrews Lutheran Church and School, in Park Ridge, Ill., had another rocket team on their side. The school's team was sponsored by PlanetSpace, which is working to carry passengers on suborbital spaceflights using the in-development Canadian Arrow rocket. The St. Andrews team wore matching shirts bearing an official team patch they had designed. The team's rocket, which carried a fluid-dynamics experiment, reached an altitude of 5,382 feet.

-- One design element all the rockets had in common, of course, was that they all had rocket engines at the bottom, spitting fire downward. The rocket from Statesville Christian High School, in Statesville, N.C., was unusual in that respect -- it also had a rocket motor at the top, firing upward. The reverse thrust motor, part of the rocket's science payload, was designed to reduce the shockwaves created in front of the rocket during flight. The rocket was the shortest in this year's event, at 5 feet, 2 inches. It reached an altitude of 4,032 before suffering a malfunction.

-- The team from Warner Robins High School, in Warner Robins, Ga., created an experiment involving an alternate means for measuring the velocity of their rocket as it flew. Through the experiment, the team used the Doppler effect to determine the rocket's velocity using radio transmissions. The rocket reached an altitude of 3,779 feet.

-- While their rocket was only intended to fly about a mile high, students from Weare Middle School/John Stark Regional High School in Weare, N.H., had their eyes on other worlds. Inspired by robotic exploration of Mars, their rocket deployed a rover that landed independently and began rolling. "The title of our project is Model Mission to Mars, and we wanted to do just that," a team member explained. The team's rocket reached an altitude of 4,993 feet.

A team poses with their rocket presentation

SLI teams had the opportunity to share their work with NASA employees during a fair before the launch. Image Credit: Al Krause

-- Students from West Point-Beemer High School, in West Point, Neb., were proud of the unique structure they created for their rocket using a water-jet cutting device. The cutter allowed them to carve very precise components for their rocket, which could be assembled by one person in about 30 minutes. Carrying an experiment to study the ideal gas law, the rocket reached an altitude of about 5,079 feet.

-- At their presentation in the Marshall headquarters lobby, members of the team from Yough High School in Herminie, Pa., sold lollipops as a tribute to how they had funded their rocket project by selling candy for 50 cents in the team sponsor's classroom. Their rocket's paint scheme paid homage to two movies that had inspired its payload of "whirly birds" -- "Twister" and "The Wizard of Oz." An altitude reading for the rocket was not available, because the altimeter batteries were dislodged in a crash landing after the parachutes failed to deploy.
By launching experiments on their rockets, Student Launch Initiative participants were able to learn more about their scientific hypotheses. But through the SLI project, the students had the opportunity to learn far more -- about carrying their ideas to fruition, about the importance of teamwork, about overcoming adversity, and more. By helping tomorrow's workforce learn lessons like those, NASA and students like these are working together to ensure they are both well-prepared for the journey ahead.

Related Resources
Student Launch Initiative  →
NASA Education Web Site  →
Team Education Feature: Teachers Become Certified Rocketeers

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services