A Higher Calling
A rocket launches upward above a cloud of smoke

Gray Wolf 8 clears the launch rail at the University Student Launch Initiative. Image Credit: NASA

At the College of Menominee Nation, rockets have a higher purpose. Students at the Wisconsin college interweave the ideals and themes of the American Indian people into the rockets they build.

"What we don't want to do is to use rockets just to use rockets," said Dan Hawk, a College of Menominee Nation student who is leading student rocket projects at the school. "We really want to find a way to use rockets in a way they've never been used before."

The College of Menominee Nation is a tribal community college on the Menominee Indian Reservation in rural Keshena, Wis., in the northeastern part of the state. The college also maintains an urban campus in the city of Green Bay, Wis. Under Hawk's leadership, students have built rockets for competition for two years, starting in 2007.

Their first rocket, the Golden Eagle, was made with wood from the Menominee Forest, and its wings were made of cardboard. The use of natural or recyclable materials signified the theme of sustainability.

Golden Eagle competed in the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium's Collegiate Rocket Competition in the spring of 2007. The Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium is part of NASA's National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. The program funds research, education and public service projects through a national network of university-based consortia. It supports NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce.

People stand in a circle with a rocket in the center

The College of Menominee Nation rocket team and its supporters circle around Gray Wolf 8 to say a prayer prior to launch. Image Credit: NASA

The success of their first rocket was beyond what anyone expected. It launched successfully and landed, intact, in a tree. The team received the Director's Award for a Creative Solution to an Engineering Challenge.

In 2008, the college entered three rockets in the Space Grant competition. Student teams were challenged to design and launch a rocket to reach a certain altitude, land safely, and then deploy a ground excursion module, or a small rover. One of the rockets from the College of Menominee Nation took first place in the non-engineering category.

Two weeks later, the College of Menominee Nation competed for the first time in NASA's University Student Launch Initiative. Sponsored by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the annual competition challenges students to design, build and fly a reusable rocket with a scientific payload to an altitude of one mile.

The science experiment aboard the rocket built for USLI -- Gray Wolf 8 -- is an example of how the cultural traditions of the American Indian people are incorporated into the rockets. Gray Wolf 8 was designed to carry a thermal imaging device, with the idea that the device could help monitor the wolf population on the reservation. The same device could also be used to detect the body heat of people caught in an avalanche.

Four students stand with a rocket

Students Willie Garza, Christine Skenandore, in front, and Shane Skenandore with Dan Hawk, in back, prepare Gray Wolf 8 for launch at the University Student Launch Initiative. Image Credit: NASA

"We've gone past the sustainability part, and it's now about the experiment," Hawk said. "Now what we're going to try to do is build rockets and get into the theory of why a rocket does what is does ... so we can make it do what we want it to do."

The rocket team is very interested in the potential for rockets to carry experiments that may help them learn more about the environment and ways to improve life on Earth. Students are looking at future experiments in the areas of global warming, air filtration and other environmental concerns. Hawk hopes to engage the country's 35 other tribal colleges in a rocket competition and help those institutions get involved in state and national competitions.

Norbert Hill, vice president of the College of Menominee Nation, said the rocket projects fall in line with one of the college's main goals to increase opportunities for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Hill is particularly enthusiastic that the rockets are able to weave in the traditions of the American Indian people. Technology has always been a part of American Indian traditions with pharmaceuticals, discoveries in astronomy, and many practical applications of science credited to the American Indian people, Hill said.

"We had scientists before Columbus; we just didn't call them scientists," he said. "We're going backwards to connect with our traditions in technology and also moving forward."

Related Resources
College of Menominee Nation Five Clans Rocket Team   →
Wisconsin Space Grant Student Rocket Competition   →
University Student Launch Initiative   →
Not According to Plan
Preparing Students for Launch
Marshall Space Flight Center
NASA Education Web Site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services