Ready to launch
WC Rocketry Club 1 of 16 chosen for NASA contest
WEBSTER CITY — Jayce Abens and the other four members of the Webster City Rocketry Club — Brenden Gray, Jaidyn Elledge, Caroline Ehn and Trinity Griffith — haven’t had a lot of free time over the past eight months, and they’re OK with that.
Their lofty ambitions to take their club higher than ever before, quite literally in fact, are worth whatever leisure activities they could otherwise enjoy.
Fresh off a third-place national finish — the highest placing ever for the club — at the 2021 American Rocketry Challenge, Webster City High School was offered the chance to apply for a coveted spot in the NASA Student Launch. And it didn’t take the club long to decide.
“That’s always been our goal with the American Rocketry Challenge, to get in the top 25 so you can get a chance to be in (the NASA Student Launch) contest,” Abens, a senior and the team captain, said. “This is a whole different ballgame.”
Even with last year’s success, getting into the NASA program wasn’t guaranteed. The Webster City club still needed to apply, still needed to prove it belonged.
You bet it belongs.
Webster City High School was one of only 16 high school rocketry clubs from across the country selected to take part in the NASA Student Launch, and it’s been an arduous process that began back in August.
According to the NASA website on the contest, the NASA Student Launch challenged middle school, high school, college, and university students from around the United States to design, build, test and fly a payload and high-powered amateur rocket to an altitude between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. Teams also must meet multiple documentation and presentation milestones with NASA experts as they develop their rocket. Teams are scored in nearly a dozen other categories, including safety, vehicle design, social media presence, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics engagement.
So, yeah, it’s not for the clubs looking to just have a good time. It’s serious business, and that’s how the Webster City students approached it.
“It has been very overwhelming, but we expected it to be,” Abens said. “But you don’t realize how much time stuff takes. It’s just deadline after deadline. You finish one 40-page paper to get to the next 65-page one.
“The challenge is what we were really pursuing. The American Rocketry Challenge ends up being the same process every year. The same mid-powered cardboard rocket carrying eggs and you don’t get all of the extra complexity. (The NASA Student Launch) was rewarding.”
This was no cookie-cutter rocket that Webster City Rocketry Club built either.
Student advisor Mark Murphy says his club’s rocket stands a little over 5 feet tall and weighs more than 13 pounds. It had a listed altitude target goal of 5,280 feet, or one mile — a massive jump from the 800 feet of altitude expected for the American Rocketry Challenge.
The NASA Student Launch was held in Huntsville, Alabama, on Saturday, April 23. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions still in place, schools were given the opportunity for alternate launch sites.
The Webster City crew traveled to Argonia, Kansas — Murphy says it’s literally the middle of nowhere — for its launch in late April and the mission was a success.
“We were a little over 100 feet off on our launch, but we feel pretty confident that was a good result for a high school team,” Murphy said.
He said the NASA Student Launch results will be released in early June.
The NASA Student Launch by itself is a massive undertaking, but the Webster City club has also geared up for the 2022 American Rocketry Challenge, which took place just outside of Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
The students competed at the competition over the weekend and while Abens said the NASA Student Launch did gobble up a significant portion of the club’s time, the students still hoped to perform well in the annual contest that generated $12,500 for the club after last year’s standout performance.
“(The NASA Student Launch) definitely took time away from what we would normally do, but I don’t know if it necessarily took away from the quality of our rocket,” Abens said. “Everybody has gotten so good at building rockets that it doesn’t take a whole season to put together. We had it designed before NASA even started.”
In its early testing of the rocket for the American Rocketry Challenge, Abens said the club’s module generated zero altitude points — that’s a good thing, by the way — in two of its three flights.
If the club can perform well at the American Rocketry Challenge again, and hear good results from NASA, then it will make all of those hours of work more than worth it.
“We’ve done these big rockets individually and high-powered rockets, but not quite to this scale,” Abens said. “This was our opportunity to take that high-powered rocketry to a contest, and it was a lot of fun.”