Four out of seven high school student-rockets successfully launched from White Sands Missile Range during a three-day SystemsGo launch June 28 through June 30.
The high school students who came from five different Texas schools traveled to the range to complete the final phase of the SystemsGo curriculum, launching a 35-pound payload 10,000 feet in the air.
“From SystemsGo’s perspective it was a great experience,” said Scott Netherland, SystemsGo executive director. “A four out of seven success rate, for this being a high school program, is unprecedented. It was an exceptional experience and we had perhaps the most successful experience.”
The schools in attendance were: Union Grove High School from Lakewater, Texas, Alamo Heights High School from San Antonio, Texas, Fredericksburg High School from Fredericksburg, Texas, Anahuac High School from Anahuac, Texas, and Booker T. Washington High School from Dallas, Texas. Alamo Heights and Booker T. Washington each had two groups of students with two separate rockets.
The SystemsGo program provides an intense curriculum for high school instructors to provide their students.
Currently, only eight of about 50 Texas schools participating in the program have made it to the final phase of the curriculum. The program is taught in three different levels: Tsiolkovsky, named after Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian Soviet rocket scientist. The goal for this level is to develop a one-pound rocket that can reach a one-mile altitude. Oberth is the second level, named after Herman Oberth the German physicist. In this level the goal is to be able to exceed the speed of sound. Goddard is the third level named after Robert Goddard an American professor, inventor and physicist. The goal for the final level is to carry a 35-pound rocket up 10,000 feet. Goddard is tested and completed at WSMR.
“We have this tremendous opportunity that WSMR has provided us,” Netherland said. “There are lifetime skills we hope (they) have picked up during the course of the curriculum. (There are) design skills, presentation skills and we hoped it helped them earn confidence.”
The installation has worked with the program since 1999, however, in 2011 the founding instructor, Brett Williams, signed an educational agreement with then WSMR Commanding General Brig. Gen. John Regan. The agreement allowed for the program to partner with WSMR and use the installation’s test equipment and personnel talent to benefit the science and engineering education system with the SystemsGo program. In a previous interview, Williams, who started the curriculum in 1996 and was not able to attend this year due to health issues, said his team has been pushing for the program to replicate and grow outside of Texas. He said the goal for the program is to incite critical thinking, cognitive reasoning and problem solving, which helps create innovation, something he said this country is lacking.
“It is incremental learning through trial and error,” Netherland said. “Once the students address the failures and identify the causes, they resolve it and incorporate changes.”
For the safety of the students the rockets that are tested are not solid motor, they are a hybrid system and the components are inert. The inert components make the rocket a non-hazardous blend between a solid and a liquid rocket.
Once the students arrive at WSMR they work closely with WSMR personnel like Gary Chavarria, WSMR test conductor and lead test conductor for the program’s launch, in order for the students to get a glimpse of what it would be like to work in the field of science and engineering.
For every test mission the range provides range control, communication, escort, access to the range, test operation, test conduct and surveillance optics and radar tracking. Also, as with every test mission, roadblocks must be set in place as a safety measure. Chavarria, who has been working with the program since 2008, said the program allows WSMRpersonnel to step out and do things on a different scale and therefore are able to try different ways to conduct a test, to include different ways of setting up internal roadblocks.
“It’s something I look forward to every year,” he said.
This experience, especially at a high school level, is a wonderful concept because it gives the students test experience in the real-world setting and allows them to make real-time decisions, Chavarria said.
“The most important thing is to get an idea of how a test goes,” he said. “This experience teaches them critical thinking and troubleshooting and it helps them to really be able to crunch down and work together. What can go wrong will go wrong and it really helps to be out there in the field.”
Having experienced eight of the program’s launches, Chavarria said he is always glad to hear from instructors about past students who have jumped into the engineering industry. Josh Hampton and Brian Heifner are both college students who participated in the program in high school and have since returned as SystemsGo employees.
Hampton, 20, is studying mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas. Heifner, 20, is studying industrial engineering at Texas A & M.
“Getting past students to come back out here and teach the kids is definitely a great benefit to the program,” Chavarria said.
Both Hampton and Heifner agreed the program far exceeds any programs they have been a part of, even at the college level, and both are grateful to have had the opportunity to participate.
“It provided me with an opportunity to do things in a hands-on environment and actually complete a project we designed from start to finish,” Hampton said.
Heifner said this program allows for the students to be in charge throughout the entire process.
“It crystallized what I wanted to do,” he said. “This program provides skills that aren’t available in a college setting. College programs go as far as designing what we build and launch here.”
One of the success stories during the three-day launch was that of Union Grove High School. The school was in its third attempt of launching their rocket, Lion III. Each year a malfunction occurred that prevented the rocket from launching. The first year the first injector froze and the second year the injector wire burned. The team said they were definitely on their own to develop a solution but felt confident that their rocket would launch this year.
“It taught us how to get something done on our own without any help,” said Jonie Pope, a Union Grove High School student and a member of the launch team. “It also taught us how to work as a team, to trust, to communicate and manage our time.”
Their rocket was the second to launch on the first day of launching June 28. The launch was a success and the rocket was able to lift 600 feet off the ground. Greg Park, Union Grove High School SystemsGo instructor, said the students did a really good job in taking the mistakes from previous years and correcting them for a successful launch the third time around.
April Bass, who graduated in 2014, and Lauren Gibson, who graduated earlier in 2016, both took on the role as the leads for the project, and returned to WSMR to see the success of the launch.
“There are no words to describe how proud we are of these rocket scientists and the classes that have come before,” Park said in a Facebook post on the school’s page.
Having come out to WSMR for the past six years, he said he enjoys his time on the installation because of the great personnel who act as great leaders to the students.
Netherland shared the same sentiment as Park and said Chavarria and his team made it possible for the SystemsGo team to stay on schedule, something that is difficult to do with launches and the range’s busy schedule. He said he is grateful to Chavarria for working with him since February to ensure everything was well planned for their arrival.
“They went through great lengths,” Netherland said. “They just facilitated everything in a way that helped us be more efficient. Gary and the WSMR staff went above and beyond the call of duty.”
He was especially grateful for the visit from WSMR Commander Brig. Gen. Timothy Coffin during their June 29 launches. Though some of the launches were not a success, Netherland said Coffin’s presence and speech to the kids helped give the student’s perspective on the importance of science and engineering roles.
“I think it encouraged the kids and showed them that STEM programs like this one are the key to success,” he said. “Someday they may come back to WSMR as professionals testing out in the field.”