October 8, 2014 – Three students from the Community College of Aurora (CCA) will be the first to represent the college at a RockOn! Workshop at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia next June. The students will be part of a six-day program that allows students to visit the NASA facility and learn the basics of payload building and integration on a rocket.
The RockOn! program gives students and instructors across the country an opportunity to learn the basics of experiment design, including pogramming and electronics. The students build a scientific payload that actually measures acceleration, spin rate, radiation, humidity, pressure, and temperature during a rocket flight.
“It’s a hands-on learning experience that will prepare participating students for their future careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and provide the educators with information to expand opportunities for students in the classroom,” said Joyce Winterton, Wallops senior advisor for education and leadership development.
A new national emphasis on community colleges and a resulting grant that removes the cost barrier has made program participation possible. NASA’s Office of Education awarded more than $17.3 million in August through the National Space Grant and Fellowship Program to increase student and faculty engagement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at community colleges and technical schools across the United States.
The winning proposal by the Colorado Space Grant Consortium (COSGC) calls for a minimum of 40 additional community college students and eight community college faculty members in COSGC. CCA is among the chosen few that will have students competing for scholarships, in summer internships at NASA centers, and at the RockOn! Workshop at Wallops.
“This is an amazing opportunity,” said CCA Science faculty member Victor Andersen, who serves as the Colorado Space Grant Consortium’s affiliates director for the college. “These are the big-life opportunities for students.”
Now in his eight year as CCA faculty, Andersen has been working toward this goal for a long time. He has been a party to student presentations on balloon flights to scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; zero-G flights at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; and an oversized balloon-satellite launch in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Prospective candidates from CCA still need to be identified, but will come from groups participating in the college’s Experimental Design course and workshops running this fall. In the course, students will launch balloon-satellites, while participants in the workshops will work on a robotics project.
“Technical skills are important. Interest is important. But the final thing is intangibles,” Andersen said. “The ability to work independently, the ability to work as part of a team, the ability to overcome obstacles. We’re not evaluating whether they know how to solder or how to program microcontrollers, but as we give them more obstacles, can they figure things out on their own? Can they overcome challenges? Those are the kinds of things we’re really looking for.”
It’s also important that the students selected are early enough in their college careers that they can remain on the project for the long haul. After participating in RockOn! next summer, they’ll return to CCA with the skills and resources necessary to build and integrate a sounding rocket that can take measurements and perform scientific experiments during sub-orbital flight. The students will then design and engineer a complex experiment at CCA that will be taken to Wallops for a second launch in the summer of 2016.
The rockets, which launch over the Atlantic Ocean, travel nearly seventy miles into the atmosphere before returning to Earth. The rocket system is comprised of a pair of motors that run two distinct stages: according to NASA data, the propellant system running the motor results in thrust levels of approximately 19,000 pounds during the first four seconds of burn then trails off to approximately 3,000 pounds until burnout around 25 seconds. Payload weights can range from 200 to 800 pounds.
Students have the added benefit of working with NASA scientists and engineers throughout the program. They’ll gain invaluable experience working on real-world problems.
“They are the engineers and scientists of the future. And there’s lots of road to go where you want to go, but this is a high payoff road,” Andersen said. “A high percentage who go through this will succeed.”