It was a gorgeous day in May in Texas Hill Country—not too hot, a slight breeze, and all the water from the previous night’s big rain was slowly drying up. A lone student from Marble Falls High School peeked around the media tent at the SystemsGo rocket launch event. “Excuse me,” he said. “Do you know when the Marble Falls rocket will go to the pad?”
His rocket launch was planned for the day before. But due to massive storms passing through Stonewall, Texas, launches were suspended. The young man’s disappointment was visible; he took off from work to see his yearlong project be put to the test. I assured him that his rocket will go to the pad after the day’s scheduled rockets were launched, and there weren’t many transonic vehicles to test that day.
As I (pictured, below) emceed the event, the young man lingered around the media tent, listening to my NASA and aerospace trivia and even answering a few trivia questions. He cheered on the other schools as their vehicles were tested.
Finally, it was his turn. I called him over, inviting him to watch his rocket launch from our “mission control”—the final rocket preparation stage and launch control area. But, instead, SystemGo’s executive director invited him to watch from the blockhouse next to the launch pad. I smiled as the young man beamed.
That was why I’ve had a decade-long involvement with SystemGo, a program that engages high school students across the academic spectrum and ignites their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Its project-based rocketry/aeroscience curriculum not only teaches STEM but also teamwork and leadership.
Future generations lift off
At schools that participate in SystemsGo and its curriculum, students spend their junior years learning the principles of physics and creating launch vehicles. They’re given project requirements and follow the systems life cycle just like in industry: design, develop, test (in this case, launch), and evaluate. In their senior years, students develop rockets that take scientific payloads of up to 35 pounds to the edge of space, launching them at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico.
It’s neither an afterschool effort nor a program for gifted students. It’s not an inter-school competition but rather a contest with the laws of physics. In this science class, failure is always an option. It provides an opportunity to learn. Why didn’t the vehicle work as expected? How can it be made better?