The Morris County 4-H Rocket Team had a blast in Huntsville, Alabama last week! All 5 members of the only NJ team in attendance traveled to the launch week events put together by the Student Launch group of NASA. They experienced the thrill of being among the university/college teams and some middle/high school teams preparing for the final launch in this high-power rocket competition.
The week began on Wednesday with check-in and the rocket hardware checks done by seasoned volunteers of the National Association of Rocketry (NAR), who scrutinized every detail of the rocket and payload design, build, and assembly as well as the team members’ knowledge on details relating to the safety of the rocket and launch. The team only had a few things on their “punch list” and were able to fix them immediately.
The next day was the official kick-off and included various speakers from NASA and Northrop Grumman, a NASA partner and the biggest sponsor of the event. It ended with a fun social gathering for all, where the Morris County Rocket Team was able to get to know other teams. The group was also able to speak with NASA SLI engineers, the NAR official who invented the American Rocketry Challenge—the competition which enabled the team to be there—as well as a few Northrop Grumman managers who encouraged the members to look into internships offered by their company and NASA, including some for high school students.
“We’re just five kids from New Jersey, we don’t go to the same school or even live in the same city, but here we are launching rockets with NASA,” said team captain Sean McConoughey, in an interview with NASA, featured in NASA’s official release about the competition finals.
Friday morning was free for a visit to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville where barrel rolls and flips were tested (and physically experienced) in the simulator. In the afternoon, all teams were part of the Rocket Fair at the Van Braun Center, which was open to the public and very well attended. The Morris County 4-H Team had a steady flow of visitors to their table.
“Most people asked about the external payload of the rocket which had a rotating camera arm, and some were curious about how a 4-H team got into the competition,” said Holt Englander, safety officer of the team. They even had Homer Hickam, former NASA engineer and the author of Rocket Boy—the basis of the movie October Sky—stop by and sign their rocket.
Saturday was the long-awaited launch day! The team drove to Bragg Farms, the launch site near Huntsville, before sunrise and set up in beautiful fog. When their launch time finally arrived around midday, it was clear, sunny, and hot! The team was in the last round of the event and launch-time was further delayed by unexpected launch field issues which were out of their control such as cables shorting out, pads not working, and the bits of dead vegetation on the field igniting and having to be put out. However, this allowed time for a short interview for NASA’s YouTube channel (watch at 6:33:07.)
Finally, it was time for the team’s launch. The rocket took off like a lightning bolt! It was beautiful. After it arced over, the drogue parachute came out as planned and at the correct lower altitude the main parachute was deployed and unfolded perfectly – until it got hit by a part of the rocket, folded up and stayed that way until the rocket landed HARD.
It really didn’t matter, though. The main experience was the thrill of being there, having gone through the process of completing all of the hard work: writing documents through night to have them ready on time, presenting the designs and changes to the NASA engineers in the review interviews, building and testing the subscale and full-scale rockets, and rebuilding parts and pieces over the last 9 months. They were there. Their rocket launched. They were exhausted, and on a rocket high. It was all worth it!
“I loved being a part of the team this year and strongly encourage anyone who likes STEM to join a team or start their own,” said the club’s photographer and social media manager, Mya McConoughey. “It’s hard, but it’s one of the best learning experiences there is, especially for middle schoolers and highschoolers. I hope to see more 4-H clubs at student launch in the future,” encouraging students across the country to push themselves to new heights.
The awards ceremony will be held on June 6th.
The team would like to thank their generous sponsors: the Morris County 4-H Association, New Jersey Space Grant Consortium, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, the Morris County Board of Agriculture, and High View Farms, as well as their mentor for their support.