The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Mike Enzi
Senator Mike Enzi congratulated the student competitors, and asked them to support his bill to remove model rocket propellants from restrictive new government regulations. (credit: J. Foust)

The young rocketeer’s guide to range safety

<< page 1: introduction

Why fly?

Why hold a rocket competition in the first place, particularly one for high school students? The competition was staged in part to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Beyond that superficial symbolism, though, was a deeper purpose: encouraging high school students to pursue careers in the aerospace industry. Some have argued that aerospace is facing a crisis as a growing fraction of current employees are approaching retirement age, while today’s youth are less interested in it than fields like software development and biotech.

“Everyone’s been saying that kids today aren’t interested in space,” said John Douglass, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, one of the sponsoring organizations of the competition. “We found that, quite the contrary, kids are just as interested in space today as they were 30 years ago. We started this contest as a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight and were overwhelmed with the response we received from students all over the country.”

“Everyone’s been saying that kids today aren’t interested in space,” said Douglass. “We found that, quite the contrary, kids are just as interested in space today as they were 30 years ago.”

Contest statistics back up Douglass’ claim. A total of 873 teams, representing about 9,000 students from all 50 states, entered the competition at the local level. Those teams were narrowed down to the 100 represented at Great Meadows, some traveling from as far away as Los Angeles and Seattle for the contest.

Others argued that the experience of the competition will pay dividends even for those who seek other careers. Forty-five years ago Mike Enzi experimented with model rocketry and considered a career in aerospace engineering, but eventually went on to career in energy and politics; he is now a US Senator from Wyoming. “This unlocks talents that many of you may not even know you had,” he said at the awards ceremony at the end of the day. “This will lead you down paths to other talents that have nothing to do with rocketry.”

While the contest was designed to show how model rocketry can support the education of a new generation of scientists and engineers, the contest also supported the cause of model rocketry itself at a time when it desperately needed it. A provision of the Homeland Security Act that takes effect on May 24 will require consumers to obtain a permit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to purchase all but the smallest commercially-available rocket motors available today that use ammonium perchlorate composite propellant (APCP), a common propellant. The presence of APCP on the ATF’s list of explosives—even though the chemical is not designed to explode—has led to a number of transport companies, including UPS, to ban the shipment of rocket motors.

In an attempt to reverse the provisions of the act, Enzi introduced legislation in the Senate in March. This “technical corrections” bill, S.724, would remove from the ATF’s explosives list rocket propellants like APCP, as well as small quantities of black powder, which is often used in ejection charges that deploy parachutes in model rockets.

Without Congressional action, people will need an ATF license starting May 24 to purchase all but the smallest model rocket motors.

At the contest, Enzi made a request for help from contest participants. “What I need you to do is to talk to your members of Congress and ask them to help this hobby,” he said. Although the legislation has picked up ten co-sponsors, as of press time—just days before the restrictive rules take effect—the bill is still sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Winning in the short- and long-term

At the end of the day, although speakers congratulated all the teams (“You are all winners,” NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe said in his very brief remarks), there were several winning teams selected. The top prize—$14,000 in savings bonds for the team and $2,200 in cash for the school—went to a team from Boonsboro, Maryland, a small town near Hagerstown in the western part of the state. Their rocket, constructed by a three-person team whose oldest member was only 15, had a “perfect” score of zero: the rocket flew to exactly 1,500 feet and both eggs onboard survived the trip intact. They narrowly beat out a team from Washington, DC, whose rocket came within just 1.5 meters (five feet) of the 1,500-foot mark.

Indeed, despite the inclement weather, the top ten teams all had scores of 30 or less, meaning their rockets flew to within 9.1 meters (30 feet) of the 1,500-foot goal. Each of those teams will also be invited to participate in the Student Launch Initiative program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The program allows students to design a reusable rocket that travels to an altitude of 1.6 kilometers (one mile) and carries an experimental payload. The schools that finished in the top 25 will also have the opportunity to send a faculty member to an advanced rocketry workshop run by NASA.

The real winners of the contest might not be known for years to come, though. “We hope that young people here today have discovered how fascinating science is and decide to study aerospace fields when they go to college,” the AIA’s Douglass said. “That will be the ultimate measure of the value of this contest.”