Maricopa VIce Mayor Vincent Manfredi holds a rocket during the Rocket Challenge on Friday at Maricopa Wells Middle School. He volunteered at the event.[Bryan Mordt]

Students from Maricopa Wells Middle School took to the skies Friday in the annual display of rocketry skills.

The event was created to give students in grades 6-8 in the Maricopa Unified School District a practical application of science lessons in physics and other sciences. The launch took place on a field at Maricopa Wells in Maricopa Meadows.

But science is not the best thing about the day, according to one long-time volunteer for the event.

“The best thing by far is the excitement of the kids,” said Jim Irving, a community volunteer who has assisted with the rocket event for several years. “I went to the training session and the kids got so excited about putting these rockets together. To watch their faces when the rockets go up, especially the Level 2s – that’s just amazing.”
The event launches with two levels of rockets required two levels of skills.

Rockets are prepared for liftoff at the 2022 Rocket Challenge at Maricopa Wells Middle School. [Bryan Mordt]
In introductory Level 1, everyone flies the same type of rocket, built from a kit. The rockets stand up to about two feet tall with 3-5 fins attached to a thin body. Rockets are graded solely by how high they fly.

The science for student pilots come in timing their rocket from the moment the streamer pops out (at the apex of the flight) to the moment it hits the ground. The streamer allows tracking of the rocket as it descends and therefore calculation of its launch height (seconds of descent X a 31-foot-per-second descent rate.)

Level 2 rockets are for more advanced pilots and can be much larger. They are judged not only on how high they fly, but the pilot’s ability to land the rocket without breaking an egg placed inside the rocket.

The rocketry side of the event is run by Guy Smith, president of the Superstition Space Modeling Society, the largest National Association of Rocketry section in Arizona. About 150 flyers participated at Friday’s event, he said.

Smith provided instructions to students on how to build their rockets and optimize them for altitude.

“The egg is a pseudo astronaut,” Smith said of the Level 2 rockets. “You don’t want to crack it. If you crack the egg, you kill the astronaut – or at least break his leg or something.

Their task is from launch to ground they have to do it in exactly 30 seconds. So, they have to figure out parachute descent rate, how high it’s going to go on a C motor, so it is more of a precision calculation with more math involved. It involves physics, rocketry, math, engineering and art, because they are allowed to decorate their rocket any way they want.”
Smith said the event is a wonderful way to teach kids STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts.

A rocket after liftoff and descent at 2022 Rocket Challenge at Maricopa Wells Middle School. [Bryan Mordt]
“We’re trying to give them a little science education that doesn’t feel like science,” he said. “They like things that go ‘whoosh’ and ‘pop.’ It’s the excitement, their enthusiasm that makes it worthwhile. Initially a lot of them come in and say, ‘Eewww, another work project,’ but after a while they start to say, ‘Hey, this is kind of cool.’”

The event was originally scheduled for March 4 but winds above safety threshold of 20 mph forced postponement the event. Rockets could have drifted into the surrounding neighborhood.

And as exciting as Friday’s rocket show was, Smith said it’s nothing compared to what his group sees when they launch their “large” rockets, some 20-feet tall that soar as high as 17,000 feet.

“It’s a major production when we do a big launch,” Smith said. “We go out near Quartzsite and launch rockets that require a Federal Aviation Administration waiver … and are powerful enough to lift a Volkswagen off the ground.”