Students from Desert Wind Middle School took to the skies Wednesday 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, delayed from March 4 because of heavy winds, took place on a field at the school in Tortosa.

But science is not the best thing about the day, a long-time volunteer told InMaricopa during a similar event last month at Maricopa Wells Middle School.

“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.

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 comes 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 times 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.

Students at Desert Wind Middle School participated in a rocket challenge. [Bryan Mordt]
The rocketry side of the middle school events 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 in Friday’s event, he said.

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

At the Maricopa Wells event, he explained some of the finer points of the students’ rocketry.

“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,” he continued. “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 events are a wonderful way to teach kids STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts.

“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.’”

Smith said his group also launches “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.”