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What it’s like being part of NCSSM Rocketry Club

The light green rocket stood on the launchpad against a vivid blue sky, the air crisp and cold, with the sharp November sun providing a little warmth. For those of us in NCSSM High-Powered Rocketry Club, launch day is stressful and filled with intricate tasks with electronics, cameras, rocket motors, and more. Our rocket, named BRRDS (Best Rocketry Research Determination System), stood silent on the pad, awaiting the electrical signal that would ignite its motor. The entire team stood there, just taking deep breaths and waiting for the moment we had been working toward since joining the club in August. 

The countdown started, and when it reached zero, BRRDS’ engine ignited and thrust the rocket off the stand, piercing the cold air and disappearing into the bright blue sky. Club members cheered. However, to be a success, we needed BRRDS to return to Earth near the planned landing spot. At last, we spotted BRRDS gracefully floating down from the sky under its thin orange and white parachute. After retrieving the rocket, we pulled out the flight electronics and discovered that BRRDS had traveled at speeds of up to Mach 1.28 – or 984.5 miles per hour – and reached heights of nearly 12,000 feet, well over two miles. However, our cameras unfortunately cut off right before launch, leaving us without any video of the flight.

When I first joined NCSSM Rocketry in August of 2021, I had a strong interest in the club and engineering, but the only experience I had with aerospace engineering or physics was an NCSSM Connect Aerospace Engineering class I had taken at my home high school during my freshman year. So, you can imagine that I was pretty nervous walking to my first NCSSM Rocketry meeting. However, I quickly learned that the club was not about who knew the most in rocketry, engineering, or physics, but rather a club of students who wanted to learn more and earn firsthand experience in the fields while working alongside peers who shared similar interests. After the first meetings, I had joined a small research group and assisted with readying BRRDS for its launch. 

Once we returned to campus from Winter Break, we didn’t let the lack of cameras from BRRDS’ launch get us down. We quickly began the development and construction of Phoenix, a rocket designed to deploy an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drone. 

I was on the team constructing Phoenix’s rocket body, an exacting task. As we sanded down fiberglass to get pieces to fit, corrected a problem with leaning, and more, there was never a moment of rest or relaxation. Meanwhile, our UAV team worked diligently to develop, test, and construct that vehicle. As we finished construction on Phoenix and our launch date neared, that pre-launch stress returned, and we began our final preparations. Just days beforehand, issues with integrating our UAV drone into Phoenix forced our team leaders to call off the UAV component. However, we were determined to get something into the air, and so we proceeded with the launch of Phoenix.

Arriving at Bayboro that day felt different than it had for BRRDS’s launch. I felt a greater sense of responsibility. I had actually built some of the fins, sections, nosecone, and more on the rocket. I had helped shape the red rocket that was launching that day.  

Those deep breaths and pre-launch anxiety returned as Phoenix’s countdown began. Finally, after months of work on this rocket we had developed, Phoenix leaped into the sky and disappeared from view. We stood there, staring into the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of Phoenix descending under its parachute. At last, we did, and Phoenix successfully landed and was retrieved by the team. Once back at the launch site, we looked at our data and pulled our cameras. Phoenix had traveled at speeds of around Mach 0.6 (460 miles per hour), hit a maximum altitude of around 5,000 feet, and – unlike BRRDS – successfully captured video of its ascent (headphone warning; rocket engine noise).

As end-of-semester exams approached and the school year drew to a close, I was fortunate to be selected as the communications officer for the 2022-2023 team. As I left the engineering suite for the last time as a junior, I was excited about the next year of rocketry and what projects I, my fellow captains, and the incoming juniors would pursue.

Upon returning to campus in August, we had more than 100 people interested in the club. After hearing ideas from many juniors and seniors and voting, the team has finally chosen this year’s projects. 

First, we will relaunch BRRDS, aiming to go supersonic and surpass 10,000 feet again – this time with the cameras onboard BRRDS working so we get gorgeous footage of the atmosphere at that altitude. 

For the spring, we plan to develop, construct, test, and launch NCSSM’s first-ever two-stage high-powered rocket. Similar to the design of the much larger rockets used to launch satellites and spacecraft, our rocket will essentially be two smaller rockets stacked on top of one another that separate mid-flight. We will launch from the ground with a high-powered motor, separate mid-flight, and then ignite a second motor in the upper half of the rocket to propel it and its payload even higher into the sky. 

These two challenging projects are certainly not typical for a high school group, especially the two-stage rocket, but I feel that with our accomplishments last year and years before that, we are more than qualified to attempt them. We’ll see you on the launchpad!