DANIEL CLIFTON • STAFF WRITER
WHITE SANDS, N.M. — With their 18-foot rocket ready go and everything clear on the launch site, the four Marble Falls High School aeroscience students waited, hoping the rocket they spent the past 10 months designing and building would set a new record.
The four students — Marshall Jett, Connor White, Tyler Taber and Eric Avalos — were at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on July 6-8, trying to set a 100,000-foot launch goal along with students from four other high schools
“One of the things (White Sands staff) told us was only 9 percent of all the launches they have there are successful,” said Jett, a 2015 Marble Falls High School graduate and an aeroscience student. “A lot of testing is trial and error.”
On July 6, the students’ rocket ignited, but a problem with the ignition system left it sitting on the launch pad — not rocketing through the sky.
“It was disappointing, the outcome, but it was still a great experience,” Jett said.
Marble Falls High School aeroscience and engineering teacher Randy Guffey, who accompanied the four students on the trip, said although they had hoped for a successful launch, they couldn’t discount anything they learned on the journey, including the failed attempt.
“We talked about how this was a good, real-life experience,” Guffey said. “They didn’t get to test the rocket before taking it out there — this was their test flight.”
Even before Army staff got the rocket off the launch pad, the Marble Falls students began trying to determine what went wrong. Jett explained that the initial phase of the ignition process did work, but they noticed there was what appeared to be a leak between that part and the solid fuel.
When they got the rocket back to Marble Falls and took it apart, Guffey said although the design met the requirements for the lines leading the nitrous oxide to the solid fuel, in reality, they might have needed a slightly larger diameter of lines for the increased pressure and possible back pressure.
“It’s part of the learning process,” Jett said regarding the ignition problem.
While the rocket didn’t launch, the students can count themselves among the elite aeroscience and engineering high school programs in the United States. The Marble Falls team was one of only five high school programs from across the country even allowed to make the trip to White Sands.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Jett said.
Guffey, who started the aeroscience program in 2008, agreed.
“It was pointed out when we went to White Sands by some of the folks there that these students have taken on and completed a project that 90 percent of the colleges and universities don’t,” Guffey said.
When Guffey started the aeroscience program, he envisioned a class in which students who excelled at sciences such as physics could put their learning into action with hands-on lessons. He also envisioned kids more adept to “hands-on” learning jump into the sciences.
The curriculum features four phases: First, the students tackle model-sized rockets; second, they design and build a rocket capable of carrying a one-pound payload a mile into the sky; third, they build and design a rocket capable of transonic flight; and fourth is the 100,000-foot launch goal.
Looking back, Guffey likes how the program has grown over the years and helped the high school and district get a head start when state leaders began pushing for more Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) studies as well as career and technology classes. Now, rocketry and aeroscience are only a part of the Marble Falls High School engineering experience.
Guffey pointed out that the school added a state-of-the-art manufacturing robot this past year.
“I think (the aeroscience program) helped because we already had established STEM and knew what direction we wanted to go while other schools really struggled to come up with that,” he said.
Jett found the engineering program — in which he participated all four years of high school — definitely helped him as he prepares to study astronautical engineering at Texas A&M University.
The 10-month rocket project provided quite a learning experience and a sense of accomplishment, the future Aggie said. It taught him and other team members dedication, perseverance, problem solving and creativity. And it wasn’t just the rocket project. The team worked on it two days a week during the school year while tackling other projects such as robotics and drone design and flight the other days.
All which added up to a comprehensive learning experience.
And while the goal was to hit the 100,000-foot mark, Guffey said students who go through the engineering program and classes walk away with a depth of knowledge and skills that will benefit them beyond high school, no matter what studies or careers they pursue.
“What impressed me early (in the aeroscience program) was the expectation that students should take more responsibility for their education,” Guffey said. “These projects, they plan and design them and do it all themselves. They learn to be creative. They learn to solve problems along the way. We need problem solvers in all aspects of life.”