This IS Rocket Science

Written by   Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, DePaul University

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

                     — Albert Einstein

“Give me a state! Ready?”


“It’s up to you, Alysha!”

“5 — 4 — 3 — 2 — 1 — FIRE!”

“Hold it! Hold it! There she goes! There she goes!”

“We have Lift-Off!”

Bernhard Beck-Winchatz speaks to the students at the Rocket On! closing ceremony held in the auditorium of the NFB Jernigan Institute.

The cheering that erupted in the blast-proof blockhouse near the launch pad at Wallops Flight Facility is impossible to describe in words. It was 8:34 a.m. on August 19, 2004, and Alysha Jeans, a high school junior from Wichita, Kansas, had just pressed the launch-button that sent the first-ever sounding rocket launched by blind high school students soaring into the sky. I have been following National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA) mission launches since I was a kid and always wondered what it would feel like to be part of a team of scientists and engineers that is watching their rocket blast off into space. Now I know! No offense to the folks who launched the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Exploration Rovers and other great NASA missions, but this mission, developed and launched by our team of twelve blind students from across the country, blind NFB facilitators, and NASA scientists (blind and sighted) from Goddard Space Flight Center and the Wallops Flight Facility, was definitely the best ever!

The inventor of the astronomical telescope Galileo Galilei once said that you cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself. (A modern-day emancipated Galileo would probably replace“man”by person”and himself” by “himself or herself.”) There is an important lesson in Galileo’s quote for parents and teachers of blind youths. It is easy to say: “Blind people can do everything sighted people can do if they put their minds to it,” and it was obvious that most of the twelve students at the camp had heard this statement from well-meaning sighted and blind adults many times. They all had strong academic backgrounds and seemed prepared for college and beyond. But did they really believe in their hearts that they could overcome all obstacles blind people encounter in their education and careers?

Such an attitude is not something you can teach students. You have to provide opportunities for them to discover it within themselves. Failure is as much part of this journey of discovery as success. It requires the willingness to go out on a ledge, take risks, try out new and difficult things, and most importantly, be willing to fail, learn from your mistakes, and try over and over again. As a college professor, I know that most students struggle with this. How much harder is it for young people to overcome their fear of failure if the notion that the true reason may be blindness always lingers in the back of their minds? When I was invited to be a Rocket On! Facilitator, my hope was that the camp would be an opportunity for the students not just to learn about rocket science, but also to find it within themselves.

The days at the NFB’s Jernigan Institute leading up to the Thursday-morning launch were long and intense. Launching a sounding rocket with a scientific payload is a complex task, and students were involved in most aspects of the launch. The days at the NFB’s Jernigan Institute leading up to the Thursday-morning launch were long and intense. Launching a sounding rocket with a scientific payload is a complex task, and students were involved in most aspects of the launch. Assisting them was a group of blind facilitators from the NFB: Robin House, Mary Jo Thorpe, Nathanael Wales, and Chaz Cheadle. The mentorship and role-modeling provided by blind instructors and scientists throughout the week was a key part of the camp experience.

On Monday and Tuesday the students worked with lead teacher Robin House, chief of the Wallops sounding rocket program Phil Eberspeaker, and blind electrical engineer Dr. Michael Grosse to learn about the history of rocketry, Newton’s laws, basic rocket physics, and basic electronics. Then they split into three groups, each responsible for one major aspect of the launch. The Circuiteers team, comprised of Justin Hodge, Meghan Joost, Nikki Singh, Hoby Wedler, and facilitator Nathanael Wales, built and tested the scientific payload of the mission, consisting of four sensors that measured temperature, pressure, acceleration, and light intensity during the flight. These sensors were connected to the telemetry system aboard the rocket, which radioed the measurements back to Wallops in real time. Justin Harford, Alysha Jeans, Ryan Thomas, and Lindsay Yazzolino (with me as the facilitator) formed the Ego Squad team, which conducted a detailed analysis of the rocket trajectory to predict maximum altitude and range, and to verify that the correct rocket motor was chosen. They used a new software tool called the Math Description Engine (MDE) Graphing Calculator, which was developed by blind NASA mathematician Dr. Robert Shelton, who also helped the team with their calculations. Finally, the Action-Reaction team, comprised of David Abraham, Tiffani Clements, Amy Herstein, Daniel Ramirez, and facilitator Mary Jo Thorpe, was responsible for launch pad operations, such as moving the rocket to the launch pad, fueling, and the count-down.

For me, being the only sighted facilitator at the camp was a very interesting learning experience in itself.  Suddenly the term accessible took on a completely new meaning! It was often impossible for me to teach the students anything without learning from them at the same time. For example, I was scheduled to give a lesson on telescopes on Tuesday afternoon, and then lead an evening remote observing session during which the students were to operate a telescope at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin over the Internet. I had prepared a set of tactile diagrams to illustrate how telescopes work, and what can be learned by analyzing images and spectra of stars and galaxies. Sara Gallagher from the NFB had embossed my diagrams on thermal image paper and made self-adhesive Braille labels, but I soon realized that it would take me days to figure out where to attach which label, since I cannot read contracted Braille. Fortunately,

I was able to enlist the help of one of the students, Justin Harford. Working with Justin made labeling the diagrams a breeze. It didn’t only save a lot of time, but in the process he taught me a lot about how to make better tactile diagrams. In turn, he learned a few things from me about astronomy and telescopes.

After the Wednesday morning trip from Baltimore to the Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia, followed by final last-minute launch preparations in the afternoon, the team got up at 3:00 a.m. on launch day and reported for duty in the blockhouse on Wallops Island at 4:00 a.m.. The launch window was 6:00 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.. Tensions in the blockhouse were high. The team had done everything they could to prepare for the launch, but several uncontrollable factors that could potentially jeopardize the launch remained. The 10.5-foot experimental rocket had a hybrid motor never before used at the Wallops Flight Facility. Several of these motors had exploded during tests on a static test firing stand prior to the launch. The solid fuel tank of the rocket motor had been reinforced, but there was still a significant risk that the motor on the rocket would blow up during the launch. The United States Coast Guard had been contacted to keep boats away, but a stray boat entering the launch range at the wrong time could still thwart our plans. Wind was also a concern. While usually mild in the early morning, high winds can and often do delay rocket launches.

In the end almost everything worked out perfectly. By 8:15 a.m. the wind had died down to an acceptable level. A fishing boat headed for the launch area had turned around even before the Coast Guard had to intervene. And the rocket motor did not blow up and worked beautifully. The rocket reached a maximum altitude of 5,450 feet 20 seconds after launch. All four sensors worked and sent back data throughout the flight via telemetry. The mission did hit an unexpected snag when the main chute that was supposed to slow down the rocket for a gentle water landing did not deploy, causing the rocket to break up when it hit the water at high speed.

The minor parachute mishap could not dampen our team’s enthusiasm about the successful mission. During the post-launch briefing, word got around that the Coast Guard had recovered the nose cone and tail section of the rocket drifting in the Atlantic. This happened on their way back to base, after they had already given up and assumed the rocket had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. They did not find the middle section of the rocket containing the scientific payload and telemetry package. The fragments arrived back at Wallops just before the team headed back to Baltimore, giving the students the chance to examine the damage that the high-speed splash-down had caused.

Back at the Jernigan Institute NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer was already waiting for our return to congratulate the students on the success of their mission. He and other NFB staff had been watching the launch via a Web-cast from the Wallops Web site. But there was not much time for celebration. The successful launch had already been announced to the press, and a press conference was scheduled at Goddard Space Flight Center for 9:30 a.m. the next morning. The students worked late into the night to prepare their presentations and handouts.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

              — Sir Isaac Newton

Working with a capable group of people who share common ideals and goals makes it easy to forget that reality is often still far from ideal. During the camp the reminder came in form of an electronics company that sells talking multimeters. Multimeters are used to measure voltage, electric current, and resistance. The students needed them to test and calibrate the electronic sensors they built for the rocket. When a NASA engineer on our team called in an order, the company refused to sell them to him because the talking multimeters were not designed for use by blind people. The company sales person was probably well-meaning and only wanted to protect blind people from electric shock and his company from a lawsuit. Nevertheless, his refusal to sell the instrument is offensive and disparaging to highly capable high school students. It is one of those walls Sir Isaac Newton is talking about, one that needs to be replaced by a bridge.

The Friday-morning press conference was flawless. In his opening remarks Dr. Ed Weiler, Director of the Goddard Space Flight Center, congratulated the students on a job well-done, and encouraged them to continue their work with NASA though internships and careers in science and engineering. He reminded them that they are privileged to be part of a generation that will likely answer some of the deepest scientific question humans have been wondering about for thousands of years, such as “Are there earth-like planets orbiting other stars?” and “Are we alone in the universe?” After Dr. Weiler’s introductions, the Ego Squad, Circuiteers, and Action-Reaction teams each discussed the mission from their perspectives and presented initial results. Each presentation was followed by a question and answer period.

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

               — Robert H. Goddard

As Rocket On! drew to a close, our focus shifted toward the future. The students had worked hard and proven that they have what it takes to succeed in science. They had literally become rocket scientists! Twelve mentors, some blind and some sighted, from the Goddard and Johnson Space Flight Centers and from NASA Headquarters had been selected to continue to work with the students on an ongoing basis. Many students had expressed their interest in opportunities to work at NASA, for example, through internships and even careers after college. Phil Eberspeaker, Chief of the Wallops Sounding Rocket Program and one of the Rocket On! “dreamers” of yesterday, expressed our shared hope of today when he told the students: “I hope that one day when I am sick, one of you will be the doctor who saves my life.”  Together we can make it the reality of tomorrow!

Additional Info

  • Topic: Attitudes and Perspectives
  • Age Group: Middle and High School