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NASA Student Launch Club takes off at York College

April 26, 2017
NASA Student Launch Club York College
Members of the 2017-2018 York College of PA NASA Student Launch Team at Accepted Student's Day (York College) on April 22, 2017. From left to right: Daniel Kikel (2020), Saumil Patel (2020), Benjamin Shoenfelt (2020), Adam Cavanaugh (2020).

While Kyle Abrahims studies nursing at York College of Pennsylvania to become a nurse anesthetist, he spends his free time on an out-of-this-world hobby: rocket science.

Back in high school, Kyle was taking an advanced physics course when his teacher asked if he’d be interested in joining the NASA Student Launch Club. He’d work with a team of students to design, build, and fly a rocket they’d enter to compete at an event at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“I said ‘yes.’ From there, it just sort of took off,” Kyle said.

When he got to college, he started asking around to see if students might be interested in forming a YCP launch club.

Once he had 10 people committed, he approached Dr. Tristan Ericson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and fellow rocket builder, about being an advisor.

“I like seeing these projects when they’re student driven,” Dr. Ericson said.

Preparing for a Practice Launch

Once Kyle has a group willing to learn about rocketry, he goes into teaching mode.

“I have a new team – a lot of the kids have no rocketry experience,” he said.

To prepare the would-be rocketeers for competition, Kyle and Adam Cavanaugh, a fellow Spring Grove Launch Club alum, will lead the team on building a practice rocket they plan to launch in May.

And this isn’t a rocket you’d be able to build using a kit from your local hobby store, either. The rockets can reach 8 feet in length and weigh up to 25 pounds. 

The team received a $7,500 grant from the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium to use toward the construction and launch of this rocket and the competition.

Once they’ve launched the practice rocket, the hard work will begin.

Intense Work Needed Ahead of NASA Competition

In order to be accepted into the competition in Huntsville – open to students at U.S. high school and universities – the team must meet several requirements.

  • They must design and build a from-scratch rocket that will reach one mile in altitude and safely recover it within the vicinity it’s launched.
  • The rocket will need to carry a scientific payload (an experiment of the team’s choice).
  • The team will need to complete five 200-page reports that document the entire project– everything from their budget, project timeline, facilities and equipment used, rocket construction and parts used, information about the payload, and reporting on testing and design changes.
  • The team needs to have an educational engagement component in which it reaches out to K-12 students on a STEM topic.

They’ll also need to do at least two test launches before the trip – launching both a sub-scale and a full-scale rocket. The York College team plans to start testing those rockets in December or January.

Rockets these sizes can’t be built and launched just anywhere by anyone. The team needs an FAA waiver and can only test at approved sites, which means traveling to the Maryland Delaware Rocketry Association’s launch site in Maryland.

The club budgeted $18,000 for the project, which would cover the rocket’s construction and testing, costs associated with their educational engagement as well as travel expenses for the trip to Huntsville.

Kyle says they’ll write grant proposals, seek out team sponsors and do some fundraising. Right now, they’re still in the planning stages.

Launch Club Not Only for Engineers

Kyle emphasizes that Launch Club is not just an engineering club. It’s not solely about building a rocket.

The work they’ll do during the project, which runs August through May, will foster a variety of skills – things like working as part of a team, budgeting, grant writing, education, and more.

Because of this, he’d like to recruit more students from a variety of majors to participate, including education and creative writing.

Dr. Ericson sees plenty of benefits to students in working this type of project. In the past, he has worked with students on a senior capstone project where they’d spend two semesters designing racecars that they then take to a competition in Michigan. He says projects like these enhance a student’s collaboration and communication skills, as well as their ability to present an idea and sell it.

“A lot of these students are engineers. Most engineers are not salesmen; they don’t push their own ideas,” Dr. Ericson said. “But we need to train them to do that.”

Kyle said he anticipates the collaborative skills he’s learned by taking part of Launch Club will help his ability to communicate with doctors, lab techs, and other health care professionals when he begins his career as a nurse. 

The sound of the rocket

After months of work designing and building the rocket and documenting the whole thing, how long does the whole launch actually take?

“Ten seconds to get up a mile. A minute and a half to come back down the Earth,” Kyle said.

But he doesn’t focus too much on the idea that he’ll have invested months of labor for seconds of gratification.

“I just love the sound when that rocket goes up and when you realize everything you’ve worked so hard and so long for is actually working correctly.”

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