Although COVID-19 forced them to abort a launch last summer, Alamo Heights High School’s aerospace engineering students past and present are New Mexico-bound to test their custom-designed rocket.
Nine graduates of the class of 2020 are among about a dozen AHHS students planning to visit the White Sands Missile Range June 26 and 27 with hopes of seeing a successful launch of their rocket.
They revealed the rocket, nicknamed “Lone Survivor,” to their parents and other guests June 14 on campus.
The team is one of four Texas high school rocketry classes scheduled for the launch at the Army facility.
Their journey is part of a program supported by Fredericksburg nonprofit SystemsGo, a high school rocketry/aeroscience curriculum using project-based learning to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
All of last summer’s aerospace-engineering graduates from Alamo Heights are now in college studying or already working in the aerospace field, applying what they’ve learned from their time designing and constructing a rocket.
Christopher Lloyd has managed the completion of the rocket he and his classmates created from scratch. Lloyd is also enrolled at Duke University, assisting with a project in Duke University Hospital’s culinary department.
“Lots of different fields, when I was a student here, and a lot of the same concepts cross over and show how to deal with certain problems that come up for us,” Lloyd said.
William Knoblauch, who is studying mechanical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, joined a collegiate rocket club because of his experiences at Alamo Heights.
He and classmates at Embry-Riddle are helping with a rocket launch scheduled for later this summer
“This project has been a huge help for my future career goals,” he said.
While these Alamo Heights alumni are launching their college careers, it was just as important to them and teacher Colin Lang to tend to unfinished high school business.
Lang explained it was a challenge to carry on with this project during the height of the pandemic, when schools were off-limits to classes and large gatherings.
But the AHHS rocketry students pledged to carry on and finish their mission, even if it meant waiting one more year to see their rocket soar into the New Mexico sky.
Lang praised his former students.
“Who graduates from high school, gives up their entire summer, working every single day — six to eight hours a day — to complete a project?” the instructor said.
The young rocketeers built a 27-foot-long, 8-inch-diameter rocket that, when fully fueled, will weigh 390 pounds, less than than the average 650-pound rockets that previous classes have crafted.
“They’ve figured out tons of ways to lose that mass — that weight. Weight is our enemy,” Lang said.
The instructor and his students will wait until they arrive in White Sands to insert into the rocket’s nose cone a payload of penicillium to see how atmospheric radiation affects the bacteria.
Because of pandemic precautions, the Army’s missile range will receive a smaller than usual number of participants. The teams will have a 50,000-foot ceiling for launches this year.
Lloyd recalled how he and his then-fellow high school seniors were disappointed in spring 2020 when the coronavirus outbreak forced the closure of schools and a seemingly premature end to their push-the-envelope project.
It was also the last time they’d be inside the now-former aerospace engineering workshop on campus.
Thanks to a 2017 bond, the Alamo Heights Independent School District has overhauled the high school campus, which now includes a standalone STEM building containing a larger aerospace engineering classroom and workshop.
“For me, it’s special to see the culmination of four years of work and achieving the goal we started with,” Lloyd added.
Given the challenges faced by his students over the past year, Lang said it’d be great to see the rocket launch but, if it doesn’t, “We’ve already won because we got it done.”
Even so, the competition of a building a rocket and launching it do not reflect the true lasting value of young, prospective engineers such as Alamo Heights’ rocketry students, Lang said.
“The actual value of the program is these guys — what they’re doing now and what they do in the future is that value,” he added.