Amid snow and bitter cold, a group of students stood last Friday facing a little rocket on a metal platform in front of Peirce. In the middle, wearing a purple and gold “Launch Control Officer” hat, was Professor of Physics Ben Schumacher. Beside him stood Jack Zellweger ’17, wearing a similar hat that read “Launch Safety Officer.”
After a five-second countdown, Schumacher pressed the button on his controller, sending an electric charge through a wire, through the platform and into a plug that ignited a small packet of black powder. The resulting reaction caused a jet of incandescent gas to erupt from the bottom of the rocket at over twice the speed of sound, propelling it more than 100 feet in the air. The parachute failed to deploy.
“Don’t worry, it’s not that heavy,” Schumacher said as the rocket came back down to earth. “OK. Not bad!”
This slightly troubled launch was the handiwork of Kenyon’s new Rocketry Club, which held its first meeting and launch on Friday, Feb. 12.
Zellweger, the club’s founder, has been interested in physics most of his life, but only recently became interested in the study of applied physics — that is, physics intended for a specific technological or practical use. The main focus of his interest is, appropriately, rockets. Oddly enough, it all started with the sale of his house in southern California.
“The people who are buying my house actually work at SpaceX,” Zellweger said, referring to the aerospace company that made headlines last December by launching and subsequently landing and recovering its Falcon 9 rocket. “They gave me a tour of SpaceX a while ago, and it had actually been on my to-do list to start this club for a while. It was a big motivation to see [company CEO] Elon Musk’s office and the big factory.”
Schumacher, the club’s advisor and professor of a rocket science physics class, came by his love of rockets when he was about four years old.
“I was an Apollo kid,” Schumacher said, referring to the NASA program that put the first men on the moon. “My oldest brother went to graduate school for aerospace engineering and was always a part of the space program in one way or another. So, I come by it honestly.”
Zellweger has divided how he wants the group to progress into three stages.
The first stage is kits: small, cheap rockets that come in little- or no-assembly-required packages. The club will be pursuing certification with the National Association of Rocketry, an organization that, among other services, provides insurance, safety guidelines and rocketry education to prospective rocketeers.
For stage two, the club hopes to construct their own rockets from pre-built parts, as well as provide custom payloads (things other than the rocket that go up), such as instruments for collecting data from the flight.
The third stage is what Zellweger is most excited about.
“As soon as possible I want to jump into designing our own custom rockets out of PVC pipe and plastics,” Zellweger said. “We’ll probably still be sticking to official engines, but I eventually want to build them from scratch.”
While rocketry may seem to have a high barrier to entry, Zellweger stressed that rocket science doesn’t actually have to be rocket science.
“If you have some physics to bring to the table, that’s certainly something we’d love, but if you don’t, you just have to be passionate,” Zellweger said. “We’d rather have a passionate layman than an apathetic expert.”