Rocketeers: Student organization helps students blast off!

Sarah Haas

As a child, John Gottsacker sent simple structures from made-to-order rocket kits up into the sky. Now in college, he is building a 2-foot-tall rocket that has the potential to travel faster than the speed of sound and reach an altitude of higher than 4,000 feet.

“I liked blowing things up,” said Gottsacker, freshman in aerospace engineering. His grade-school fascination with rocketry was recently revived when he completed a project for an introductory engineering class. “These days I build rockets when I have nothing else to do. However, the rockets are more complex and well built.”

Experiences with the Iowa State Space Society have also encouraged Gottsacker to continue building rockets. The ISSS, founded in the 1980s to encourage space awareness, allows students the unique opportunity to build rockets in a large group setting, meaning that Gottsacker is not alone in his continuing interest in rocketry.

In fact, many members seek to achieve certification for their rocket development, which is granted by organizations such as the Tripoli Rocketry Association and the National Association of Rocketry. Three levels of certification exist to ensure a rocketeer has the proper skills to use increasingly complex motors in his or her rockets, gradually increasing in both time and monetary commitment.

Along with nearly 20 active members seeking to further their airborne experience, Jason Murphy, junior in physics and vice-president of the ISSS, assists the group in its endeavors, from stargazing with some of the group’s self-made telescopes to assisting members with rocket certification.

“I built small ones since sixth or seventh grade, but I had not built higher-powered rockets until my freshman year here,” Murphy said.

He continues building rockets now as a hobby, primarily with another sport rocketry group based out of the Quad Cities that has access to enough space to host a safe launch.

“Seeing something that you built reach Mach 1 and about 20,000 feet is really amazing. It’s quite a high,” Murphy said.

The complexity of the rockets Gottsacker and Murphy use has greatly intensified over the years.

“I started in sixth grade with a rocket that had an itty-bitty motor, and now I am working on a rocket that will fly with at least one flight computer. I guess bigger boys have bigger toys,” Murphy said.

Although anyone can purchase particular sizes of motors, a certificate is required for the larger, more complex motors Murphy is currently using to obtain his level three certification.

Rocket building is not a cheap activity for college students who are using more advanced rocket technology. Individual certification itself requires a fee, and does not include the cost of any materials necessary to build the rocket. However, students such as Richard Hanton, sophomore in aerospace engineering, find it worth the cost.

“I actually hadn’t built rockets at all until we started to work with them in my aerospace engineering class,” Hanton said.

Hanton is currently working toward launching a level one rocket in the spring to obtain his level one certification, which essentially calls for a self-made rocket. He is interested in rocket launching because of the implications for the future of space travel.

“The future is just interesting to me, including the idea of personal space flight and companies going into space,” Hanton said.