aunch a model rocket with a standard hobby engine and a touch of gunpowder for fuel, says physics faculty member Scott Calvin, and you have a vehicle with greater acceleration than the space shuttle. On the other hand, he notes, a model rocket is a simple instrument for demonstrating standard but not widely understood science, such as torque and Newton’s First Law. “Your body walking across the room,” says Calvin, “is a much more complex piece of work.”
He named his second-semester 2006 class “Rocket Science” as a whimsical nod to the gentle put-down, but the science was anything but basic. As the class worked toward making real rockets, it studied Einstein’s theory of special relativity and the obstacles to interstellar travel, designed space missions, learned about the craft and components of rocketry, and tested rocket designs on special computer modeling software.
Finally, it was time to take to the air. The two spring launch days, on a field at Bronxville High School, saw hits and misses. Some rockets streaked away, never to be recovered; others became entangled in trees, tantalizingly out of reach. Many, though, performed just as their designers had envisioned. “Some came down within a few feet of the launch pad,” says Calvin. Others zipped up 400-500 feet. “That’s far enough that you lose sight of them.”
Westchester County’s News 12 covered the April launch, but found it less interesting to film the successes than to capture launches gone awry.
Too bad they missed “Rocket Richie”: This craft featured a little plastic pilot and a canopy that popped off at a certain altitude, lowering him gently to earth by parachute. “That’s quite tricky,” says Calvin. “You have to make sure everything is balanced right-make sure the canopy comes off, and not the engine out the back.”
Rocket Richie’s designer, Corinne Burr ’09, was a non-scientist attracted to the class by the notion of building and launching rockets.
“I think I initially had little faith in the potential success of everyone’s rockets, including my own,” Burr said. “It was quite gratifying when they ended up having great flights time after time. It made a difference in the camaraderie of the class. Afterward we had more rapport and more confidence in our abilities as rocket launchers.”
As heady as the science around rockets is, they will never escape the gravity of popular fascination. The class concluded with a study of Hollywood’s treatment of space travel, of which class members were now much more scrupulous judges.
“We watched Planet of the Apes, Star Wars: Return of the Sith and some Star Trek to see if they were scientifically accurate,” said Blaine Alleluia ’09. “We found Planet of the Apes possible but not plausible; Star Wars defied the laws of physics and then followed them whenever it felt like it; and Star Trek was pretty scientifically accurate.”
Calvin says class members brought different skills to the class and came away with different insights, but were united by a sense of success at team projects.
“Everybody really learned from each other,” he said, “which is my favorite kind of course.”
Students hope to start a campus rocketry club, with launches on occasions such as Family Day and Admitted Students Day.