Spring Grove students field two teams for NASA rocket project


One of the many rockets launched at the NASA Student Launch Initiative will be filled with small worms, another, an aerodynamic cylinder that takes in and releases air to reach optimal altitude.

Both of these rockets will be designed and built over the next several months by the Spring Grove Area Rocketry Teams — Team Darwin and Team Tesla, respectively — for the national competition that culminates in a final launching of rockets in April at NASA Flight Headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama.

Qualifying: Spring Grove Area High School students have participated in the competition for the past four years and last year won the National Altitude Championship, said physics teacher and team adviser Brian Hastings, noting that they were only shy of the 1-mile launch goal by 11 feet.

In order to qualify to submit a rocket proposal to NASA, the teams had to finish in one of the top 20 spots at the Team America Rocket Challenge, a task they rose to, nabbing eighth and 13th place. From there the teams' proposals were selected by a panel of judges, and they were informed Friday they would be joining the national competition.

Students on Wednesday morning joined 54 colleges and high schools from 22 different states and NASA representatives via teleconference to kick off their preparation for the event. Teams Darwin and Tesla are two of 14 high school teams competing, and the only ones selected from Pennsylvania.

The rockets: Still in the early phases of design, the teams were lugging around three-ring binders full of guidelines from NASA as well as preliminary designs for their rockets.

The teams will focus on two scientific payloads — which is the carrying capacity of an aircraft or launch vehicle, usually measured in terms of weight. Team Darwin will take a biological approach, while Team Tesla will be inspired by physics.

"Our mentor is a biology teacher, so we were kind of inspired by her," said senior and Team Darwin co-captain Adam Cavanaugh. "Since we have two teams this year, we were able to have two different focuses."

Their rocket will be filled with four to six planaria, which are "these tiny sort of worms that have the ability to regenerate," said senior and co-captain Josh Staley. "We're going to be cutting them in half and then putting them in."

One of the goals of their launch is to see if acceleration rates and altitude have an effect on the worms' rate of regrowth, Cavanaugh said.

Team Tesla's rocket will be designed to "test the rate at which airflow through a turbine will generate a current," according to their proposal.

"Basically, it will collect air to generate power and then release it through small holes to minimize (the rocket's) drag," said senior and Team Tesla captain David Williams, noting this year's rocket will be shorter and less weighty than last year's, which claimed the top prize.

Based on computer generations, Williams said, this year's rocket "has a pretty good shot" of hitting the mile-high goal.

The process: Both teams Wednesday after school began preparing for their Preliminary Design Review, which will involve a 30-minute presentation to NASA, followed by a 15-minute question-and-answer session.

From there, the teams will prepare for their Complete Design Review, which also culminates in a presentation and question-and-answer session. And before they travel to Alabama, the teams will have to participate in the Flight Readiness Review in March, during which they will be required to launch their completed rockets.

The teams also will have to raise $25,000 to cover all of their costs.

The teams are currently selling cotton candy at home football games and selling candles to generate their funds. They're also selling ad space on their rockets for $5 per square inch.

"We've been soliciting sponsors," Hastings said. "We'll put the logo on our rockets and on our website. It really is national exposure."

The team last year received $5,000 from TE Connect, and this year they're hoping to receive $7,500, Hastings said.

Experience: Williams said in college next year he hopes to study aerospace engineering or computer science.

"This is definitely relevant," he said. "This is good for college, we'll definitely look more appealing in our college applications — we basically participated in an eight-month collaboration not only with NASA but with each other as well."

Staley is looking to study accounting.

"It doesn't necessarily feed into my major, but it's something I definitely enjoy," he said, noting he does balance the budget for the project.

To purchase a candle or to find out more about the teams' fundraisers, visit their website at To keep up with the teams' progress, follow them on twitter at @sg_nasa_sl.

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at