Spring Grove teen rocketeers shoot for the sky

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

The chances of a rocket hitting the exact height a rocketry team is aiming for are really small. 

“It's kind of one in a million to get exactly the right altitude,” said Spring Grove Area High School senior Alex Fiorillo. 

“Probably a one in a billion,” said Dylan Tichy, another Spring Grove senior.

Fiorillo added: “Add a few zeroes in there.” 

But the Spring Grove Area High School Rocketry Team hit the mark at 4,500 feet with their 27-pound rocket named Hyperion at the NASA Student Launch Day on April 15 in Alabama. 

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Two feet is the closest any other team has gotten in 23 years of the competition. Spring Grove claimed the altitude award in 2015 when they were 11 feet off. 

Back in November, participating teams had to pick out an altitude goal they would hit during the April launch. They were given between 3,500 and 6,000. The Spring Grove team decided to aim for 4,500. 

Advisor Brian Hastings said they did about seven launches before the big day, but never hit the mark. 

 “I remember 38, I remember 50,” he said.

Spring Grove Area High School Rocketry team examines their rocket April 15, the day of the NASA Student Launch in Alabama. That rocket, nicknamed "Hyperion" hit the team's targeted altitude, which has never been done in this competition before. Submitted photo

Tichy said that close would have been great. Even if they were 100 feet off, they possibly would have won third place.

The students thought long about what they should do. 

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“It’s a lot of different factors, a lot of teams employed complex air brake systems, moving fins and all that, but we decided that it would be a lot better to go with a simple, really, really good rocket,” Fiorillo said. “And that’s what we did.”

The teens said the competing teams usually has pretty complex systems, which they did explore, but settled on a fundamentally sound instead. 

Tichy, who is co-captain with Eli Hoke, said they wanted to stick with the basics. He designed this rocket with his club advisor's advice and got to spend some time looking at "cool missiles" as a part of his research. 

The team did all sorts of simulations leading up to the weekend and ran a bunch more the night before the launch to get the right calculations.  

Going into the day, each of the seven team members worked seamlessly and almost without talking because all seven knew what to do.

Spring Grove Area High School Rocketry team poses for a photo during the NASA Student Launch April 15, 2023 in Alabama. Submitted photo

They joked and were hopeful they would hit their market but didn't know how perfect a flight it would be. 

“Our rocket has been very, very consistent,” Fiorillo said. “So we know that we would at least get a good score, but we definitely could not have in earnest predicted that we would get an exact perfect flight. I don't think anybody could.”

Team member Sage Dewall’s dad joked to her that if the team did get it perfect, she should say “Darn, five seconds behind schedule.”

“We were all really, really hopeful, but nobody could have predicted it,” she said.

Tichy said one feature that was different was canards, which is a wing system that helps prevent the winds from blowing it sideways. Rockets typically rotate when they fly, but when they get hit by winds, they will rotate around their center of mass and not go as high or straight. Fiorillo said those canards were key that gave them consistency. 

When the team learned what they did, they were jumping for joy. Sage said she could be seen in the background of a TV interview shouting “perfect shot” before the team was grabbed for an interview. 

Spring Grove Area High School Rocketry team carries their rocket April 15, 2023, during the NASA Student Launch in Alabama. Submitted photo

On top of hitting their target, Tichy said the Launch Readiness Review, which is made up of National Association of Rocketry members, went through the submitted rockets with a punch list of pieces they have to change. Other teams had a five to ten on the list. 

“We only had like one,” Tichy said. “Which is almost unheard of.”

The team said it was a minor change. 

Before the launch, the university teams knew what Spring Grove made and came over to pick their brains. 

“It was like they know what they did was amazing,” co-advisor Janet Senft said, explaining those teams wanted to learn what the Spring Grove Rockets did. 

In addition to that, Fiorillo said they also helped other teams such as transporting West Point Army Academy’s rocket and lending Ohio State University’s team a motor. 

“We were lucky enough to have our whole trailer full of supplies with us,” Dewall said, explaining they helped a lot of teams. 

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The team  hit a little trouble when their launch was delayed because of other launches. They are required to build a rocket that can stand for at least two hours on the launchpad which their rocket did and still flew perfectly. 

Tichy said most of the team has been in the high-power rocketry program since their freshman year. As seniors this year, they felt like they went “full circle” because their first two years of competition were COVID. They participated those years, but couldn't travel to Huntsville. 

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Now, they traveled down there and claimed the altitude award. 

“It’s almost like it was meant to be,” Tichy said. “We’re the Spring Grove Rockets and we pull something like that off.”

To view the whole launch day, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLuCndLABTY.

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.