FDA students mount successful rocket launch

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 25, 2005

Fort Dale Academy’s young physicists got a chance to test out their rocket-building skills last Friday afternoon and the results simply soared.

The school’s football field, transformed to Launch Pad Central, was the site of physics instructor Jim Jernigan’s second annual Student Rocket Firing.

Several parents were on the scene, along with FDA coaches and teachers who brought their classes down to observe the launch from the grandstands.

The view from the stands

Everyone had an eagle-eye view as they participated in the suspenseful countdowns for each of the rockets launched that afternoon. Mason Bass served as announcer for the event. Larry Newton served as tracker, David Paulk, timer, with design team members John Allen Bates, Anna Kate Davis, Tammy Jo Bozeman, Elizabeth Cauthen, Dock Chastain, Gregg Faulkner, Courtney Giddens, Taylor Hamilton, Carson Moseley, Conyers Poole, Edward Poole and Chris Slageley rounding out the group (Slagley was originally supposed to serve as launch director but physical therapy on a shoulder prevented him playing the role).

Countdown to excitement

The stage was set.

The winds were light; the skies offered good visibility – the better to track each rocket..

Time to blast off!

&uot;…Five, four, three, two, one!&uot; the youngsters chanted. An unexpected delay in the firing sequence forced Chuck Barrett, a.k.a. launch director for the day, to recycle through the firing sequence.

This time, Barrett sent the rocket streaming into the heavens to thunderous shouts and applause. Eyes turned anxiously skyward in an attempt to track the progress of the projectile.

At about T plus ten seconds, a telling puff of white smoke let the spectators know separation had occurred as the nose cone blew clear.

&uot;I see it!&uot; came the cry as an orange ribbon marker streamed down to earth, trackers giving chase in following the rocket back to the ground. All the rockets were successfully retrieved, save one that disappeared in the wood behind the football field.

&uot;This was terrific, what a great idea,&uot; commented parent Faye Poole, mother of Conyers, one of those who turned out for the big event.

A blast of humor and pride

Jernigan’s rocketeers showed off their sense of humor by nicknaming a couple of the five rockets launched last week. &uot;We have the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ – one shot was dedicated to physics student Carson Moseley, dubbed ‘the smartest guy in the school’ and another rocket called ‘Whazzup, Doc?’ I confess I came up with that one myself. It’s named after Dock Chastain, our scientific advisor on the project,&uot; Jernigan explained with a grin.

Following the initial five firings, one rocket that was recovered from an earlier launch was recycled. &uot;We replaced the engine, repacked the nose cone and the assembly successfully fired a second time. It performed flawlessly,&uot; said Jernigan with pride.

Taking it to the field

Jernigan enjoys opportunities to bring his favorite subject alive for his students.

&uot;Physics is one of the coolest subjects around, since almost every aspect of our daily lives involves physics in some form or fashion,&uot; Jernigan says.

However, the instructor adds, &uot; the very nature of the principles of physics means they aren’t always very suited to the classroom

– space limitations, and of course, you can’t go firing things off inside for obvious safety reasons.&uot;

And so last year Jernigan decided to look for a new twist, an exciting project to pique his students’ interest.

&uot;I think most kids love the concept of pyrotechnics, and rocketry gives you the ability to look at a lot of things – force, projectile motion, gravity and son on.&uot;

After finding rockets and engines available through a school supply catalog, Jernigan approached headmaster David Brantley and counselor Starla Jones and got their blessing for the project. Coach Sampley agreed to loan his football field for the launch pad.

The students started on the project last fall, using normal lab periods to do work in design and finishing, with the primary design variables being wing placement and shape.

After last year’s successful premiere, a few modifications were made to this year’s rocket firing, Jernigan says.

&uot;We substituted the packing for the nose cone, using the material from packing peanuts as an expedient when we couldn’t find the regular packing. The packing prevents the rocket engine from burning the flag when it burns through and separates the nose cone. Those fluorescent flags really assist the trackers in finding the downed rockets.&uot;

Some useful data was collected from last week’s test firing, says Jernigan. &uot;Students measured the distance from the launch pad to the end zone, where the tracker was located. That baseline distance, from the tracker to the apogee, permits us to calculate the maximum altitude reached. We also recorded the time from liftoff to apogee…my unofficial estimate is the student rockets got to 1,800 – 2,000 feet.&uot;

What’s next?

Jernigan is already on the lookout for another exciting project for his FDA Physicists to undertake. He’s tossing around several ideas, including using a mousetrap as the sole form of power for any numbers of projects, and building a trebuchet, an ancient engine of war used to form projectiles at castle wall during medieval times.

&uot;Right now, we are into electromagnetics in class, so we might get them to build a simple crystal radio receiver using simple objects like oatmeal box coils and handmade variable condensers.

It’s just great to see the kids getting so excited about science,&uot; Jernigan says with a smile.