Rocketry club is landing year filled with many adventures

Math and Project Lead the Way teacher Zeb Nicholson, who is also the advisor of the Cedar Falls rocketry club, created the club seven years ago. This year the club had 20 active members who participated in building small and large rockets. 

“We work hard, and we play hard,” Nicholson said. 

Throughout the school year, Nicholson said students come in during power hour, before school, after school and on the weekends to construct rockets. The smaller rockets typically average around three feet tall and can reach up to 900 feet. They typically take a couple of weeks to construct. The larger rockets average about nine feet tall and can reach up to 3,300 feet and can take up to a few months to construct. 

Nicholson said the official meeting time is power hour once or twice a week. “This isn’t just us screwing around and having fun accidentally,” Nicholson said. 

This year, three official competition rockets have been built. However, some students have made their own at home. Nicholson said around 10 rockets had been created this year in total. “We had a couple of students go to six elementary schools and engage these sixth and fifth graders into building paper rockets. Some students were involved in social media platforms, and they killed it. We were being noticed by really well-known Instagram accounts, and they were reacting to our creations. The club is more than just lessons on science and rocketry. Through action and hands-on learning, we learn. We never sit down and do a lesson, but somehow by the end of the year, the kids know what rocket science is and how to do it,” he said.

The smaller rockets can be launched locally next to the UNI-Dome. However, the larger rockets must be launched at a scheduled time with other groups of adults. The only location in Iowa to launch the larger rockets is near Des Moines. The club has traveled to Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota to launch the 9-foot-long rockets. 

There are two launching contests, one in April and one in May. The rest of the year is building up to the events. The Cedar Falls group traveled to Washington D.C., on May 14 for the smaller rocket competition. The big rocket competition is in Huntsville, Ala. Surrounding states and cities such as Webster City, Iowa City and Fairfield participate in the launching competitions too. 

Nicholson said the group must raise close to $10-12,000 dollars. The funding typically comes from family members or sponsors from larger businesses. 

Junior Sean Radke said he joined the rocketry club his sophomore year after discovering Nicholson was the adviser. “He was the first place I went for power hour last year,” Radke said.

Radke said he is the team lead for the payload designs. “I’ve been in charge of figuring out what we’re throwing inside the rocket. We were officially one of 14 high school teams that NASA selected by submitting a proposal to build a rocket for them. This year the rocket was taken through a 360 view of the rocket experience with an Oculus camera,” he said.

Radke said he doesn’t necessarily see himself working for NASA in the future. However, he said he’d be interested in working for another rocketry agency. 

Radke said he had an independent study hall solely dedicated to the rocket club during the fifth period. “I knew some sort of low level of rocketry, but this club helped me learn everything about rocketry,” Radke said. 

Radke said he plans on sticking with the rocket club his senior year. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

This year, Radke said NASA presented the rocket club at a national level. Nicholson said that Cedar Falls was contacted directly by the contest organization asking to build and launch a rocket for them. “Many other schools have this club, but they asked us to represent them, and I think that’s pretty cool,” Nicholson said.

The May contest results come back to participants on June 2. Nicholson said the club plans to celebrate sometime after school is out. “Even if we didn’t place, I mean, these kids have amazing memories and have learned so much. We have had kids from Cedar Falls go on to be the president of their rocket club, so they know what they’re doing when they leave here,” he said.

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