The team is crowded around the center table in the physics room. Senior Addie Hannan is gluing a hook for the parachute onto a kevlar cord, while Alec and Evan are searching through a plastic box for the right tool. On the other side of the room, Silas and Gus are constructing an orange glider that will eventually be soaring through the air.
“Ken, I found parachutes and a hairdryer,” Jacob says as he hops off a stool after searching a high shelf. For the U-32 rocketry team, it’s just a normal Thursday.
Ken Matzner, a retired chemistry teacher, stands next to a student at a computer. He wears glasses, a flannel shirt and jeans, and sports a goatee. If you think of the teacher doing roll-call in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ken would be the opposite. He’s a straightforward group leader, but takes time to laugh with team members, too.
What was it about rocketry that grabbed his attention? Why does he lead the team at U-32?
“‘Cause I’m nuts,” he says, jokingly. “When Sputnik was launched in 1957, all the kids in my school got nuts about rockets, so we started doing our crazy rocket experiments. Some of them were really stupid, but eventually we got more interesting equipment, and started flying it, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
“The reason I teach this class,” Ken says, “is because I want to pay it forward. I want to help people get inspired by STEM courses, by science, technology, engineering, things like that. I’ve been a teacher most of my life, in one way or another, and this is fun!”
The team consists of seven students: Evan Elliott, Jacob McCoy, Addie Hannan, Alec Benedict, Jacob Langlois, Gus Petit, and Silas Scheckel. Langlois is mainly the computer programming guy; he uses special software to create a simulation for their rocket, and tweaks parts of it so the team can get the desired specifications needed for a successful launch.
“Those rockets are meant to do this, with the correct amount of balance, which is what I have been working on for two weeks,” Langlois says. He points first at two partially-constructed rockets and then at his computer screen. On the screen is a diagram of a rocket, with input slots for numbers above.
“This is the rocket,” he says while pointing at the diagram. Evan jumps in, pointing at the wings. “For the wings here, you can print them off on a sheet of paper and trace them.”
The team is practicing to eventually enter into a national competition, one with certain constraints. The rocket will have three raw eggs on board, and must go up to an altitude of 856 feet. It has to go up and come back down within 43-46 seconds, while keeping the eggs intact.
“You have your three runs that are timed,” Langlois says. “And then you submit those to TARC, the Team America Rocket Challenge people. Then they find the top ten people from each state, or the top 100 people overall (for the national competition).”
“We had the two big fails from last year,” Jacob Langlois says, the noise of the band saw loud in the background.
“Yes, right,” Ken says. “We’ve had rockets hanging in trees around here, including out by the baseball field.”
Jacob McCoy stands at the center table, looking on as team members glue wood together. He’s next to a little tube, waiting for the glue to finish up drying.
“I am putting the altimeter into the rocket,” he says. The altimeter measures the height of the rocket, so the team can find out just what heights their rocket reached during the launch. It’s stored in a little bottle, its cap just sticking out of the tube. It’s safe from harm in case the rocket’s parachute doesn’t open.
“I joined the rocketry team because I like to build things and problem solve,” McCoy says. “I want to be an engineer when I am older, and doing rocketry is a great way to learn those skills.”
In the video provided, one can see a rocket blasting off into the sky. Addie, a team member, took the video. It was one of the group’s more recent innovations, just one of multiple that have been launched by the team. The goal is to have a successful launch, but it doesn’t always work that way.
“The most exciting one was a rocket that we had made to hold a glider, which would then detach and glide back down,” McCoy says. “I wasn’t there, but I saw a video of it after.” In the footage, the rocket takes off, but glider pulls one side downwards and the rocket smashes into the ground.
Ken is part of a rocketry club in Burlington, too. A few winters ago, Ken and his club launched a rocket that had a payload of raw eggs onboard.
“It took off, and disappeared into a cloud,” he says. “We listened for the parachute to pop out- we didn’t hear anything. Then, we heard ‘SHHHEEEEEWWWWW DONK!’” The rocket had crashed back to Earth, and the eggs hadn’t survived the impact.
“Once in a while, they explode,” Ken says. “I’ve seen the parachute forget to come out… one almost hit my car! A pretty big rocket, too. It wasn’t my rocket, though.”
The parachute is key for a successful launch. The parachute is packed into the rocket a certain way, and Langlois says that depends on the size of the rocket.
“The first couple of years ago, we had a flight computer because it was a really large rocket, and it would make sure that the parachute popped at a certain altitude. Now, we just kind of hope, and we pack them in this and add weights.” He points to a little red parachute, neatly folded.
“Rocketry club is a fun way to learn about engineering,” McCoy says. “You design a rocket for a nationwide competition or your own challenge, build, and test it. I recommend it if you are interested in an engineering field.”
The team will send in their recorded launches to TARC, and if accepted, will attend the national competition on May 18th.