DAHLGREN, Va. – On a sultry evening on the tarmac of Dahlgren’s airstrip, a gathering of scientists, engineers, mathematicians -- all parents with their children-- launched their handmade rockets into the stratosphere, with much fanfare and commentary from the crowd.
The Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) Centennial Rocket Contest began with a discussion on the significance of the centennial and how the rocket launch ties in with the history of Dahlgren. Parents and children calculated trajectories and evaluated the gravitational pull while taking the weather into account and ensuring all conditions were a go for launch.
“My daughter Vivian thought it was really creative and fun to watch her rocket launch into the sky,” said John Rinko.
“I enjoyed watching the different rockets with many kids and I gained a greater appreciation for the actual rocket scientists in our military,” said Alex Hanish who attended the Sept. 27 rocket contest with his son Sam.
The sky was perfect with just wispy cirrus clouds as a backdrop to hundreds of small rockets making their debut into the sky. There were model patriot missiles built to 10th scale that were hand painted and launched straight heavenwards to their target altitude. At that point, the nose cap popped and out came brightly colored parachutes as the rocket gently floated back to the airfield. The children stood aghast, ran to meet their rocket as it came down, with the cheerful, “let’s do it again,” before the rocket touched the ground.
The line up on the tarmac resembled the busiest airports as kids lined up with their parents to blast rockets into the sky. Some were hesitant to push the button to launch while others, stepped right up to quickly engage in the whole process.
“We orchestrated this event to compliment the centennial commemoration and rocket science for the people who work here – including physicists, mathematicians and engineers – and their children,” said Alice Stanton, one of the event coordinators from Naval Support Facility Dahlgren’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) center. “They are experiencing this celebration of rocket science with home-made ingenuity. It was more than a year in the making as we collaborated with rocketry expert Steve Waner to make this happen.”
Stanton and her MWR team worked with Waner, a Missile Defense Agency aerospace engineer, to support the rocket contest over the last five iterations. Waner enjoys investing his time and talent to inspire and influence another generation of rocket scientists to grasp the heavens for their life-goal. “He is the lynch-pin in the whole operation,” said Stanton, “without him, this event would not happen.”
Waner started model rocketry when he was only eight years old as part of the 4-H Group in Kansas. The last rocket he launched from Kansas traveled five miles above the earth’s surface – higher than Mount Everest – and was found with the assistance of Global Positioning System tracking, another invention brought to you by the scientists of Dahlgren.
There were, of course, very interesting trajectory patterns. Several of the construction paper icons dazzled the audiences with their sky-dance, fizzing and whizzing around the sky, so much so that the parachutes had no way to deploy, then fell to earth with a thud. These were the real crowd-pleasers.
Michael Libeau relished taking his son to the rocket contest for a new experience and for the recollections it renewed. “My son Caleb and I enjoyed building our own Patriot Kit. Caleb liked launching it but said it smelled like burnt popcorn,” said Libeau. “The rocket launch gave me an excuse to finish an SR71 Blackbird kit, that had been in our basement for a long time. It took me back to my own childhood to see it again.”
“Wow, that was cool,” said Trevor, three-years-old, as his first rocket launched into the air. From that point on, his only question was, “Is it my turn again?”
All the children’s rockets went off without a hitch, however, as at any event, there was one dud. The largest rocket of them all, the one everyone had to stand back for, the one the kids held in the highest respect, fizzled, popped and sat on the runway like a chunk of lead and went nowhere. After a long pause, the kids exclaimed, “we will try this again later!”
There were winners of this celestial conclave, and there was one for adults and children. Titus Helton won the youth rocket award while Joel Montalvo won the adult category for a rocket simply made of construction paper, Elmer’s glue, and scotch tape. Helton and Montalvo won because their creations were the lightest, most successful rockets to fly.
“I am a first time rocket builder along with my son Joseph and daughter Izabella,” said Montalvo, an NSWCDD safety engineer for SM-2 and SM-6 missiles, whose daughter finished third in the youth category. “I have always been intrigued on how to design and build rockets and the science behind it. At first, I had no clue how to build a rocket or what are the basic features or consideration necessary to have a successful flight. My children and I learned so much by participating in this contest and we were very happy see our rockets fly. After intensive investigation and preliminary testing such as ‘The Model Rocket String Test’, which evaluates the model rocket for stable flight, we were ready for competition and to see our birds fly. To our amazement they were among the highest rockets that flew successfully during the event. We look forward for the next rocket competition event and the learning experience it brings us.”
Organizers, parents and children are already looking forward to next year’s event and even more amazing trajectories – not just the path of rockets, but the trajectories of young people’s lives being shaped for the future.