Rocketing to success: Tribal team soars in Space Grant event

It’s a tremendous source of pride for the College of Menominee Nation and its students: The College has become “The Little Rocket that Could” in the world of college rocketry.

The school’s Five Clans Rocket Team did it again with flawless launches at the annual collegiate rocket competition held the first weekend in May at the Bong State Recreation Area near Kenosha.

(The state competition, and a first-ever national tribal-college competition, were organized by the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium headquartered at UW-Green Bay. For more on the May 2010 competition, including preliminary results and a link to photos from the historic First Nations Launch, click here.

“It’s experiential learning,” says Norbert Hill Jr., vice president of the College of Menominee Nation. “Building rockets is fun, but they’re also learning physics and acceleration and electronics and problem-solving and everything else.”

That’s high-level stuff for a student club at a two-year community college that entered its first major rocket competitions in 2007.

At one of those gatherings a few years ago, Five Clans found itself entered alongside teams from school like Vanderbilt, Auburn, Fisk, Alabama-Huntsville (home of a major NASA center), Iowa and Alabama. Virtually all are major universities with aerospace offerings or, at a minimum, well-regarded math and physics departments on their campuses.

Five Clans showed up with a homemade rocket crafted of native basswood from the Menominee Reservation forest — not fiberglass like most of the others — reflecting an American Indian ethic of sustainability. The relatively heavy craft required a powerful K550 solid-fuel “motor.”

“When we launched the wooden one, they all thought it would shred and peel apart like a banana because of all the force,” remembers Theo Kurowski, current team leader and a computer science student at CMN’s Green Bay campus. “It didn’t. Now it’s in the Smithsonian.”

That’s “Smithsonian” as in the Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Hill, an Oneida tribal member who worked at UW-Green Bay during its early years in the 1970s, has devoted much of his career to encouraging young people, especially First Nations people, to pursue studies in the so-called S-T-E-M fields of science, technology, engineering and applied mathematics.

He loves it that students at CMN’s Green Bay campus keep blasting through pop-culture stereotypes that Indians find comfort only in traditional ways, and shy away from space-age or information-age technology. See a slideshow here with pre-competition photos of the Five Clans team preparing their rockets.

Common rules for rocket competitions say the five-member student teams must limit expenditures to no more than $1,000. Their rockets must carry a payload of some sort, and/or perform a mission, and deploy parachutes to return safely after reaching an apogee that could vary from 2,000 feet or so for heavy or small-motor rockets, or 10,000 feet or more for high-power craft.

Competitions are judged by benchmarks at various stages along the way, preliminary planning and pre-flight procedures among them. At the annual May collegiate competition in Wisconsin, for example, teams are graded on these pre- and post-launch reports and an oral presentation on the eve of the launch day at Bong.

The flight itself is judged mainly by the degree of accuracy with which the college students predict their rockets’ altitude, trajectory and flight path. It helps, too, if the parachutes deploy and the rocket body returns gently to earth.

CMN team adviser Dan Hawk, who spent much of a recent April Saturday readying a rocket’s chute-releasing electronics, doesn’t need to explain the importance of his task. His team’s busy and cluttered “rocket lab” on the Green Bay campus is a former storeroom decorated with the tattered remains of previous rockets (only a few, thankfully) that didn’t have smooth touchdowns.

“It can be complicated,” says Hawk, a Navy veteran and current Lawrence University student with a knack for science. engineering and teaching others. “If you’re relying on electronics to deploy your parachutes, it can be complicated.”

The team’s main entry in the National First Nations competition at Bong attempts an interesting degree of difficulty. The students affixed light-weight, paper-thin solar arrays on the fins to provide just enough current to detonate the charge releasing the chutes when the rocket reaches its highest point.

The College of Menominee Nation rocketry group includes among its students and advisers people who are enrolled Oneida and Menominee tribal members, and some who are not. The students take classes not at the main campus in Keshena but at the Green Bay satellite location at the former Foth & Van Dyke engineering campus just off Highway 41 in Ashwaubenon.

Five Clans faced formidable competition at Space Grant’s inaugural First Nations launch.

The team from Haskell Tribal College in Lawrence, Kan., planned a high-altitude flight in which a suite of probes would record humidity, air pressure, temperature and the like. The group from Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Wash., equipped their main entry with a way to measure roll, pitch and yaw during flight. All had successful launches. To go directly to a slideshow from the First Nations Launch day, click here.

Three other tribal colleges entered the competition but didn’t reach the flight stage. Sending observers were Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College of Cloquet, Minn.; Leech Lake Tribal College of nearby Cass Lake; and, from Rosebud, S.D., Sinte Gleska University.

Rocketry is a popular hobby, and pre-made kits are readily available. Some college teams use them. The CMN students save money, however, and apply more ingenuity, by building most entries out of hardware-store items.

Most of their rocket bodies today are heavy cardboard tubes, reinforced with plastic mesh and capped with enamel paint. They recyle old parts where possible. The team’s rocket-launch base is an old lawnmower deck and parts from a discarded bed frame.

Tracking device? Although most rockets stay in sight during flight, just in case, CMN will sometimes put parts from a baby monitor inside the ship and track the signal from a jury-rigged listening dish: a tennis racket held high, with a large cooking pot in place of the strings, and the receiver snuggled inside.

The frugal approach also allows the College to enter multiple team and individual rockets on a given flight day. On a recent work day, Judy Cornelius finished up her small, see-through rocket body of clear plastic as others worked to complete the main entry. The team works year-round building rockets, often a few hours after classes or Saturdays when available.

The one area of standardization is in the motors. All are solid-fuel cylinders with ammonium perchlorate the primary propellant, not all that different in basic design from the boosters that powered NASA’s space shuttles. Only certified experts are allowed to purchase, handle and deploy the motors.

It’s another source of pride at CMN that several students are pursuing certification.

Volunteer pros offer guidance. Kevin Murphy, a professor of math and physics at nearby St. Norbert College, pitches in during workshop time. Bill Bertoldi, a Kingsford (Mich.) high school science teacher and a model rocket expert with the national Tripoli Rocket Club, sometimes drives down. Space scientist Aileen Yingst of Space Grant at UW-Green Bay, with her extensive NASA-level experience, has also been a resource.

College of Menominee Nation team members taking part in the May 2010 state and national competitions were Theo Kurowski, Judy Cornelius, Lanna Otradovec, Lisa Annamitta, Worden Waukechon, Donna Galvan, Tina Roskom and Willie Garza.

Link to slideshow of Five Clans team at work on rockets.