The sky’s the limit for new rocketry group
BLACKSBURG — Dry erase boards covered in mathematical equations, not for the faint of heart, lined the walls of the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research building Tuesday on the campus of Virginia Tech.
Tech aerospace and engineering students spread out through the building, studying and learning about the world beyond Earth and its effect on mankind, among other space-related subjects.
Working alongside them was a much older group of students — not enrolled at Tech — just as enthusiastic about outer space.
They’re members of the newly formed New River Valley Rocketry group, which launches high-powered rockets in a safe, controlled environment governed by the nonprofit Tripoli Rocketry Association.
Many of the New River Rocketry members, such as the group’s founder, Bob Schoner, have been captivated by outer space and rocketry for most of their lives, while others are just discovering their passion.
Schoner, of Christiansburg, said he grew up watching the Apollo missions during the 1960s and ’70s. He was hooked, but like many his age, he eventually lost touch with his passion and went on with life.
Years later, Schoner would rediscover the “fire in the sky” while out shopping one day.
“I discovered a magazine at the store with a rocket that was 10 feet tall,” Schoner said. “I remember saying out loud, ‘Nobody ever told me they were doing this.’ ”
As Schoner became reacquainted with his old interest, he would travel to Charlotte, N.C., once a month to launch rockets. The three-hour drive was worth it, he said, as it was the closest place to launch his rockets safely.
Eventually, a group formed in Staunton that Schoner was able to launch rockets with, but the group soon lost its launching field after controversy with a disgruntled neighbor, Schoner said.
Schoner was encouraged to form a group in the New River Valley years later when a Texan and rocketry enthusiast named Thomas Weeks — otherwise known as “Tweeks” — moved to the valley.
“He’s a fellow flyer and wanted to know where we fly around here,” Schoner said. “He said he’s never driven more than 30 minutes for a launch. He’s spoiled because I’ve driven hours for years for a launch.”
Weeks encouraged Schoner to build a relationship with an interested landowner, search for potential members and begin the process of becoming an official prefecture, similar to a chapter, of Tripoli Rocketry Association.
In September, the New River Rocketry prefecture was formed, and the group has held three weekend launches at Sinkland Farms, two launches at Kentland Farms and hopes for more in the near future.
To ensure safety, Schoner’s group has a list of steps they must take before a launch.
“To fly any rocket over 3.3 pounds, or one containing over 125 grams of propellant, requires a waiver from the FAA,” Schoner said. “Then, depending on the launch location and air traffic, they assign a waiver for the airspace to a specific altitude above the ground.”
After obtaining permission of the landowner where the launch is to take place, the group contacts the owners of neighboring properties to let them know what they’ll be doing and what the group should do in the event that a rocket drifts onto their property.
The group also has insurance of up to $2 million provided by the Tripoli Rocketry Association in the event that something unexpected happens, such as damage incurred to the property.
Even though the group is considered amateur, Schoner is certified at the highest training level possible.
He was a member of Tripoli’s board of directors for nine years before he decided to walk away and focus more on launching the rockets and the newly formed group. He earned his Level 3 certification from the association, the highest level most rocketry enthusiasts can attain.
“When I got my Level 3, I remember thinking hard about what I wanted to do now,” Schoner said. “I’ve always been interested in science, so I decided to pay it forward.”
That’s why Schoner is sharing his knowledge with local school children and Tech students alike.
He has been working with a local middle-school teacher and has met with students to teach them about rocketry as a part of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum.
“The thing that keeps me going is the one or two kids in every class that have that spark of interest,” Schoner said. “I like to tell kids that they’re going to be the generation that might go to Mars.”
Weeks, who also teaches students about rocketry in his spare time, said Schoner’s love for teaching kids about rocketry is evident and that it could change their lives.
“I feel like a kid again when I watch him teach Cub Scouts or kids at school,” Weeks said. “It’s awesome both to see it rekindle our love for rocketry and watch the kids have that spark.”
As if he weren’t already busy enough, Schoner is also working with the University Student Launch Initiative team at Tech, which has entered a national rocket-launch competition through NASA in April.
Senior aerospace and engineering major Rehan Syed said Schoner and New River Rocketry have played a huge role in the team’s rocket build and that his team wouldn’t be where it is now without them.
“Bob and his organization has helped us in all steps through the process from writing the paper for NASA, designing and building the rocket,” Syed said. “We value his input greatly.”
While the five-member USLI team has been building its competition rocket, Schoner noticed there’s a greater interest in rocketry on Tech’s campus beyond the five slots available on the USLI team.
Schoner hopes to form a club for students soon.
“I think there’s a great opportunity at Tech, where Homer Hickam graduated from,” Schoner said. “It makes perfect sense to help contribute my knowledge. I can tell them things to avoid, and I learn new things from these guys every day.”
Senior aerospace major Jacob Bean said a club on campus would start the rocket-building process earlier for students.
“Having kids get that hands-on experience earlier in their college careers would make Tech look great in the eyes of NASA,” Bean said.
For Schoner, the sky’s the limit when it comes to educating the future generation of rocket scientists.
“I tell them they can start building something today that will get them into space,” Schoner said. “It’s not glue and wood — it’s their brain. If you want to go to Mars, you can do it.”
For more information about New River Valley Rocketry and future launches, visit www.nrvr.org.
By Mike Shaw
The Roanoke Times | 381-8627