Student Experiments Fly High on NASA Suborbital Rocket

NASA Sounding Rocket Blasts Off, June 25, 2015
A NASA sounding rocket loaded with student experiments launches to suborbital space on June 25, 2015. (Image credit: NASA Wallops Optics Lab)

A NASA suborbital sounding rocket filled with student experiments flew more than 71 miles (114 kilometers) high yesterday (June 25).

The NASA Terrier Improved Orion rocket launched from the space agency's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, carrying payloads built and designed by students participating in two national student rocketry programs, RockOn and RockSat-C. More than 200 middle school and university students came out to watch the launch.

"Through RockOn and RockSat-C, students are learning and applying skills required to develop experiments for suborbital rocket flight," NASA officials wrote in a statement about the flight. "In addition, middle school educators through the Wallops Rocket Academy for Teachers (WRATS) are learning about applying rocketry basics in their curriculum."

RockSat-C and RockOn are both programs of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, which aims to make space accessible to students. RockSat-C features a competition for to get payloads aboard rockets, similar to what students would face as scientists in the field.

"The RockSat-C program actively engages the students through full design-process mentoring, assisting them through the design phase in the fall semester … and leading the teams through testing and integration reviews and Launch Readiness Review in the spring," the consortium wrote on its website.

The payload aboard the Orion rocket descended by parachute into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Wallops, and recovery was in progress when NASA released its statement yesterday (June 25). 

Suborbital rockets are often used to provide cheap access to space for experiments. They usually provide a few minutes of weightlessness at the peak of the flight, allowing for brief experiments in microgravity to go forward.

Another option for going high in the atmosphere — although not to space itself — is via high-altitude balloon. Over the past few years, models such as a "Star Wars" X-Wing fighter, a Lego minifigure and the USS Enterprise from "Star Trek" have all ridden balloons to near-space..

NASA's next scheduled flight from Wallops is a Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket, which is expected to launch July 7.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: