With high-powered rockets, local students shoot for the stars

Blast off! A student rocket — the first of three — successfully launches at the Fowlkes Ranch outside of Marfa on Sunday. Photo by Sarah Vasquez.

PRESIDIO COUNTY — It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon at the Fowlkes Ranch near Marfa, and a group of students from Marfa and Alpine are getting ready to launch the rockets they’ve been working on for months.

Also in attendance are some fans (read: parents) and a couple of Blue Origin employees who have helped the mostly teenage members of the Marfa ISD Blue Origin 2019 Rocketry Workshop build their rockets and prepare for this launch date.

Joseph Mattingly, a propulsion test engineer at the space exploration company, gives the countdown. Five, four, three, two, one!

A student presses the launch button, and a neon orange rocket, the first of three, blasts off into the sky with a fiery roar. Some residents of the Fowlkes Ranch— specifically, three horses and a donkey — sprint away, startled.

These aren’t your average school science project rockets, the dinky little black-powder-powered toys that readers might remember from their youth. At around the height of some of these amateur scientists, the Marfa rockets rely on “ammonium perchlorate composite propellant,” which are rubber-based fuels that are “essentially attached to a car battery,” says Mattingly, the Blue Origin employee. They go so high that the group had to seek approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Mattingly has always been interested in space. As a kid, he went to space camp in Alabama. Later, at Georgia Tech, he started a rocketry club that grew from just four members to around 50.

“People figured out rockets were pretty cool,” Mattingly jokes of the group’s growth, adding: “I still consider this my hobby.” But he concedes that the rockets he launched as a kid weren’t quite on this level.

At Blue Origin, Mattingly helps test the company’s BE-U and BE-3U rocket engines, which can include everything from logistics to maintenance. “I like to tell people I’m a jack of all trades,” he says.

To those trades, Mattingly can also add school science instructor. Blue Origin, which started operating a rocket test site near Van Horn in 2006, has been working with Marfa students for around three years, said Oscar Aguero, superintendent of the Marfa Independent School District.

Blue Origin started teaching students about rocketry in 2017 and helped them with their first successful launch in January 2018, he said. There wasn’t one last year, due to weather and other issues. But now, this year, they’re back for another.

For Aguero, these workshops are about more than having fun. “Their goal is to expand the excitement of science and rocketry” in hopes that some of those students might even end up at Blue Origin or another space exploration company someday, he said. Call it the school-to-launchpad pipeline.

Eduardo “Eddie” Seyffert, a senior manager of test operations at Blue Origin and a school board member in Van Horn, has helped spearhead educational initiatives like this in Marfa and beyond.

The purpose of these rocket launches, Seyffert said, is to get involved in the community and to make sure that West Texas students know that a career in rocketry is “something they can pursue.” (Seyffert stressed that both he and Mattingly were just speaking for themselves and not for Blue Origin.)

Watching students build and then launch rockets is a special experience, he said. “It’s an achievement for these kids,” he added.

Before the launch, students were putting the finishing touches on their rockets at the Marfa Elementary gym. And at least one student — eighth-grader Grace Rothey — had come from as far away as the Dallas area.

The Rotheys moved away from Alpine last year, but they decided they couldn’t miss the launch. “Her STEM teachers were like, ‘Please record this,’” said her mother, Linda. “They’re very intrigued.”

“I like building things,” Grace said when asked about her interest in rocketry. “I like watching things blow up. Plus I like science in general.”

Grace was busy loading some Skittles into the nose of her team’s rocket, the “Stealth Screw Rocket,” just to see what would happen. Her hypothesis: With less air pressure, they would expand.

Back at the Fowlkes Ranch, the crowd watched and waited for the first rocket to descend. It reappeared briefly, a flash of parachute that quickly disappeared into the brush behind a ridge on the horizon. A couple kids set off on an all-terrain vehicle to find it. And within the hour, the second of three rockets took off.

Later, Grace’s mother, Linda Rothey, texted the results of the Skittles experiment.

“The Skittles stayed the same,” she wrote, “and were just as tasty after going up into the atmosphere.”