When friends and teachers ask Zane Maestas what he did during summer break, he has quite a story to tell.
Maestas, a seventh-grader at Laredo, spent his summer building a payload project for the 2018 Student Rocket Launch competition, hosted by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Ball Aerospace. The competition gave kindergarten through 12th-grade students the opportunity to win up to $5,000 by designing a craft that would be launched by rocket, fall back to earth and return to a target near the launch site.
Maestas learned about the competition last February from his sixth-grade math teacher, Alisa Thomas. She saw the contest as an exciting opportunity for students to discover and develop “STEM skills” – those related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“The students are able to actively problem-solve,” Thomas explained. “The problem-solving experience is just invaluable.”
Initially, two friends were going to team up with Maestas for the competition, but one moved and the other decided not to participate. So Maestas jumped in on his own, and began investigating what kind of craft could be launched from a 41-foot rocket at an altitude of about 7,000 feet, fall back to earth intact, land in a lake and travel to a specific location near the launch site. The craft could not weigh more than five pounds and had to fit inside a 15x6-inch cylinder.
“We had some pretty crazy ideas, like putting a paraglider on a teddy bear and stuff like that,” Maestas recalled. “But eventually we came up with the idea of a remote-controlled boat.”
But deciding on the craft was the easy part. Then Maestas had to decide how it would be powered, controlled and protected during the launch, descent and landing.
Fortunately, Maestas had the support of his mom, April Maestas, and an aeronautics engineer from UAL who served as a mentor through the process.
“He gave us some ideas about GPS programming, motor controls and light sensors,” Maestas explained.
“He was a good mentor because he didn’t give Zane the answers, he just gave him ideas,” April Maestas added.
Several months of trial and error followed as Maestas learned about coding and programming and developed the logic behind the code he was using. He experimented with different devices and equipment, such as a GPS, a compass, a light sensor and a battery pack. He faced one challenge after another.
“Zane had to load the payload at 8 o’clock in the morning but it didn’t launch until 11, April Maestas said. “So if you’re dealing with electronics, you can’t just turn it on because you would kill your battery.”
So Maestas had to come up with a way to turn the boat’s propeller on after launch. That’s where the light sensor came in.
“When the payload is in the rocket it’s going to be dark, but when it comes out, it’ll see the sunlight and so a light sensor will turn it on,” April Maestas explained.
Finally, launch day arrived. On July 14, Maestas and his mother joined other students from Colorado, California and New Mexico at Lake Meredith Reservoir near Ordway, Colorado. They watched as staff members and interns from ULA and Ball Aerospace prepared the rocket, a single stage Future Heavy Super Sport which was built by ULA interns. The rocket carried 33 payloads including 16 non-competition payloads built by student teams and 11 student-built payloads competing to reach the ground-based target.
The launch was impressive and all of the payloads were deployed. Maestas’ was one of the few that weren’t damaged on splashdown.
“It was completely intact,” Maestas said. “The barge soaked up some water but besides that we were probably the most intact.”
None of the competition payloads made it back to the target, so the awards were based on the students’ pre-launch presentations. Three high school teams claimed first, second and third place. While Maestas didn’t win an award, he was proud of his project.
“It was a success that we actually did it because we had a lot of struggles programming and getting it to work,” he said. “I definitely learned a lot about programming and rocketry. It was cool.”
Maestas estimates that he put more than 100 hours of work into his payload, but says it was worth it. He has this advice for other students who might be facing a similar challenge: “If you’re struggling with something, keep on going. Don’t just give up.”