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Reed Rafts to Rockets

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Reed Rafts to Rockets

Rocket-launching high school students in Alabama are following in the footsteps of great explorers.


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April 30, 2002: When Thor Heyerdahl died earlier this month, he left behind a testament to human curiosity and our need to explore. His life consisted of an on-going search for answers in his chosen field of anthropology. He was raised in a family that knew science. His parents loved nature and zoology and passed their love of science on to young Thor. His mother was the head of his hometown museum and encouraged his love of nature. Thor was interested in everything around him. He even operated a small zoological museum in his home while in grade school. One can just imagine the patience his mother showed him as he brought home bugs, butterflies, and other critters!

Right: Thor Heyerdahl as a grown-up explorer.

Although he might not have known it at the time, Thor was doing what all scientists do: observe, collect data, and try to make sense of the world. He was fortunate to have people around him who encouraged that sense of wonder. His parents lit the spark of curiosity and the love of exploration in him at an early age.

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As a high school student, Thor mounted a series of daring expeditions to the wilds of Norway -- he called them "winter vacations." His only companions were a classmate named Erik and a huge Eskimo dog. "With (our dog) Kazan pulling our food, Erik and I would build igloos to sleep in during the winter -- sometimes even on the highest peaks and glaciers of Norway," recalled Thor years later in his book Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature.

When Thor was 23, he and his wife left Norway for Polynesia where they lived a traditional island life and studied, among other things, the origins of animals there. "How had the fauna developed on truly oceanic islands that had never been attached to the continents?" he wrote. They likely arrived on the boats of human voyagers. In those days (as now) scholars believed that Polynesia was settled by ancient boatmen sailing eastward across the Pacific from the direction of Indonesia. But Thor believed that people from the other side of the Pacific -- that is, far-away South America -- visited the islands, too.

Below: In 1947, Thor Hayerdahl sails from Peru to Polynesia aboard the Kon Tiki, a raft made of Balsa wood.

His ideas were met with skepticism, so Thor decided to prove them. Using materials local to Peru, he built a balsa-wood raft named Kon Tiki, and set sail from South America in 1947, reaching Polynesia in 101 days. He and his 5 companions sailed 8000 km (4960 miles) to show that the prevailing winds and the technology of the ancient Peruvians supported his theory. (Years later Hayerdahl crossed the Atlantic in Ra II, a vessel made of papyrus reeds. He did it to show that North Africans could have visited the Americas long before Columbus did.)

Of course, Heyerdahl didn't prove what did happen in ancient times, only what could have. And yet, in doing so he exhibited the human desire to understand how things became what they are. Like all explorers he set out to expand human knowledge. He understood that the Scientific Method requires facts and evidence. So he set out to provide that evidence.

Thor Heyerdahl wasn't the last explorer! Today's explorers search the Gobi Desert for the remains of ancient life forms; search the ocean depths for undiscovered life forms; and search the heavens for alien life forms. Today's explorers study everyday materials in the exotic environment of Earth orbit freefall, look back at the Earth from the high ground of space to see where we've come from, and look out at the heavens with human and robotic eyes to see where we're going.

All explorers have something in common besides their curiosity and drive to learn something new. They all need boats! Columbus had his three; Heyerdahl had his balsa rafts, and today's space explorers have the Shuttle, Soyuz, Proton, and the International Space Station. Different times, different oceans, different sailing technologies. But they all serve to carry us to new frontiers.

Above: A ship for modern explorers: the International Space Station in April 2002. [more]

Explorers also need something or someone to ignite their innate curiosity and their desire to do something out of the ordinary. It can be parents (like Heyerdahl's) who encourage their children to explore and learn. It can be teachers (like my high school physics and chemistry teacher) who show them new ways to think. It can be neighbors who give them the opportunity to learn something new by doing it.

Today's space explorers sail on the power of rockets. Some of today's rocket scientists and engineers had their curiosity ignited with the launch of a small bottle rocket or a larger store-bought rocket that traveled a few hundred feet and sailed back to Earth on a parachute. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center recently started a program to encourage more such young explorers. By sponsoring teams of student explorers in high schools and colleges, Marshall is giving opportunities to a new generation to learn about rockets by building and launching them.

The Student Launch Initiative allows three high schools and one college team to design and build rockets and then launch them from The Redstone Arsenal Test Range in Huntsville, Alabama. During the exercise the students learn how to plan a project, design the rocket and payload, and analyze the performance and safety of the rocket. After the launch, the flights are studied and students learn what worked and what didn't.

Above: Don't try this without adult supervision! Students and their helpers prepare to launch an SLI payload from the Redstone Arsenal Test Range in Huntsville, AL. [more]

These rockets are not bottle rockets! The high school rockets are about 10 cm (4 inches) in diameter, about 1.5 m (5 feet) long and weigh about 5.5 kg (12 pounds). Each rocket carries an altimeter that records the altitude reached. The goal is to reach an altitude of about 900 m (3,000 feet) and return to earth with parachutes. Reusability is a key success factor!

The college rockets are 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter, about 4 m (12 feet) tall and weigh around 27 kg (60 pounds). The design altitude is 3,000 m (2 miles). The motor in the college rocket is a hybrid motor consisting of a nitrous oxide oxidizer and a rubber/phenolic solid fuel. This motor is about 10 times more powerful than the motor in the high school rocket (which is about 100 times more powerful than the motors you can buy in small model rocket kits at your local hobby shop).

Left: Instructor David Tonne of Sparkman High School and two students inspect their rocket before launch.

Both of these rockets have flown twice. The program has been so popular with schools and students that new proposals have been received and more selections and launches are planned for next year's class of students.

The human spirit of exploration requires constant nurturing. This nurturing is most effective if it begins with the young scientists who have not yet lost their sense of wonder at the world around them. Thor's parents knew that; my physics teacher knew that, and the people who sponsor and support NASA's Student Launch Initiative know that.

Who knows, perhaps someone on one of these teams will become the new Neil Armstrong or Thor Heyerdahl! And in doing so, they will reaffirm that ordinary people can perform marvelous deeds.

Web Links and more...

Student Launch Initiative -- (MSFC) designed to engage students at high school and university levels in a learning opportunity that involves designing, building, and launching a reusable launch vehicle with a microgravity science-related payload. See also: Dreams soar when student teams launch rockets;

Human Exploration and Development of Space -- The goal of the HEDS Enterprise is to open the space frontier by exploring, using and enabling the development of space.

Thor Heyerdahl links: THOR HEYERDAHL EXPEDITIONS and ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE PACIFIC PEOPLES (; Sea Routes to Polynesia, extracts from lectures by Thor Heyerdahl (Bradshaw Foundation); Explorer Thor Heyerdahl dies (BBC)

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