Rockets in the Projects

by Larry Hoffing, Educational Outreach Coordinator, Reaction Research Society


On a dusty, old blackboard at the Jordan Downs Community Center, it had a chalk tray but no chalk. I don’t think it had been used since the whiteboard had come of age. Juan, our local Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Community Safety Partnership (CSP) officer, saw my predicament, disappeared into his police sports utility vehicle and returned with a piece of white chalk he “outlined bodies with on the sidewalk.” He has a wry sense of humor and not without reason. These officers are sometimes called out to respond to a nearby situation on the street. Peace and war are very close neighbors in this part of town.

CSP arose in 2011 out of a program in the city of Los Angeles founded by Connie Rice, a civil rights leader, and the Urban Peace Institute. The idea was to pair the Los Angeles Housing Authority with the LAPD in an effort to improve relations with citizens in the public housing projects of Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts and Ramona Gardens. The Watts Bears youth football program is just one outgrowth of this program focusing on improving the quality of life and supporting the community.  Spending time with kids and financial investment pays off in the long term in lifetime earnings and with higher graduation percentages.

I’ve been teaching rocketry since the early 1970’s when model rockets (and more particularly the model rocket motors) became legal in California. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) instituted a summer playground Youth Services program that I spearheaded- federal monies helped to expand it city-wide.  The Los Angeles Fire Department, following a demonstration flight, permitted some of the city’s first launch sites at Pierce and Valley community colleges. In 2017, the LAPD came to my organization, the Reaction Research Society (RRS), to pitch the idea to start a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) program that would come to be called “Rockets In The Projects.” The idea was simple — reach out to at risk students with grand ideas about reaching for the stars and a practical series of learning experiences to help show them the way.

Founded in 1943 in Glendale, California, RRS is the oldest continuously operating amateur rocket organization in the United States. The organization pre-dates NASA by 15 years. Some of our early members went on to help launch the space race. We are uniquely positioned to partner with the LAPD to bring space flight and rocketry to south Los Angeles youth with our organization having an FAA-approved launch site north of Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert and licensed pyrotechnic operators.

Our founder, George James, presents at the 2018 RRS symposium last year.

In this program, after learning the basic laws of motion, some chemistry and the principles of propulsion and aerodynamics, we build and fly experimental rockets. It’s the first time most students, mainly from 4th to 6th grade, hold an Allen (hex) wrench, use fasteners (button head machine screws) and assemble parts with O-rings. (The O-rings on the Challenger didn’t get tested properly, it’s a simple but critical part). They learn about reducers, payload sections, and an ogive nose cone and what’s best suited for subsonic  vs. supersonic flights (the answer: it depends).

This is an equal opportunity team building program using the “A” for Art in STEAM. Each team makes it unique by painting the outside surfaces. Unicorns, polka dots, and stars are popular rocket paint schemes alongside video game and rock group names. 

5 of the 6 alphas sit in the rack; Osvaldo’s alpha with a parachute sits to the left.

These micrograin rockets develop around 300 pounds of thrust, leaving the launch rail in a fraction of a second and travel over a mile at velocities approaching the speed of sound. UCLA, USC, Cal Poly Pomona and other universities’ rocket labs test their latest designs at our site. It’s the real deal.

A fish-eyed lens view of an RRS standard alpha streaking up into the blue Mojave sky. This is our standard teaching tool on the raw power of a rocket.

This program is a chance for many students, most of whom have never been to the California desert, to reach beyond their four square city blocks. We introduce them to desert safety, launch protocols, and some of the local flora and fauna. There is a cool white rock found in the desert, also called “fire rock”, that is a type of quartz, that when struck together, creates sparks. 

Live demonstration of micrograin propellant at the MTA

We demonstrate the burning of various rocket fuels, including one used in the Space Shuttle, similar to a hard rubber eraser. A parent might ask, “What is the difference in fuels?” A really good question: gasoline is fine for getting around in a car, but it doesn’t have the “oomph” needed to escape the bonds of the Earth at about 25,000 miles per hour.

I drink from a bottle of water and say, “This rocket fuel tastes great!”. I ask for a show of hands and two believers raise theirs, hesitantly, agreeing that I’ve just drunk rocket fuel. “Don’t believe me?” I say. “Apply electric current to water (but do not try this at home!) and you can break off the hydrogen from the oxygen by a process called hydrolysis.” I clearly remember the day this experiment was run in my Van Nuys High School science class almost 50 years ago. 

Liquefied hydrogen is a fuel of choice for space exploration, along with liquid oxygen. If you are going to explore space, you need to bring an oxidizer with the fuel as there is neither above the boundary of space at the von Karman line (the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and space, estimated at from 50 to 62 miles above sea level by various agencies).

Orientation for the launch event at the George Dosa building at the RRS MTA, 2019-09-21

There is no doubt that these rocketeers with the CSP program will remember “launch day” for a long time. One student was so overcome, he told us this was the best thing that had happened in his life. These young students are at an age when some day in the future they might not only be able to buy a ticket for interplanetary trips with the stars beckoning, but make it happen. Pressing a red launch button is life changing. Part of it has to do with the spirit of flight, the satisfaction of teamwork and building something yourself, something comes to life the moment the red button is pushed.

The RRS encourages the sciences and engineering, but it doesn’t really matter what career path they choose. The students accomplish something amazing in our program. We are proud of the work we do with the community and LAPD and we will have more classes to come.

The students of Boyle Heights with the officers of LAPD CSP and the RRS pose for a group photo at the RRS MTA, 2019-09-21

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Hoffing is the Educational Outreach Coordinator for the Reaction Research Society (RRS.ORG), a 501(c)3 educational non-profit organization. He started flying rockets in junior high in the 1960’s. He is also a licensed rockets pyrotechnic operator in the state of California.

Contact Larry Hoffing at “events@rrs.org”

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