More than 50 years after T.W. Josey High School students formed a club to experiment with rockets and science at the height of the space race, a new group of curious minds are following in their footsteps.
Rivers Baldridge Jr., a retired Air Force major, recruited about 30 students this year to form a rocket club at Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School, partially inspired by the club educator Rosa T. Beard sponsored at Josey in 1964.
His motive was to get students interested in science and technology and build critical-thinking skills by handcrafting rockets from cardboard and plastic – much like Beard’s intentions for her Rocket Club boys.
“This allows for creativity, it makes them think,” said Baldridge, who volunteers his time to advise the club every Wednesday morning before school. “There’s no precise model on how to make your rocket. You’re using a paper towel roll, you’re using a Pringles can, so you have to think.”
Baldridge teaches a form of rocketry known as non-kit, which means the rockets are all handmade, except for the store-bought factory motor required for safety. Students are challenged to use recycled materials, none of the expensive stuff. Most of the materials are bought by Baldridge, except for the cereal boxes or toilet paper rolls they might bring from home.
They meet every Wednesday at 7 a.m. to construct and spray-paint their rockets, preparing for an eventual trip to Diamond Lakes to launch their creations.
The group had their first launch date set for Jan. 29, but had to cancel when Augusta’s snowstorm made flight conditions less than ideal.
“Just like at Cape Canaveral, weather gets in the way,” Baldridge said.
When they’re not constructing rockets, the club is talking history – they learn about Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel in space; Neil Armstrong’s moon landing; and of course, the Josey Rocket Club.
“I didn’t know anything about rockets before, really, but you hear about all these people who did all these things and I just think, like, maybe I can be one of them one day,” said RuJean Verdree, 15.
Baldridge also provides a flight simulator for students, where they sit in a handcrafted pilot seat (made from recycled fiber board) and steer a plane on a projector screen with a joystick. The simulator teaches about flight instruments such as an altimeter and speed indicator; and it introduces students to pitch and stall speed.
Students also learn about weight, thrust and drag – the same principles applied to their rockets – by creating paper airplanes that they construct and then test in the TCM gymnasium.
“I’m creative, and I like to be creative, so this is fun for me,” said Nyeah Sanchell, 15. “It teaches you patience. You can’t rush things with the rocket, like gluing the fins and things like that.”
Joseph Hobbs, an original member of the Josey Rocket Club and chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Georgia Regents University, said he was excited to hear a rocket club has been revived in Richmond County schools.
“It’s very nice to know that kids are still turned on by technology that probably has little to do with hand-held smart devices,” Hobbs said. “For us, it was a very important way for us to facilitate our interest in science. I think now most of us in the sciences are very concerned that our science and math interests of our young people are quite frankly fading.”
Hobbs and a small group of other black students experimented with rockets while at A.R. Johnson Junior High, but the Rocket Club was formed in 1964 after they moved to Josey and Beard was recruited as their adviser.
It was in the Sputnik era, when Americans were racing to get ahead of the Soviets in spaceflight.
Hobbs said the students were hooked on the ideas of science, biology and rocketry, and launched handmade rockets in the back of Josey and A.R. Johnson with the entire student body sometimes looking on.
They worked with the Medical College of Georgia to put mice in the nose of some of the rockets to test the effects of acceleration. In their senior year, the club won an award from the U.S. Patent Office for the most innovative project in biology while competing at the International Fair.
It all happened at a dark time in society, when segregation was rampant and opportunities for blacks were still out of reach.
“We had the good fortune of having teachers that were good science role models for us, even though there may not have been role models outside of the school system for that,” Hobbs said. “Ms. Beard made us feel like we could do anything. All we had to do was put our minds to it. That was instruction that superseded the club itself. It was instruction about life.”
Those teachings paid off: of the roughly 15 original Rocket Club members, alumni include a physician, a theoretical physicist, a lawyer and a judge. Some went into the ministry and almost all went to college.
Baldridge said he hopes to instill the same drive in his students.
With a little practice, the goal is to compete in the National Association of Rocketry’s Team American Rocket Challenge, a student competition aimed at attracting young people into engineering and technology fields.
“A lot goes into making a rocket,” said Jason Carter, 16. “It’s going to be worthwhile to see it up in the air.”