BUCKFIELD — Students  at Buckfield Junior-Senior High School have entered the space race.

They intend to launch a $1 million three-stage rocket, equipped with the world’s first lunar micro rover in its nose cone, to the moon by 2016.

“When kids are smart, passionate, responsible, hard-working and inspirational, who knows what’s possible?” said teacher Gretchen Kimball, who supervised the after-school rocket club last year.

The idea to construct and launch the micro rover on a 96-foot, three-stage rocket, similar to the Saturn V that launched Apollo mission capsules to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was the brainchild of eighth-grade student Christopher Martin, who decided a seemingly impossible feat could, in fact, be accomplished.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” said Martin, 13, who founded the Buckfield Aeronautical Exploration Association, an offshoot of last year’s after-school rocket club.

With the help of Nathan Cyr, a 12-year-old seventh-grade student, they campaigned to gather all the talent they could find from the middle school to form the association. The club is part of the Western Foothills Kids Association after-school program supervised by Tina Hicks.

Using a video presentation, Martin and Cyr went to each science classroom, trying to capture the imagination of other young, would-be engineers and astronauts. More than half a dozen students met Jan. 27 to begin Project Lunar, a mission to launch the world’s first micro rover to the moon.

The first step was to see if they could legally launch a rocket and land it on the moon.

The students contacted NASA, but got no response.

A follow-up call by the Sun Journal didn’t fare much better.

“NASA doesn’t own the moon,” Beth Dickey, a media contact at NASA, told the Sun Journal.

The moon is apparently there for anyone who can reach it.

The United Nations 1967 publication “Outer Space Treaty” states space is the “province of all mankind,” and is not subject to claims on sovereignty by states. The international Moon Treaty, finalized in 1979 and enacted in 1984, forbids private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate.

Undeterred by a disappointing initial response to one question from NASA, Martin has now contacted the head of materials and components at NASA to get some help with technical questions and perhaps locate another sponsor for the project.

Money, materials, land, investors, sponsors … the list goes on and on, but the students are confident they can not only raise the money, but construct, propel and land the rocket on the moon.

The project costs have soared from an initial $100,000 estimate to about $1 million.

The students know it’s a high price tag, but they have already gotten sponsors, such as Amanda’s Trademark Salon and Spa in Oxford, and are brainstorming ways to raise more money, such as a school chili fest.

Wyatt Lewis, who is acting as the public relations/fundraising person, said he is going to contact the California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. for a sponsorship. SpaceX is a startup rocket-maker headed by billionaire Elon Musk. The company designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft.

It’s a long shot, but the students say they are confident they can raise the money.

“Hopefully, we can make that number go down, too,” Nathan Cyr said.

The students are also looking for land to construct a building in which to build the rocket. The rocket will have liquid-fuel cryogenic rocket engines, the same type used on NASA’s Saturn IB and Saturn V launch vehicles.

Students will construct the micro rover, LUNAR Voyager 1, using an aluminum/steel alloy and fiberglass. It’ll be housed in the nose cone of the rocket, Martin said. Once on the moon, it will take pictures and live video footage through radio frequencies.

Test launches

Martin has spent years developing model rockets, and he and fellow students have learned from each launch what works — and what doesn’t.

The students have had successes and failures, but they have learned lessons from each experiment, such as how proper weight ratio keeps a rocket heading straight upward and what happens when sparklers are added to a rocket for effect.

“The kids launched all kinds of things,” Kimball said. “Even those that didn’t always go well.” 

Last year, the entire seventh-grade class watched one of the launches.

“The boys launched several rockets out by the (school) garden while the other students looked on from the outdoor classroom about 75 feet away,” Kimball said. “Anyhow, one rocket went astray, bounced several times in the garden and finally hopped across the road. We went over to check on it, and lo and behold, we had a grass fire.”

Using shovels and hoses, Kimball, Martin and student Brady Turcotte had most of the fire out by the time the Fire Department arrived. A man who students said happened to be driving by assisted by providing some water.

“… Needless to say, it was very exciting and provided a learning experience for all of us,” Kimball said.

Student development of rockets is not unique to the Buckfield middle school. The Honeywell Technology Solutions sponsors high school students at its U.S. Space and Rocket Center on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) scholarships to build and test their rockets. The students have access to items such as the Apollo 16 capsule and a Saturn V rocket, as well as top scientists, engineers and astronauts.

Other companies offer prize money, such as the Google Lunar XPrize, which grants $40 million for teams of college-age students around the world to land a private vehicle on the moon.

So why not Buckfield Junior High School students?

While the Buckfield students may lack the financing and technology, they don’t lack the enthusiasm and support of their teachers and administrators.

“Of course we attempt to keep the kids safe, provide a voice of reason and practicality — but rarely do we hold a kid back who has a passion like Chris does,”  Kimball said.

School officials said they are pleased with the students’ enthusiasm to tackle the  challenge of building a rocket bigger than the school.

“They may not always achieve their original goals, but the learning that happens during the pursuit is incredibly powerful,” Kimball said.

Donations of money or materials can be made by calling the school at (207) 336-2151 and asking for Tina Hicks.

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