The coolest experiment most of us ever conducted during high school science class involved pouring vinegar onto baking soda to make a papier-mâché volcano erupt. Irlanda Incer is a little more ambitious. The junior at Eaglecrest High School in Centennial spent a recent Monday morning engineering a rover that (fingers crossed) will ride a rocket dubbed Future Heavy to 10,000 feet before being ejected and carried back down to Earth by a drone. Once on the ground, the machine will spin around on miniature wheels, wave a flag, and flash LED lights—the rover equivalent of a touchdown dance. “We have to make the whole thing from scratch—the chassis, the programming—and it has to be less than one pound,” says 17-year-old Incer. “It’s been pretty tough.”
Incer is part of a five-student squad contributing to Future Heavy, which will become the largest hobby rocket ever launched when its 10 engines ignite on July 24 at Fort Carson, outside of Colorado Springs. Standing 50 feet tall and weighing 1,300 pounds, Future Heavy is the offspring of a seven-year-old program created by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Ball Aerospace—local companies that build spacecraft for NASA—to encourage students to geek out over STEM. College interns at ULA began building the actual rocket four years ago while Colorado students from kindergarten through high school dreamed up 16 of its 17 payloads. Most of these are experiments designed to measure things such as wind resistance and acceleration or—as with the Eaglecrest rover—just to show off. All told, 300-plus engineers, interns, and students will help Future Heavy boldly go where no sport rocket has gone before.
And if making a rover dance doesn’t get you excited about STEM, the thrill of the launch surely will. (The launch is public, but there’s a limit on the number of people who can attend. Head to ulalaunch.com for details.) “A lot of smoke and flame,” says Greg Arend, one of ULA’s managers. “It’s going to be loud.” Which is something that even the most active papier-mâché volcano can’t match.