For the past 12 days, I spent my time in Houston, Texas, at the Rice Aerospace and Aviation Academy. It’s a program aimed at high schoolers with a keen interest in aerospace, aviation, and engineering.
Ironically, the program wasn’t actually located at Rice University due to COVID-19. Instead, it was hosted in a hotel in downtown Houston. The hotel was decent, despite not providing room service to camp attendees and serving some of the worst eggs I’ve ever had. However, it took a lot away from the overall “college” experience, since most of the time we were just traveling between rooms and floors across the hotel. Regardless, I still enjoyed all of the content that we worked through.
In total, there were about 100 kids who attended. To help decrease our contact with each other, we were divided into 4 groups, each with ~25 kids. Each group had an advisor that was majoring in related fields, such as aerospace engineering. They helped guide us through all of our activities during the program.
The entire time we were completely masked and regularly took COVID-19 tests.
Throughout the twelve days, we got through a lot of content and exploration, including:
- An atmospheric payload workshop
- A rocket challenge workshop
- A CAD workshop
- PAIRIN career planning
- A visit to Space Center Houston and the Kemah Boardwalk
- A visit to Rice University and the Lonestar Museum
- Keynotes from experts in the industry and an evening with experts
More information that summarizes the program can be found here.
Atmospheric Payload Workshop
The atmospheric payload workshop spanned across 5 days, where we worked on designing experiments and a payload to send up on a weather balloon. This weather balloon would travel up to an elevation of ~100,000 ft, which is basically the edge of space. This would let us test the effects of different atmospheric/near-space conditions on physical objects.
My group was divided into 4 teams. Each team designed 3–4 experiments to send up on a payload. Since there were 2 payload boxes per weather balloon, and 1 weather balloon per group, 2 teams had to work together when designing their payload box.
On the first day, we spent time researching the conditions in near-space, assigning roles (project manager, flight analyst, etc. ), forming a team name, and designing a mission patch.
For the next two days, we spent time buying materials and designing our experiments. Unfortunately, we were limited to solid, nonliving objects. My team experimented on silly putty, bubble wrap, and batteries. For the bubble wrap and batteries, we put equal amounts of each material inside a test tube that would go on the payload and a test tube that would stay on the ground.
For the silly putty, we put equal amounts inside two test tubes that would go on the payload — one would be inside the payload and one would be outside the payload. Then we put an equal amount inside a test tube that would stay on the ground.
We predicted that:
- The silly putty would become more brittle due to low temperatures
- The bubble wrap would pop due to decreased pressure
- The batteries would gain voltage due to decreased temperatures
After designing our experiments, we had to work with another team to design our payload box. The payload box was made of sturdy foam and was covered in foil (to increase visibility). We also had the option to add a camera, which we did.
There were a few factors that we had to take into account:
- We had to keep the weight of the payload under 2 lbs
- And we had to keep the payload balanced so that it didn’t interfere with the weather balloon’s path
Our final payload box had our experiments on one side and the camera embedded in the lid of the other side, which balanced out the box. It weighed about 1.7 lbs. To make sure everything was sturdy, we reinforced the box and test tubes with zip ties, gorilla glue, duct tape, and velcro straps.
While we were working on the experiments and payload, we also spent a few minutes predicting the path of our weather balloon each day. Using websites like predict.habhub.org and windy.com, we could analyze the predicted path of our weather balloon to make sure that it didn’t land in non-accessible areas, like lakes.
Before sending up our weather balloon, we also worked through some physics to see how the balloon would lift up our payloads. It wasn’t difficult, but it was interesting to see how physics could be applied to the workshop.
The day before the launch, the faculty demonstrated a test launch where the balloon remained near the ground so we could observe its components. Then on launch day, we drove out to a race car track far from the main city and let the balloons go.
The balloon traveled for ~1.5 hrs before reaching its peak elevation of 108,491 ft and popping. It landed on the side of the road, so it was retrieved easily.
Once we retrieved our payload boxes, we could take out our experiments to observe them. In short, our predictions about the silly putty and batteries were correct, while our prediction about the bubble wrap was a little off. The bubble wrap was deflated but didn’t pop. We had overestimated the pressure change that the bubble wrap would experience.
I thought this workshop was pretty cool since it’s not every day that you get to send up experiments to the edge of space. However, they’re really informal experiments with very few trials and little preparation/research. Most teams sent up arbitrary objects and hoped to see physical differences when they came back. I think that the workshop could’ve had better results if each group had done 1 or 2 experiments as a whole, allowing for more time to research and more trials.
Rocket Challenge Workshop
The rocket challenge workshop was fun and fairly straightforward. The goal was to create the highest-flying bottle rocket on a budget, although my team didn’t really aim for that and just played around with uniquely shaped components to see how that would affect the rocket.
The interesting part of this workshop was that we had to work on a hypothetical budget.
We were put into teams of 3 and given $1,000,000 hypothetical dollars to work with. You could go over budget, but that meant that you couldn’t use fuel (water) to launch your rocket — only compressed air.
We had a test launch and a final launch. By the end, we had spent around $980,000.
Our rocket followed a unique design, using elliptical fins and a rounded nosecone (similar to the Starship).
Our rocket was made using two bottles. One bottle served as the compression chamber, while the other formed the nose cone. The nose cone was stuffed with bubble wrap (which was free) to try to add extra mass and move the center of mass up.
The center of mass should be above the center of pressure for a stable rocket and can be tested through the swing test.
To create the rounded nosecone, we used a dome from a Monopoly game.
In the end, the rocket didn’t fly very high. We hypothesized that our fins were too large and that the elliptical shape may not have been the best, but we didn’t have another chance to test it. I enjoyed this workshop a lot since it was the first time I had built a bottle rocket. Similar to the first workshop, though, it was really informal. There wasn’t a lot of technical work — mainly just building rockets based on little research and/or previous experience.
CAD is a program used to make models for 3D printing. I’m not very familiar with 3D modeling and printing, so this workshop was intriguing to me. It was only about 2 hours, but we got to familiarize ourselves with the CAD program and create a simple rocket using a tutorial, although we weren’t able to print it.
PAIRIN Career Planning
PAIRIN is a website that surveys you to show you what your strongest and weakest career skills are, and even suggests future careers you may like. The survey essentially asks you if 300 different adjectives describe you or not. We took the survey at the program and discussed how to interpret our results afterward.
Unfortunately, this was probably the weakest part of the program, since our discussion on career planning was disorganized. I wasn’t able to take away a lot from the discussion, although I still found my test results interesting.
The results show where you are on a scale for different career-readiness skills. If the marker is in the yellow portion of the scale, then you have developed that skill to an ideal level. If you’re outside of that range, you have a gap in that skill.
As you can see, the survey gave me a lot of gaps for a lot of skills (the screenshot doesn’t even show all of them). Some of them I agree with, but others I feel like I have developed, such as flexibility & adaptability.
I’m still glad that I took this survey though, since it helped pinpoint a lot of my weaknesses that I agree are true. It will definitely be something I consider as I get older and develop my career path.
Space Center Houston & Kemah Boardwalk
Our visit to Space Center Houston and the Kemah Boardwalk was really fun.
If you didn’t know, Space Center Houston is a NASA center with a museum that visitors can explore. Inside, there are exhibits about the Apollo missions, Shuttle missions, ISS, Mars, and more. We also went on a shuttle tour, where we got to see Valkyrie the robot, a Falcon-9 first stage booster, a Saturn V rocket (1 of the only 3 left!), and engineers working on spacecraft for the Artemis missions.
Later on we visited the Kemah Boardwalk. It’s like a mini amusement park on the bay, so we just had fun eating food and going on rides.
Rice University & Lonestar Museum
Although the camp wasn’t hosted at Rice University, we still got the chance to visit the campus. It was self-guided, so we just walked around in small groups for a couple of hours.
The campus ended being really nice with lots of updated infrastructure. My group found ourselves in the Physics and Astronomy department by coincidence, looking for a cool building to chill in in the hot weather. It was really interesting walking around and seeing some teams work in some of the classrooms. It was like a sneak peek into what Ph.D. students do.
After visiting Rice University, we went to the Lonestar Museum, a flight museum housing many historically relevant aircraft. This was actually my favorite museum since it was really interactive.
We got to learn about subtopics of aviation through physical objects. We also got to do a mock check on a plane (similar to how aircraft are checked before they fly) and a flight simulation. I managed to lift and land my aircraft twice! Afterward, we walked around and explored the museum.
Keynotes & Evening With The Experts
My favorite parts of the program were the keynotes and the evening with experts. Throughout the 12 days, we got to listen to keynotes from experts in aerospace, aviation, and engineering about their work, careers, and topics they specialize in teaching. Each keynote was 1–2 hours long, with room for lots of questions at the end.
We listened to a lot of speakers, including:
- Dr. Leroy Chiao, a NASA astronaut that’s gone on four space missions and logged over 229 days in space
- Dr. Patrick Rodi, a Lockheed Martin Engineer and researcher in high-speed aerodynamics, artificial intelligence, and numerical grid generation
- Dr. David Alexander, a professor at Rice University that primarily studies the solar corona
- Debbie Gary, a professional air show pilot
- Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj, a planetary and geoscientist, as well as a certified National Geographic educator and polar field guide
I loved listening to their keynotes because they were so enthusiastic about what they were presenting and were all really accomplished and had rich careers. They were also willing to answer as many questions as they could, often going overtime just to get to everyone. They were incredibly inspirational.
Our evening with the experts was similar to speed dating. We were put in groups of 8–10 and each group sat at a table with an expert. Then we could have a few minutes to talk to the expert and ask them questions. There were 8 experts — 1 Rice University professor, 4 NASA engineers, 1 NASA flight surgeon, 1 pilot, and 1 engineer/entrepreneur.
We had very little time to talk to the experts, considering there were ~8 of us in a group with 1 expert and only about 10 minutes to talk, but it was still one of my most enjoyable experiences at the program. These were my key takeaways:
- A deep passion for what you do will go far
- The best skills you can work on for almost any future career are interpersonal skills
- For learning hard, technical topics, become very familiar with the fundamentals
- Aim (your goals) high — high enough that it's out of reach but not out of vision
The community that we formed was probably one of the best communities I’ve been a part of — particularly in my group, which had 22 people. Everyone was really friendly and inclusive. Even for someone like me, who tends to space myself from people, I still felt like I was a part of everything.
Even though it was only for a few days, I loved some of the friends I made. The community brought together the entire experience and made the program that much more memorable.
I would recommend this program, but only to high schoolers with an interest in specifically aerospace and aviation (not only engineering). I think that without these interests, the program is pretty boring and dull. The program is also really expensive, rounding to about $5k (not including travel expenses), so I highly recommend applying for the scholarships if you can.
Overall, this was one of the best summer experiences I’ve had so far (and I’ve been to a lot of summer programs). Being able to talk to so many experts in the industry was amazing. Despite the workshops being rather informal, they were still fun and unique. Also having the chance to visit local industry centers was fun. And, all in all, having such a great community and good friends around me made the program really enjoyable.