Instructor Brian Hastings, left, and a student look at photos from a NASA Student Launch Project event during a meeting at Spring Groves Rocket Scientist
Instructor Brian Hastings, left, and a student look at photos from a NASA Student Launch Project event during a meeting at Spring Groves Rocket Scientist Club. (Bill Kalina photo)

Eleven Spring Grove Area High School students earned the right to do something so cool this year that it's kind of hard to grasp the magnitude of it.

"It's not every day you get to say you're working with NASA," freshman David Williams said.

But that's exactly what happened.

Spring Grove has been selected to take part in NASA's Student Launch Initiative, a nationwide event in April for some of the best rocket science academic programs in the country.

The school qualified after placing among the top schools in last year's Team America Rocketry Challenge. And then they had to write a 40-page application explaining why they should be selected.

The Student Launch Initiative calls for middle and high schools "to design, build and launch a reusable rocket with a scientific or engineering payload to one mile above ground level," according to NASA.

David helped think of attaching a solar panel as the rocket's payload so Spring Grove students could track the panel's effectiveness at producing current as it makes its mile-high descent.

Lots of work ahead: By getting selected, the Spring Grove team, along with advisers Brian Hastings and Renee Eaton, get to travel to Huntsville, Ala., in the spring to launch their project. In the meantime, they will hold video chats with NASA engineers to get guidance.

Team members include Laura Ohl, Jordan Stine, David Williams, Abert Taglieri, Wyatt Nace, Melissa Staley, Kyle Abrahims, Mike Abata, Veer Pandya, Matt Sheehan and Chad Zirkle.With NASA involved, everything must be exactly according to specifications, Hastings said. The team, which is doing this before and after school and during any other free moment, will have to prove in February their 10-foot or so rocket works, he said, in order to go to Alabama April 17-22. They also need to periodically submit technical plans for NASA's review.

Hastings is confident, though; his students have regularly performed well in national rocket competitions. And Spring Grove was the only Pennsylvania high school selected to participate this year.

"You're looking at a very select few," Hastings said.

Visiting NASA: All of the students get to attend workshops with NASA scientists and engineers and tour research and development facilities.

Ohl, a senior and one of the project leaders, said she's excited to work with NASA and get the professional experience.

Ohl also joked that when her team was considering a biology-related angle for their payload, "we couldn't shoot worms into the sky," and so they settled on testing solar panels.

The team had their first video conference with NASA on Thursday as part of an initial discussion of their plans.

"We're pretty clear on what we need to do now," said senior Jordan Stine.

Fundraising is already under way in earnest, Eaton said. Corporate sponsors as well as alumni donations are being sought to help cover the estimated $11,500 cost to drive to Alabama with about a dozen people.

Flying isn't an option, the advisers said.

They are taking along a rocket, after all.

-- Reach Andrew Shaw at