Two Olathe North High School graduates spend their summer doing actual rocket science — at NASA.
Eighteen-year-olds Miles McKaig and David Lie-Tjauw, both of Olathe, were part of a group of 20 college freshmen and sophomores in the four-week Launching to Learn program at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
“It was something so utterly spectacular and unique that it exceeded my expectations” Lie-Tjauw said. “I thought we would sit down and learn about the math and physics … and go home.”
NASA engineers taught them about everything from different types of calculations to the Columbia shuttle disaster. Although some of the program featured classroom-style lectures, much of it was a hands-on experience.
“It was very different from a traditional classroom,” McKaig said “It felt more like working with a group of people than it felt like going to a class.”
Participants, who were selected after filling out an application explaining why they wanted to learn about rocket science, worked in teams to build two different kinds of rockets —and these were not the bottle rockets you might set off in your backyard. The first-level rockets were about four feet tall, and the second-level ones were closer to ten feet.
The power behind these rockets could send them nearly a mile into the air, so far up that the program had to alert the Federal Aviation Administration when they were launching them.
“The most exciting part was the calculations we had to do for rocket stability,” Lie-Tjauw said. “We would have to derive these physics equations, and then we had to measure our rocket. We would predict what would be the maximum altitude, the burnout velocity and what would the maximum acceleration would be.”
Besides building rockets, the participants also toured NASA’s facilities that normal visitors don’t get to see. They talk with numerous NASA engineers, former astronauts and other personnel to network and get a better idea of what career paths they might take.
“It really solidified my current stance on why I want to pursue engineering. As cliché as it may seem, I really do want to change the world. I really want to improve people’s lives,” Lie-Tjauw said. “It’s broadened my perspective.”
At Olathe North, both teens participated in the Distinguished Scholars program with a focus in math. McKaig likes to design theoretical spacecraft in his spare time. Lie-Tjauw enjoys creating his own open source hardware that he used on his team’s rocket and has used in soil sensor research.
“What surprised me most was the variety of people who were all there,” McKaig said. “Going in, I expected a type A atmosphere… but I was pleasantly surprised to see people ranging from the very focused… to people saying I’m not sure (if I want this)” as a career.
McKaig is studying aerospace engineering and math at the University of Illinois this fall, and his former classmate is attending Washington University in St. Louis to major in computer science and electrical engineering.
Both college freshmen said they’re interested in interning with NASA again and are thinking of careers in the aerospace field when they graduate from college.