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Relaxation and rockets before Carthage’s big day with NASA

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HOUSTON — After a productive first day at NASA's Ellington Field, members of the Carthage College Microgravity Team spent the weekend taking in some of the sights at Johnson Space Center.

The team visited Space Center Houston and Rocket Park, home to one of the last remaining Saturn V rockets from the Apollo program.

This 363-foot rocket lies on its side inside a shelter in Rocket Park, all of its stages separated to allow visitors to take in the enormity of the engines that sent astronauts to the moon.

"It's awe-inspiring," said Amber Bakkum, a senior from Winthrop Harbor, Ill.

"The students were able to touch the history of the space program," said Carthage physics professor Kevin Crosby, faculty adviser for the team.

"It's important to not just read about the history of manned spaceflight in this country, but to be able to take in the scale and scope, and touch the relics. It connects the students and their own engineering project to the grand engineering challenges of putting people into space."

Saturn V expert

At Rocket Park all of the team members, including Crosby, deferred to resident Saturn V expert Steven Mathe, a junior from Wauconda, Ill. Mathe became passionate about the space program after a fourth-grade project on the Apollo missions. He led his teammates on a guided tour of every stage of Saturn V. (See his tour at

"The Saturn V is the rocket we used for all of the manned moon landings," Mathe said. "It's the most powerful, purely liquid-filled rocket ever flown successfully. It's 363 feet tall, and develops 7½ million pounds of thrust at liftoff."

Used in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Saturn V launched Skylab and all manned moon missions of the Apollo program.

"There are three remaining Saturn V’s in existence, and this is the only one that's constructed completely of flight-intended stages," Mathe continued.

The equipment was built for use on four separate missions including Apollo 18.

"All of the stages we saw today were meant for flight," he said.

Historic rockets

Rocket Park includes Little Joe II, a rocket used for unmanned Apollo test flights from 1963 to 1966, and Mercury Redstone, a one-man spacecraft-booster combination used for the earliest sub-orbital flights.

The Mercury Redstone is the rocket that propelled the first two American astronauts, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, into space in May and July of 1961.

"It's the first rocket of the United States manned spaceflight program," Mathe said. "It has real historical significance."

The students also saw the Orbiter Access Arm and White Room from Launch Pad 39B.

For more than two decades, astronauts suited up in this White Room before walking down the arm to get into the space shuttle.

First used in January 1986 before the Challenger disaster, the arm was moved to Rocket Park when NASA's Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.

For Mathe, Saturn V is still "my all-time favorite rocket," he said. "Seeing the rocket that made it all happen is just really cool for me."

Coming next

On Monday, the Carthage Microgravity Team faces its biggest test yet: the Test Readiness Review, or TRR. Carthage team members must prove to NASA's flight safety officers that their experiment, a zero-gravity fuel gauge, is safe to fly.

Once the team passes the TRR, team fliers — those students who will fly on G-Force One — will receive their official NASA flight suits.

Follow the team

The Carthage Microgravity Team is in Houston this week to conduct research for NASA aboard a zero-gravity aircraft.

The team is one of nine college teams nationwide participating in NASA’s Systems Engineering Educational Discovery program. The Carthage students have designed and built a zero-gravity fuel gauge that may change how propellant volume is measured in space.

On Wednesday, they will test their experiment aboard G-Force One, a plane that flies a series of parabolas to create periods of weightlessness. Follow the trip online at, or

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