Building a Rocket in the Basement — Johns Hopkins Style

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It wouldn’t shock us to hear that the Johns Hopkins students who’ve teamed up to design, build, and launch the Far-ultraviolet Off Rowland-circle Telescope for Imaging and Spectroscopy (FORTIS) — a nifty $3.2 million NASA rocket, for those of you who aren’t astrophysicists — started out launching rockets in their backyards. And now they’re on a quest to answer questions about the origins of the universe. Not a bad trajectory.
Hopkins students have been involved in all parts of the FORTIS project, from designing and building the thing to testing it and planning its launch. (The great blast-off is scheduled for later this fall, and will take place at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range.) “This is the kind of training and experience that I really don’t think is available, at least in this way, anywhere else that I know of,” Hopkins astrophysicist Stephan McCandliss told the Johns Hopkins Gazette. “When you are part of a team that builds these instruments, you learn by doing, by getting your hands dirty.”

Consider the case of Brian Fleming, a grad student who’s been involved with the project since its inception six years ago. “I started off in the sounding rocket program at Johns Hopkins as an excellent screw driver fetcher and heavy thing lifter, and now I am in my sixth year and basically doing everything and have a great sense of ownership over the project,” he says.  “The greatest thing for me about the sounding rocket program is that I am allowed to do everything. If I worked on a big satellite project, I would be [assigned] to an unimportant calibration off in a dark room somewhere because if I touched anything important, I would certainly break it. Here at Johns Hopkins, I can get my grubby little fingers into everything. I think it’s been the best learning experience for what I want to do that I could possibly have had.”

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