A dozen blind students from across the United States are at a summer camp this week working on a project most don't associate with the visually impaired — launching a NASA rocket.
The students are designing and preparing the rocket's payload at the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute in Baltimore. On Thursday, they will launch their rocket from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
The camp is part of an effort to encourage the blind to become involved in the sciences and to develop alternative methods to teach the estimated 100,000 blind and visually impaired students in the United States.
For example, on Tuesday the students will also operate a telescope outfitted with a device that makes printouts with raised features that can be felt, said Mark Riccobono, manager of education programs for the NFB's Jernigan Institute.
"Astronomy isn't thought of as something blind people can do, but the images, stars in space for example, are typically high contrast so making them into a tactile format is fairly simple," Riccobono said.
"Part of what we're trying to reinforce here is if they can imagine it, they can do whatever they want in science. They are not limited by what society thinks."
Students applied for the camp and were chosen based on their grades, skills, written essays and other criteria, Riccobono said.
At the camp, they have been split into three teams that will be responsible for the rocket's trajectory, payload and launch operations.
"We're responsible for the launch, and what happens happens. If we mess it up, it's our fault," said camp participant Hoby Wedler, 17, of Petaluma, Calif.
The payload consists of sensors that will measure light, temperature, pressure and speed. The data from the sensors will be transmitted back during flight to the ground, where it will be analyzed by the students.
The teaching process at the camp is tailored to the blind, using models and teaching tools students can hold and examine with their hands.
A bicycle pump, for example, was used to fill an empty two-liter soda bottle with air, allowing the students to feel and hear how escaping gas powers a rocket. On real rockets, fuel is needed to create the escaping gas, Phil Eberspeaker, chief of the sounding rockets program at Wallops Island, told the students during class Monday.
"What happens when I convert a solid or a liquid to a gas?," Eberspeaker asked.
"It expands?" one student answered.
"That's right. Newton says when gas moves in one direction, the rocket moves in another," Eberspeaker told the students.
Wooden dowels, meanwhile, were handed out Monday to the students, who balanced them on their fingers to find the center of gravity. A nail was then taped to the end, and they found the new center of gravity — a demonstration of how the motors and payload change the center of gravity of a rocket.
There is currently no single source for such materials in the U.S. and NFB officials hope the educational skills developed during the camp will also become part of a clearinghouse of adaptive educational resources for teachers.
"This is a good way to expose students and their parents and the public to the fact that there's no boundary, it's all in your head, there's nothing stopping them," Eberspeaker said later.
"All it takes is your brain and creativity."
Wedler said he has always been interested in science and decided to go the camp because he wanted to see "what these people who have been doing this all their lives have to say."
"This is something I feel I can do, but this is such a visual world and I've thought is it worth it? I'm starting to think it is worth it."