LAME DEER – At 33, Royalle Chavez is as fascinated by space now as she once was as a child.

Sitting around a table strewn with gadgets, parachutes and other rocketry equipment at Chief Dull Knife College, she recalled her dreams of being an astronaut, of exploring worlds beyond the Blackfeet reservation where she grew up and the Northern Cheyenne reservation where she just completed her two-year college degree. The notion of life on other planets, in faraway galaxies, excites her.

“It’s ignorant to think there aren’t other species out there,” she said.

Lame Deer may not be the place to study astrophysics, but Chavez’s imagination was rekindled this spring when she joined the tribal college’s upstart team of rocket builders – its newest experiment in bringing science experiences to students on the reservation.

The experiment took off. In a few months, members of the rocket team went from fiddling with pop bottles to assembling and launching dual deployment, high-powered rockets a mile up. The apogee came this spring, when they competed in a NASA-sponsored launch competition with other tribal colleges and American Indian students from universities around the country.

This month came the announcement that sent them over the moon: They’d won.

“I couldn’t even sleep,” the team’s adviser, math instructor Jim Bertin, said. “I was just so jazzed.”

College life

Chief Dull Knife College is small, with one main building that can serve up to 300 students. It operates as a tribally-run community college that serves primarily Native students on the reservation. A couple dozen graduate each year.

Students on the rocket team reflect the diverse backgrounds and aspirations of students at the college. Chavez enrolled in 2013 when “reality hit” after years of sputtering starts at other universities. Scott Shoulderblade, 19, is taking business courses. George Nightwalker Jr., 27, is trying to turn his life around while “rolling with the punches.” Abe Salois, 31, has held a previous NASA internship in California; he plans to study physics at Montana State University next year.

Other teammates include Danielle Freemont, Richard Bearquiver and Jade Three Fingers, who is attending MSU through the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program for tribal college students.

All are part of a long-standing science internship program offered through the school that gives students hands-on laboratory and field work. Over the summer, it doubles as a full-time job with decent pay.

Their projects go beyond the curricula for two-year degrees, which emphasize general education coursework. In particular, it provides important exposure to scientific enterprises that are otherwise out of reach in isolated reservation communities, said Jeff Hooker, the college’s chief information officer who has helped coordinate federal grants for the program.

The internships show that science “is not some ethereal, far-off, white-man driven enterprise,” Hooker said. “It can be in your community.”

As the program has evolved, students now test for West Nile virus, take water samples on the Tongue River and learn about alternative energy. Rocket building is the latest addition.

The project is structured around the annual First Nations Launch competition held at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Open to tribal colleges and student chapters of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the contests require teams to build and launch rockets, note how high they’ll fly and then retrieve them.

Bertin took a group of students to view the competition last year, and seeing the other teams’ rockets “fired a bug” to get a Dull Knife team together.

“I realized this is something I can really dig into,” he said.

The contest

The rocket team built two devices this spring. The first, for the tribal college contest, used a single motor and included a “payload” that could take environmental measurements that could help study climate change while in the air.

Most of the teams who entered the tribal college contest stuffed their rockets with temperature sensors, but the students from Chief Dull Knife College opted for a more sophisticated array that could study how atmospheric conditions in Lame Deer might be affected by the nearby coal plant in Colstrip. Their rocket’s four sensors measured carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ozone and coal gas, Salois said.

The second was a cluster rocket designed with three motors, two of which were configured to ignite once the rocket was in the air. Students built the cluster rocket from scratch.

Construction was a whirlwind as students sought to learn the physics of rockets at the same time they assembled them. They then used computer software to estimate the rockets’ trajectory come launch day, Bertin said. And students put together presentations about their design with the help of Kate Bertin, an instructor in communication arts and co-adviser to the team.

Just watching the rockets launch into the sky was a “proud moment” for Chavez, whose participation on the team was wedged between the 22 credits she was taking to finish her degree.

“Everything went off just the way it was supposed to,” she said.

The single-motor rocket launched nearly 7,400 feet before its parachute deployed, and it floated gently back down. The rocket landed in a lake, however, forcing Nightwalker to make an aquatic rescue.

The swim was worth it: The rocket took first place among tribal colleges.

The team’s cluster rocket rose 5,500 feet and also landed safely. It garnered a third-place award, behind teams from Colorado School of Mines and Leech Lake Tribal College from Minnesota.

A total of 19 teams from around the country competed in the event.

For their strong showing, the team recently learned that they’ll be invited for a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida later this summer. It’s the same place Jim Bertin was first invited to consider pulling together a team for First Nations Launch.

Chavez called the upcoming trip a “bucket list” item. And it will be a nice vacation before she continues her studies at Montana State University-Billings.

“I literally want to cry about going,” she said.

For Nightwalker, who isn’t finished with his studies yet, the project has thrown into relief how enrolling in school has steered his life in a new direction.

“Something changed one day, and now I’m building rockets,” he said.

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