Mt Pleasant News

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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 18, 2018

Josh Larson follows in the footsteps of ‘father of space science’ James Van Allen

MP native goes to Norway, becomes one of first U.S. citizens to participate in rocket launch program
By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News | Mar 14, 2018
Mt. Pleasant native Josh Larson, left, and Hannah Gulick, both students at the University of Iowa, traveled to Norway in February to participate in the Canada-Norway Student Sounding Rocket exchange program that was opened to University of Iowa students for the first time this year.

University of Iowa senior Josh Larson was fiddling with his phone trying to get it to record as the countdown to launch the rocket he helped design commenced.

Before he knew it, the rocket had taken off and what he had worked on tirelessly for four days had reached its natural conclusion.

“Everything built up to it, and it was like, ‘oh man, that was it,’” Larson said.

Graduate of Mt. Pleasant Community High School (MPCHS) class of 2014, Larson was the first of two students in the U.S. to be invited to the Canada-Norway Student Sounding Rocket (CaNoRock) exchange program.

Larson almost missed the opportunity to travel to Norway to be a part of the CaNoRock program, finding out about the application the day before it was due when one of his professors asked him if he had applied.

“He said I would be one of the ideal candidates,” Larson said. “I said, ‘Well, it looks like I’m putting together an application tonight.’”

Four students were interviewed by faculty members, who then selected the two students who they thought would best represent the university. Larson, of course, was chosen, along with University of Iowa sophomore Hannah Gulick, from Spirit Lake.

Assistant professor in the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of Iowa, David Miles brought the CaNoRock opportunity to the university after joining the faculty this past fall. Miles was a pilot student in the program as a graduate student in 2009 and had been involved in sending students to the program at the previous institution he taught at in Canada.

Although this was a pilot year for the program at the University of Iowa, Miles is seeking national funding to help turn it into a yearly opportunity for students interested in working in the space industry.

Miles finds it especially important to encourage University of Iowa students in their studies of space because James Van Allen, who is known as one of the fathers of space science, was instrumental in launching the space program.

For Larson, the fact that Van Allen was also from Mt. Pleasant has always been a “funny tidbit” in his pursuit of space science.

“It’s very exciting to watch students at this institution get excited about working in space and realize this is something they can do and walk in the steps of James Van Allen,” Miles said.

The students left Friday, Jan. 19, taking five planes to get to Andenes, Norway. Having never traveled internationally before, Larson said he thinks they lucked out for the most part with a trouble-free flight.

Outside of his regular classes, Larson didn’t have much preparation before the trip, with professors advising him to go into the program with an open mind.

Their first day was a whirlwind. Arriving late in the evening, the two University of Iowa students were joined by 17 other students from Canada and Norway. By midafternoon the second day, they had broken up into five lab groups, each designated with a specific task that would contribute to the culmination of the week — the rocket launch.

Program leaders suggested students choose a group they were unfamiliar with to get the most out of the class. Larson chose rocket physics. “I was interested in learning about the physics that dictate rocket flight and how the rocket changes the environment it’s flying through,” Larson explained.

A campaign to build a sounding rocket, which goes just to the edge of space, would take 10 to 15 years, Larson said. CaNoRock breaks down launching a rocket into four and a half days, so while the rocket the students built “didn’t do too much scientifically,” it gave them the experience of a NASA mission, Larson said.

The CaNoRock team started with a prefabricated rocket body and analyzed it to see how different aspects would affect its flight. Each team had a different part of this, with one building sensors and putting them inside the rocket body and the other in charge of communicating with the rocket when it was in flight to see what those sensors were saying.

Sounding rockets help scientists build a better understanding of space weather. Larson said that as our society moves toward digital systems, space weather events can disrupt electronics, which could be catastrophic today.

Aside from working in their lab groups, the students attended lectures and group demonstrations to prepare for the rocket launch and get a feel for what a being on a real satellite mission team would be like.

Far away from home, Larson found a piece of Mt. Pleasant all the way in Norway when he came across a book, “Scientific results from Andoya Rocket Range,” with a forward by James Van Allen.

“He’s known as one of the fathers of space science,” Larson said. “I’ve been super interested in space science and I graduated from high school in the town he’s from.”

Pat White, board member of Henry County Heritage Trust, said that while Van Allen is a huge topic in Mt. Pleasant, it’s difficult to relate to his accomplishments and just how important he is.

“I’m really a believer that James Van Allen is better known worldwide than he is locally,” White said. “This is where he was born and raised. For us at the [Henry County Heritage Trust] Museum, we’re trying to highlight the Van Allen family as pioneers of Mt. Pleasant.”

“The University of Iowa, through James Van Allen, has been in the space industry for as long as it has existed,” Miles said, adding that both University of Iowa students did very well in the CaNoRock program.

While the CaNoRock’s rocket launch in January wasn’t quite as dramatic as the bigger rocket launches, which Larson said can apparently shake buildings, it was certainly very loud.

Miles said that through students’ participation in CaNoRock, he hopes they can see this is an achievable field of study. “One of the hopes of programs like this is making the point to students that space is a career they can enter and they can contribute to.”

“I think [Larson and Gulick] will both do very well in the future,” Miles added.

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