Natalia's November Launch Certification Story

Read about Natalia's experience certifying Level One in November of 2022.


Natalia Stefanowski

11/12/20224 min read

This high-powered launch continued the tradition of my launches being anything but ordinary. The first indication was the way the clouds changed once we got upstate, getting darker... darker... until the first few drops of rain hit the windshield. We arrived to see the people at METRA packing up launch equipment in the on-and-off rain. We refused to believe that we wouldn't have come all the way out there to not even attempt a launch, so we were given the following news...

Due to the weather conditions at the field, we had to get our rockets set up in 30 minutes and had about a 20 minute launch window!

They left two launchpads out for us and would only break out the launch wiring/equipment for a very brief moment. We scrambled to set up our equipment and tent, and all three rockets where being prepped for launch at the same time, chaos! I had to put together my rocket components, assemble and pack my recovery system, set the delay charge, and load the motor in the very short time window we were given, all while ignoring the passing showers and the gusts of wind.

Due to all that chaos, I nearly lost a rivet to the wind, almost messed up grinding down my delay charge, and had to work against the clock to ensure that my rocket was fully ready and equipped to not just launch but also CERTIFY.

Me and Sumit ran out to the launchpads first. Thankfully, one of the people from METRA helped me set my launch rail very quickly. I checked that the igniter was in, attached the wires to the circut, took a quick picture (and promised Himalayan Salt Lamp that it WILL see me again) and ran out.

Sumit's rocket shot up first! The recovery system deployed, and the rocket floated to the field nearby. Close rocket recovery is always a relief! That was the first high powered rocket launch I got to see live, my heart was racing. I anxiously waited for my rocket to go up next.
3...2...1.... ignition pop, no burn.
…oh no. I thought.

I ran out to the field with a new igniter, loaded it into my rocket on the launch rail, and triple checked that it was up all the way (to avoid ignition failure again). The only other person that was launching a High-Powered rocket that day (a girl named Jess from Columbia U) was setting up on the pad next to me, also preparing for her cert. We hurried back to where the launch equipment was.

This time my rocket would be launched first. I heard the announcer's voice cut in and out of my own thoughts
Certification attempt.... launch.....5...4....3...2...1....

The vicious airy sound of a rocket motor shooting my rocket into the sky broke across the field. It was wonderful! Something that I built was actually FLYING, and it was so high....
...oh no... I said out loud.
As the upwards velocity decreased, the flight path curved towards the river. Apogee was hit, and the recovery system deployed.

I watched my rocket float across the line of trees and land on the other side of the river....on a field! Himalayan Salt Lamp was far, but safe!

​Jess and I who launched together decided to take the hike to recover our rockets. Jess's rocket laned on our side of the river, but also pretty far, narrowly missing a ditch! She decided to accompany me to find my rocket, making the long trek to the other side of the river. A family from one of the farms nearby came to check out the launches on their utility cart, and the kids loved seeing the rockets up close. Finally, we got visual of my rocket safely in a field... with a massive green tractor tending to the crop. Thankfully, a lady in a white golf cart picked up my rocket, saving it from potentially being crushed by the tractor! A rocket recovery heroine.

It started raining again as we made the trek back. Once we crossed back over the river, we saw most of the METRA people leaving! For a moment, we were worried that no one would be there to sign our certification papers. However, the person who stayed behind was someone who blessed us with many amazing stories of groundbreaking amateur rocketry feats that he himself has accomplished or witnessed.

​With my paperwork kissed by the rain and signed off by R. Comshaw from the L3 Certification Committee (an absolute HONOR), I earned my Level 1 Certification! The chaotic day finally slowed down, the rain picked back up, and I reflected on all that had happened. The day was full of SO many unexpected sequences of events, unpredictable turns, and on-the-spot problem solving. I had to do a lot of quick thinking, make important decisions under the stress of time, and there where indeed moments where I could have lost sight of the goal and stopped pushing forward. I realized once more the importance of surefire preparation and proactive mindset in situations like this... even though nothing really went like expected, the experience was exhilarating, and the goal was ultimately accomplished! Its in these unexpected, priceless moments where we learn our greatest lessons, put our skills to the test and grow our resilience and strength. Oh, and make treasured memories!

Due to the launch operations on the field being done early, we got to relax under our tent in the pouring rain and eat a well-earned meal together from the food we packed to last us the (originally estimated) 12 hour launch day. We were joined by Mr. Comshaw, and had a lot of more insightful, lively conversations. There is truly nothing like bonding with your HLA comrades, and the feeling of club family and collective accomplishment. An eventful day indeed!