Update to Explosives Standard to Have Positive Impact on NASA Outreach

Update to Explosives Standard to Have Positive Impact on NASA Outreach

7-minute read

An update to NASA-STD-8719.12A, Safety Standard for Explosives, Propellants, and Pyrotechnics added a new section to the standard that applies only to model rockets that makes them exempt from general explosives requirements that were unnecessarily prohibitive in this context. As a result, NASA’s outreach programs will have an easier time using model rockets for educational purposes.

Previously, the full extent of requirements for explosives also applied to model rocket motors. During a routine inspection at a NASA center, a finding within an educational building triggered the conversation within the explosives community that the requirements were too extensive for model rocketry, which is also regulated in accordance with National Fire Protection Agency 1122, Code for Model Rocketry.

"Originally, we didn’t even think it was applied to the model rockets,” said Robert Simmers, assistant Explosive Safety Officer (ESO), Stennis Space Center. “Outside of the walls, it’s [model rocket] treated as something you can buy over the counter, you don’t need any special licensing to store them or what not. We ended up sending it up to Headquarters and they said technically it’s an explosive, so it comes with a whole bunch of additional things.”

“If centers were doing what was required [per the standard], it was overkill,” added Mike Hallock, ESO, White Sands Test Facility. “We all knew we needed to do something.”

Feeling the Effects of the Old Policy

Many NASA centers host rocketry programs with students and educators that rely on model rockets as educational materials. In addition, a number of centers sell model rockets in their gift shops. The amount of requirements levied on these models caused the programs to consider workarounds, like taking the storage and/or flight of the rockets offsite. Model rockets are important to these programs because they teach important scientific concepts and help students connect with the excitement of that type of work.

“We [NASA] have to inspire young people, and they have to see it and touch it and interact with it,” said Shad Combs, ESO, Wallops Flight Facility. “And the way they interact with it first is model rockets. They inspire kids because they’re their first entry into aerospace. If they can’t do that in a way that is easily accessible, as it is off the center, we’re cutting ourselves off from that easy access to inspiration, and that’s what those burdensome rules were hindering, easy access to inspiration. Because it’s really cool to just see a rocket fly and know you built it.”

These “burdensome rules” were affecting educational programs across the agency, with a major impact on thousands of learners. For example, Stennis’s ASTRO CAMP® program, which is in its 28th year, sees 500-600 kids per summer — at minimum — and not only teaches students at these summer camps but also collaborates with community camps. The center has 94 collaborating partners holding approximately 175 ASTRO CAMPS® all over the country, seeing over 8,000 students a year. These curriculums cover topics such as aeronautics and rocketry science — which demonstrate Newton’s laws — as well as parts of a rocket, principles of flight and rocket recovery. As a part of these lessons, many programs use model rockets as a hands-on teaching tool.

“It’s [the rocket launch] the kid’s favorite part,” said Maria Lott, director of ASTRO CAMP® at Stennis Space Center. “The program ends on a Friday, and the rockets are [launched] Friday morning. At every camp, the kids get a picture with their rocket."

ASTRO CAMP® Student With Instructor

Student at ASTRO CAMP® 

Because these lessons don’t just apply to model rockets, but also real rockets used for NASA missions — including those launching humans to space — the effects of the standard were essentially limiting the agency’s outreach to future NASA engineers and scientists. Stennis felt this effect in particular:

“If you want to go to space, you have to come through Hancock, Mississippi first,” explained Lott. “Rocketry testing is one of our biggest components here. So by using model rockets, it brings the understanding of what it takes with regards to propulsion. We’re [also] educating the children. They are going home and talking to their parents. We’re educating the educators. We’re building the future by planting the seeds and planting the dreams. You can’t dream if you don’t know what’s possible.”

And Stennis has seen the outreach result in future STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — careers. One ASTRO CAMP® counselor ended up working in electrical engineering, eventually for SpaceX and then Relativity Space, which brought him back to Stennis to 3D print rockets. Further closing the loop, he helped the students of this year’s ASTRO CAMP® 3D print the model rockets they launched. 

“We can follow some of our kids and where they’ve gone and know we’ve made some differences; said Lott. “It’s been a great ride.”

To be compliant with the existing policy and manage these impactful outreach activities, Lott was receiving training to be an explosives handler so she could store and transport the model rockets. Ultimately, Stennis moved the launch of the rockets offsite to the Infinity Science Center (Stennis’ visitor center) and changed the ordering and delivery process. According to Lott, they started ordering only exactly what was needed (to reduce storage needs) and having them delivered directly to the Infinity Science Center. These changes allowed Stennis to continue its outreach activities since the Standard did not apply to a non-NASA program at an offsite facility. Additionally, the ASTRO CAMP® program developed a specific rocketry plan it can implement should it come back to the center for launches, complete with plans to use a bunker as a storage facility and details for transportation requirements. While this allowed the students to still fully experience the benefits of model rockets, there was a downside to moving offsite: When launches occurred on site, they happened under the von Braun tower, a tower named after Dr. Werner von Braun, who believed strongly in the value of public outreach.

“It was historical because we launched under the von Braun tower, which was the location for the SATERN V and the Apollo missions,” said Lott. “So the kids got a history lesson when they launched their rockets. It’s very much a connection to what NASA has done historically for the next generations. You could say, ‘You’re standing in history.’”

While the size of Stennis’ outreach activities meant the standard was heavily felt at the center, other NASA centers and facilities were feeling the effects as well.

“The application of these conservative safety precautions limited the access to these educational opportunities for children and adults,” said Combs. “We [Wallops] have three different programs that are related to model rockets. One for educators where they bring in the teachers and walk them though model rockets and how they can use them. We have one where you can bring in parents and students and they would assemble and launch rockets. And we have another one where it’s basically a rocket club where people could build rockets and launch them.”

Changing the Policy

The policy change brings the requirements for using model rockets on NASA centers to a level better aligned with their use outside NASA gates. It does not disregard any safety requirements, but rather better aligns the safety requirements to model rockets rather than other types of explosives.

“The purpose of the exemption being added to the NASA Explosive Safety standard is to put us in alignment with other governmental agencies on appropriately managing the hazards posed by model rockets,” explained Combs. “One caveat we did keep in is anyone that does transport it needs to be 18 or over. So we still have some access controls and we still review how they plan on doing things. [At Wallops,] in the past, and we will continue to if we launch on site, we usually had the fire department there.”

During a face-to-face meeting, ESOs from across the agency discussed the proposed amendment and agreed it was necessary. Hudson then coordinated the proposed language with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration so the amendment could go forward and become part of NASA policy.

The new section — Section 5.39 — applies only to model rockets that meet certain criteria. The section provides specific guidance for storage, transportation and use of these rockets and notes that users of model rockets that meet the noted criteria are exempt from the training and physical requirements of other explosives. Exemptions for launch were based on the NFPA’s Code for Model Rocketry.

Combs and Simmers both actively assisted with the update, with Combs bringing knowledge from federal laws and other agency policies (like Department of Defense) and Simmers contributing a perspective from the hobby side of model rocket use (like National Association of Rocketry).

“We’ve moved it to a common sense thing, which makes it easier for our people and our outreach group and camp kids to have fun,” said Combs.

Reaping the Benefits

The various outreach programs are already looking forward to the impact this policy change will have on them and thinking about the positive effects.

“What it means is we don’t have to have anything other than the normal amount of safety oversight” said Simmers. “This means they can store it much closer to them and the launch areas. It’s an ease of access thing while still retaining a suitable level of safety.”

“The relaxing of this standard will possibly allow us to bring the 500 kids back on site, and if not all of them, the special events,” added Lott. “[And coming back on site] will bring an up close and personal experience with what Stennis has available. It helps them understand where we are and the opportunities and what’s actually out here.”

Wallops is foreseeing the benefits as well:

“The visitor center at Wallops, is where our education outreach program’s model rocket motors are stored,” said Combs. “The previous standard had a lot of burdensome rules — it required us to store the model rocket motors at the same caliber of storage compliance as historic Apollo moon rocks when not on display. That was going to be very expensive. So now they can store them [rocket motors] as flammable solids, which is a more reasonable cost endeavor.”

Beyond the cost savings, Wallops knows it will have an impact on future generations as well.

“We have a shortage of engineers and technicians, and getting them at a young age is the way to create that pipeline to bring them into NASA and the aerospace industry in general,” explained Combs. “It’s creating the next generation of space entrepreneurs. If they can’t touch it, it just becomes something like, ‘I can just build an app to do that.’ The hands-on experience is really vital to get them out of their computers, iPads and phones. That’s something you can’t do unless you have that thrill of launching and building something.”