National Center for Blind Youth in Science Exhibit

In the southeast corner of the Jacobus tenBroek Library is a special exhibit commemorating the first ever NASA rocket launched by blind students. As an inaugural project of the Jernigan Institute, the NFB established the Science Academy in order to highlight effective teaching strategies and techniques for getting blind youth engaged in complex scientific subjects. The Science Academy included two one-week sessions. The first session for middle school age youth was entitled the 'Circle of Life.' In this session, life and earth sciences were highlighted, including an independent dissection of a dogfish shark. In the high school session, entitled 'Rocket On!,' the goal was to support blind youth as they prepared the payload and assisted in the logistics of launching a real NASA Whozit Rocket. No, this was not simply a hobby store toy; this rocket and the mission to launch it had all of the details, complexity, and excitement of a real NASA mission. Only this time, the blind led the way and forever shattered misconceptions about the capabilities of blind youth to fully participate in complex scientific missions. Through the visionary leadership of Dr. Marc Maurer, who dreamed of a science program for blind youth built on high expectations and positive attitudes about blindness, and with the support of NASA's Al Diaz, this important new program has become a cornerstone of the new NFB Jernigan Institute. The 2004 Science Academy was only the beginning of the establishment of a National Center for Blind Youth in Science (NCBYS) at the Jernigan Institute. The NCBYS will continue to include the Science Academy, as well as many other projects. The NCBYS will serve as a central clearinghouse for information and resources related to how the blind can and do excel in science, technology, engineering, and math subjects and careers. 

The exhibit found in the library is a temporary exhibit and will be expanded over time. Currently, the exhibit includes a mock-up of the Whozit Rocket that was launched on August 19, 2004. The exhibit also includes an example of the motor used in the rocket (see motor details below). Below are more details about the rocket mission:


  • Twelve blind youth representing nine different states participated in the program.
  • Blind facilitators led the project activities.
  • NASA staff from the Wallops Flight Facility (Virginia) led the technical details of the mission.
  • Blind scientists participated in the program as mentors.

The mission:

  • Blind youth built the four "payload" sensors that flew in the rocket. The sensors sent data back to the mainland via radar, allowing the participants to analyze the flight of the rocket and compare the results to their predictions about what the rocket would do. These sensors measured:
    • Acceleration
    • Temperature
    • Altitude
    • Light (this would indicate whether the rocket was spinning)
  • Blind youth learned the principles of rocketry, electronics, and physics, as well as the key elements of planning and executing a rocket mission.
  • Blind youth integrated their payload into the rocket and performed tests to ensure all systems worked properly.
  • Blind youth completed loading of the rocket on the launcher and connecting fuel lines.
  • Blind youth were responsible for final fueling and launching of the rocket.

The rocket (the version in the library is actual size):

  • One-half scale Patriot rocket manufactured by Public Missiles
  • Approximately 7.7 inches in diameter and 124.8 inches (10 feet 4.8 inches) long
  • Empty weight of less than 63 pounds and a launch weight of 75 pounds when the oxidizer is fully loaded<
  • Aerodynamically stabilized using 4 fixed fins
  • The actual rocket launched was painted orange and included a large Whozit decal (from our Ohio affiliate) and the familiar NASA meatball (logo)
  • At the bottom of the mockup, where the fins are, you will find a cutout for the motor to be inserted. 

The motor:

  • The rocket used a hybrid propulsion system utilizing nitrous oxide (N2O) as the oxidizer and a polypropylene fuel. (When examining the motor in the library you will see a large aluminum tube. This is where the N2O would be stored. The N2O is loaded into the motor only shortly before launch. The bottom part of the motor is the polypropylene (plastic) fuel grain, which burns during flight. You will notice the shape of the hole at the back of the motor--this is key to thrust (see Newton's laws). The motor fits into the opening at the end of the rocket where the fins are located.)
  • N2O is stored in the tank as a liquid at approximately 600 psi (65°F); when the pressure drops below that level (during the motor firing) some of the liquid goes through a phase change to a gas and 'replenishes' the drop in pressure to maintain a constant 600 psi tank pressure. The fuel is a viscous liquid inert synthetic butadiene rubber using a cross-linking agent to 'cure' this liquid into a solid. HyperTeK casts the fuel with a phenolic nozzle bonded in place, so there are no secondary bond lines at this critical area. 
  • For the Whozit Rocket, a propulsion system was developed that is completely pyrotechnic free.

August 19, 2004
Launch Day 

After two days of preparation at the NFB Jernigan Institute, the NFB Rocket Team traveled to Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Virginia. After spending a final afternoon of preparation at Wallops, the twelve blind youth were ready to face destiny. 

On August 19, 2004, the team got up at 3:00 a.m. and reported for duty in the blockhouse on Wallops Island at 4:00 a.m. The launch window was 6:00 a.m. - 9:00 a.m. Tensions in the blockhouse were high. The team members had done everything they could to prepare for the launch, but several uncontrollable factors that could potentially jeopardize the launch remained. The 10.5-foot experimental rocket had a hybrid motor never before used at the Wallops Flight Facility. Several of these motors had exploded during tests on a static test-firing stand prior to the launch. The solid fuel tank of the rocket motor had been reinforced, but there was still a significant risk that the motor on the rocket would blow up during the launch. The United States Coast Guard had been contacted to keep boats away, but a stray boat entering the launch range at the wrong time could still thwart our plans. Wind was also a concern. While usually mild in the early morning, high winds can and often do delay rocket launches.

In the end almost everything worked out perfectly. By 8:15 a.m. the wind had died down to an acceptable level. A fishing boat headed for the launch area had turned around even before the Coast Guard had to intervene. And the rocket motor did not blow up.

At 8:33:59 a.m. EDT, Alysha Jeans from Kansas (the individual selected by the blind youth to push the firing button) went into action, and the first ever Whozit Rocket left the launcher into a clear blue sky. The rocket reached a maximum altitude of 4,902 feet 20 seconds after launch. All four sensors worked and sent back data throughout the flight via telemetry. The mission did hit an unexpected snag when the main chute that was supposed to slow down the rocket for a gentle water landing did not properly deploy, causing the rocket to break up when it hit the water at high speed at 8:59:09 a.m. The flight computer and sensors were lost in the crash, but the nose cone and lower portion of the rocket were recovered by the Coast Guard and will be on display soon at the Institute.