To infinity, Goole, and beyond as school launches Apollo anniversary ‘rocket’

Rishworth School teacher Pete Bell, with the model of the 1969  Eagle lunar landing  module he and his pupils send into space.
Rishworth School teacher Pete Bell, with the model of the 1969 Eagle lunar landing module he and his pupils send into space.

It will be a quintessentially Yorkshire expedition to space.

Exactly 50 years after their parents and grandparents stayed up all night to watch the first moon landing, a class of children will launch a rocket of their own.

A module from one of the school's previous launches

A module from one of the school's previous launches

No human will set foot in the Sea of Tranquillity on this mission, and the splashdown is expected not the central Pacific but in the village of Staddlethorpe, just east of Goole.

But the anniversary event planned for tomorrow morning, in the grounds of an 18th century boarding school near Halifax is – even with its modest budget of just over £200 – nevertheless a bona fide extraterrestrial journey.

At around 8am, a model of the Eagle, the lunar landing module carried aloft by Apollo 11, will be launched into near-space by teacher Pete Bell and his pupils.

For just over two and a half hours, it will transmit live pictures of the planet’s curvature, before returning safely to earth.

Rishworth School pupil Jake Thomas with a model of the Eagle lunar landing craft

Rishworth School pupil Jake Thomas with a model of the Eagle lunar landing craft

Just as President Kennedy had, in 1961, pledged to put a man on the moon before the decade was out, Mr Bell, who is head of computer science at Rishworth School, will be keeping a promise he made to himself.

“I set up what I called a school space programme four years ago,” he said. “We did our first launch in March 2016 and we’ve done three more since.

“We’ve had a couple of failures, when things didn’t go as we expected, but that’s good experience for the kids.”

People had laughed in his face, he said, when he told them about his personal mission to the edge of space.

“But that’s the legacy of Apollo. It inspired people to think beyond what was possible.

“I said after one of the launches that the sky was no longer the limit. We’re no longer limited by what we thought was possible.

“As Kennedy said, we do these things not because they’e easy, but because they are hard. That was such an inspirational speech.”

It would have been harder still to launch the Eagle this morning – generally considered to be the anniversary date – given the weather forecast. Besides, said Mr Bell, it was the next day in Britain when Neil Armstrong stepped from it.

The model of Rishworth’s Eagle was constructed by 13-year-old Jake Thomas from a £40 plastic Revell kit, but the “brain” of the operation is a £5 Raspberry Pi computer the size of a cigarette packet. It will serve as flight controller, with attached camera, landing parachute, satellite positioning unit and radio module, which the pupils have programmed. A latex weather balloon filled with a £130 canister of helium will launch it into the stratosphere.

It will reach its maximum altitude, three times the height of Mount Everest, after around 112 minutes, before a predicted descent in East Yorkshire.

“The last one came down in a lady’s back garden in Bedale,” Mr Bell said. “I had to knock on the gate and work out how I was going to ask her for it back.”