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Indigenous rocket team is out of this world

The Q-AISES team won first place at the NASA-sponsored First Nations Launch competition last week. Courtesy Melanie Howard

Justice Bressette-Fleming was in high school when she was recruited to Queen’s University, but it wasn’t until she logged onto a Zoom call with the university’s rocket team that she sealed the deal. 

“They showed me the rocket they were working on, and I was immediately like ‘yes, yes, I’ll join!’” Bressette-Fleming said. “It was awesome, because there was nothing like that at my high school; it’s a really small town out in the country.”

Bressette-Fleming, who is Ojibwe and Potawatomi from Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation, is now going into her third year of electrical engineering at Queen’s, where next year she’ll join fellow student Madeleine Duncan in co-leading the Q-AISES team, a chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). 

The team is helped by Kanehsata’kehró:non Melanie Howard as the team advisor, who works with everyone as part of her role as director of the Queen’s Indigenous Futures in Engineering program. Together, they’re hoping to repeat the success of this year, after the team last week became winners of the NASA-sponsored rocket competition First Nations Launch. 

“I got onto the rocket team last year, entering my first year of university knowing nothing about rockets, nothing about the mechanics and the calculations and the testing that goes on behind them,” said Duncan, who hails from Curve Lake First Nation. 

She first heard about the rocket team at Queen’s when her dad saw an article in CBC Indigenous; he was at the competition in Wisconsin last week where the team won first place. 

“I’ve just learned so much from everyone in the rocket community, I’m just so excited for what the future will bring for us,” said Duncan.

The competition saw teams fabricate rockets from raw materials with the aim of making their rocket lighter and faster than the commercial kit provided, something they’d been working on for the past year.

“The moment that rocket goes off, it’s an accumulation of a year’s worth of work in terms of report-writing, calculations, and many, many hours of building and testing,” Duncan said. “Actually standing there and seeing it go off is quite impressive. It’s rewarding to see, for sure.”

The team came out on top with 103.3 points in the Mars Engineering Challenge and for the grand prize, they will be attending a VIP tour of the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida in August.

“I’ve never been to any kind of space centre or aerospace thing like that, and I’ve been interested in this for six or seven years now, so I’m just really excited to be there and meet interesting people and engineers from NASA, hopefully,” Bressette-Fleming said of the trip to Florida. “I’m hoping I can see some of the equipment that I constantly see online in real life, so I’m very excited.”

Though many of the team came to Queen’s already interested in rocketry, Howard knew nothing about rockets when she became the team’s advisor.

“This is literally rocket science. That’s pretty amazing to see,” she said. “They put hundreds and hundreds of hours into this, so it’s a lot of work.”

Howard explained that the team first started four years ago when a particularly passionate student came through Queen’s doors. Maranda Cherry, who is a citizen of the Metis Nation of BC, graduated last year in the Engineering Physics department, and was the first lead of the Q-AISES team. 

“I knew she wanted to work in aerospace and that was a goal of hers, so I had asked her if she was given the opportunity, would she want to lead an Indigenous rocket team,” Howard said. “She was like, ‘Yes, for sure. I want to do this.’”

But the team initially ran into trouble when trying to set up their AISES chapter. Since Queen’s isn’t located in the United States, the group technically couldn’t join the competition. But Howard happened to know NASA engineer Joseph Connolly, who is Onondaga.

“I basically talked to him, and I said, I have a student and this is her passion, and she’d be great to lead a team,” Howard said. “They eventually decided that yes, as a test case, we would be admitted to the competition.”

Though it’s not been an easy path to get to where they are today – the team isn’t able to access any grant money other teams are eligible for as they’re not located in the States – there’s now a thriving group of Onkwehón:we continuing the legacy of Q-AISES each year. For the group’s future captains, what they’ve learnt from their peers will inform their leadership.

“Maranda was awesome,” Bressette-Fleming said. “She knew everything about everything.”

The group will touch down in Florida for their VIP tour next month, and the team encourages any future Indigenous Queen’s students to reach out if they are interested in learning more.

This article was originally published in print on Friday, July 6, in issue 32.27 of The Eastern Door.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.