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Virginia students work to become first high school group to send liquid-fueled rocket into space

Together, they’re known as Project Caelus, a group based out of Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School that was founded in 2018.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — When you hear about a high schooler fitting 60 people into their house at once, it’s usually for a party when parents are away, blissfully unaware until they return to a few broken items or suspicious stains.

Ron Nachum's parents, however, knew exactly what was going on. In fact, they were home.

But his 60-person hangouts aren't for parties - their meetings are meant to attract students passionate about a single mission: launching a liquid-powered rocket into space and potentially, someday being the first-ever high school group to do so. 

Together they’re known as Project Caelus, a group based out of Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology that was founded in 2018.

“It was a pretty easy sell for my parents, just because they'd seen us working on this for a few years,” said Nachum, a founding member and the current president of the completely student-run organization. 

The high school senior self-describes as passionate about solving those tough-to-get problems. 

“People tell you, you know, that's not worth your time," he said. "It's just impossible to do it. But that's where I personally like to spend my time.”

Along with dozens of students at any given meeting in the Nachum garage, there’s also about $25,000 worth of equipment, from gas tanks to metal scraps - all purchased through the students’ own fundraising efforts. The team shares a detailed timeline of their past work and future goals on the website, with a current plan to do an initial launch of their first liquid-fueled rocket in June of this year. The experiment will eventually lead to their ultimate goal of sending a final rocket all the way into space.

Credit: Project Caelus

Although the team originally came to be with just 15 members, founded by TJHS graduate Jason Chen, the organization has ballooned since and functions like a well-oiled machine with an array of moving parts. Students fill every role, from communications and media relations regarding the project to networking, software, fundraising and avionics. 

Students working hard on the rocket detail with ease the intricacies of such a large operation, from designing the shape of the rocket and what holds the engine in place to various levels of testing. 

The video above showcases an essential test completed in 2021 by the Project Caelus team on their way to building their liquid-fueled rocket - called the "Nitrous Oxide Water Cold Flow."

“I think that's the most valuable part about being a part of Project Caelus is that you can do whatever you're interested in," Nachum said, adding that supporting others in the community to get involved in STEM and the team's safety are also top priorities of the group. "It's not like a one-dimensional computer science team."

The students have already fanned out to tutor more than 200 local students, free of charge, in any STEM subject where they are in need of assistance.

“Through our project, we hope to show young people that it’s possible to do something that has never been done before and that there is no age threshold to exploring science and pushing technological boundaries,” Nachum added. 

Credit: Project Caelus

Each year, the team reviews applications from students across the DMV who are interested in taking part, with the main applicant period between September and November. Although the majority of members are current students at Thomas Jefferson High School, anyone is welcome to request to participate. 

“Being a part of Project Caelus is such a special thing and just working with people who are so talented, and we're working towards the same goal,” said Eric Feng, the project’s Avionics Lead who joined as a sophomore. “It's just something you don't get anywhere else.”

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