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Blastoff: Retired NASA engineer helps students launch rockets
Ava White Academy student Carson Kidd watches his rocket Star Fire launch at the Midtown Greenway with help from Ed Banke on Thursday morning. Students from the school each built their own rocket and helped in the launch and retrieval.

The crowd cheered as Dragonite, Ninja, Big Red, Ava 1 and others took flight on Thursday morning during Ava White Academy’s Rocket Day.

With parents snapping photos and Gainesville firefighters on hand as “rocket recovery teams,” 22 students launched their own model rockets they built with the help of a retired NASA engineer.

“I thought it was really cool and honestly I thought (the launch) was pretty,” said Cole Padget, mission commander for his rocket, the USS Veridian. “My favorite part was building the rocket.”

John McGee, a 43-year veteran of NASA, worked with the students earlier this week to put together their miniature rockets as part of a hands-on science lesson. McGee captured the students’ attention by sprinkling in tales of his space agency days as they learned the intricacies of building the rockets.

“Big rocket, little rocket, the fundamentals are the same — what makes these little bitty rockets go is not fundamentally different from the bigger ones,” he said. “They’re learning the skills of putting a (model) kit together and also the fundamentals of why rockets fly.”

McGee, who also tutors at the school, said he had previously helped with rocket days in White County and loves working with the kids.

“We’re doing this because we’re trying to engage our children to get involved in math and science,” he said prior to launching a test rocket at the Gainesville Midtown Greenway.

McGee, who worked on the first shuttle mission at Cape Canaveral, Fla., said he loved his job working for the government space agency.

“It was one of those jobs you wanted to go to work every day,” he said, adding that helping students is his way of giving back for having such a great job.

The school’s marketing manager, Linda Ingle, said that the students enjoyed hearing the real-life examples from McGee.

“He was telling them stories about things in space. They got to hear those fascinating stories,” Ingle said. “They learned some basic things, but they’ve had fun.”

Maura Pittman, a teacher at the school, said students of all grades were able to connect their lessons to building and launching rockets. Some students were learning about space while others were working on travel brochures about which planet they wanted to visit.

“It’s been a great experience for the kids,” Pittman said. “Mr. John has been awesome in talking to them about space and his time at NASA. He has inspired them.”

The goal of the day was to help the students learn in a fun, interactive way, Ingle said.

“When you give them visual things ... I think it just makes a bigger impression,” she said. “They can relate more than just reading.

“You really want to see that enthusiasm and any time we can engage these kids ... we’re just thrilled.”

McGee’s daughter, Lidiya, who teaches at the school, and Ingle helped foster the idea of rocket day.

“I asked John if he’d ever done a rocket day, and he said he’d helped with them,” Ingle said. “I said ‘Gosh, you know all about rockets, you should teach the kids.’”

After having the idea for a rocket day, Ingle and McGee went about ensuring everything was ready for launch. The pair met with Gainesville Fire Marshall Chad Payne about their plans, and had him come speak to the students about safety.

“John and I went over and met with him, showed him what we wanted and got permission from him,” Ingle said. “It’s kind of all fallen into place.”

Payne, Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada and other firefighters were at the event to help students recover their rockets after launch. They also had talked to the students about safety.

“We try to do a lot with the schools and be on hand to help,” Canada said. “Any time we can be involved with kids and teach them safety, we like to.”

Canada watched each rocket as it launched to make sure nothing went wrong because “safety is paramount,” he said. Despite one rocket’s parachute catching on nearby power lines, the event had no issues.

Prior to the event, the fire department coordinated with the Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport so that officials there knew about the launches, which propelled the rockets into the air at least 150 feet.

Canada got to launch his own rocket at the event, and expects more rocket launches in his future.

“I think I know what I’m doing with my son this weekend,” he said, adding that his 10-year-old had helped build a model rocket that they had not yet launched.

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