Rocket Woman


Sarah Ryan leads an award-winning Case Rocket Team as it aims higher


By Eddie Kerekes

On the fifth floor of Sears [think]box, nearly a dozen students surround a table. They are carefully measuring, cutting, and attaching wood pieces together in a long cylindrical shape. The engineering students are making rockets, most for the first time, to earn certification for the Case Rocket Team. 

Taking charge of the rocket team and overseeing all of the students is Sarah Ryan, a senior with a double major in mechanical and aerospace engineering and a minor in astronomy. She rose through the ranks of the Case Rocket Team and now serves as president of the student group. 

She started as a member her freshman year working on rocket payloads and, finding the people on the team nice and inviting, stayed on the following year. The next year she was the treasurer and design lead for the team, in charge of the design of the main competition rocket. 

For Sarah, building rockets helps to fulfill a childhood dream.   

“Aerospace engineering has been a goal of mine for a very long time,” she said. “When I was really young, I started wanting to be an astronaut.” 

Last summer, Sarah took another huge step in realizing her goal. She interned at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, helping to make payloads for the International Space Station. Her team designed containers for experiments that go on the space station.

The next scheduled launch will occur in the spring containing some of her work. 

Working with the rocket team gave Sarah an advantage both before and during the internship, she said, because knowing how to build a product helps mightily during the design phase. 

“My mentor said that he really appreciated the depth of the hands-on experience that I had gotten,” she said. 

Under Sarah’s leadership, the rocket team is aiming far higher this year. Normally, the team builds a rocket that is required to reach 1,000 feet in altitude for the Battle of the Rockets competition in Culpeper, Virginia. This year, the team will be aiming for 10,000 feet in altitude, a ten-fold increase, for the Friends of Amateur Rocketry 1030 competition held near Mojave, California. 

With the altitude increase comes new challenges for the team. 

The students need to start worrying about vibrations that can occur with the higher thrust required for higher altitudes. Every piece of the rocket needs to be reinforced to deal with the higher forces. They are also working to build the rocket completely out of fiberglass, a much lighter material than they had been working with before. Fiberglass requires new methods of fastening and is difficult to machine. 

Before her experience at Case, Sarah never built a rocket before. But every year, new team members build a rocket to gain necessary Level 1 certification from the National Association of Rocketry. These are smaller than the competition rockets (three-feet tall) and can go anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 feet high, depending on the motor. Before the end of her first semester in college, she had built a rocket. Quite a first step for an aspiring NASA engineer. 

Outside of the rocketry lab, Sarah works on the Case AIAA Design/Build/Fly team. A recipient of the Case Alumni Association’s Junior-Senior Scholarship, she’s also a lab teaching assistant for Mechanical Manufacturing, an important freshman mechanical engineering class.Through the Case Rocket Team, Sarah hopes to leave a lasting legacy. As it reaches for higher altitudes with newly designed rockets, the team is seeing a surge in interest. Twenty-two new members joined this fall, the most since Sarah’s freshman year. 

 “I’ve been pleasantly surprised [by the strong turnout],” she said. “We’re very hopeful with this new class.” 

To support the Case Rocket Team, or to learn more about student groups supported by the Case Alumni Association, contact Janna Greer, Manager of Donor Relations, at; 216-368-3647.