PLANT CITY — With a low hiss and a high scream, the rocket — a 12-foot, forest-green projectile resembling a gigantic crayon — hovered for a second above the ground upon a plume of white smoke.
Then, as it shot straight into a cloudy sky, the young men and women anxiously watching screamed and leapt themselves, as though unconsciously mimicking their creation's triumphant upward path.
"Come back to us, baby," cried out Taylor Morris, a 24-year-old electrical engineering major at the University of South Florida.
"All that hard work and effort you put into it, and for it to work out perfectly — it's impossible to put into words," said Jamie Waters, 18, a freshman at USF majoring in chemical engineering.
Both were part of the team that constructed Bullistic I, the slender, solid-fuel rocket — named after the school's mascot — that shot skyward above a cattle ranch in Plant City on Saturday.
The rocket launch was the culmination of work by the Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry (SOAR) a USF student club that has devoted itself to amateur (though by no means unimpressive) rocket science. SOAR joined a band of other rocketeers at the Varn Ranch, the site of the monthly meeting of the Tripoli Tampa Rocketry Association.
Amid this loose assembly of Floridian rocket hobbyists, the USF students stood out in their nervous energy. "It is the first rocket of this size I've seen go off," said Matt Chrzanowski, 24, the USF chemistry graduate student who heads SOAR. "I'm very excited, anxious and nervous, all at the same time."
SOAR's first launch was a total success. On its descending path above the cattle ranch's oaks, palms and muddy wallows, it split in two and deployed a parachute. From beginning to end, the journey from earth to sky and back again took only a few minutes, but represented the concentrated exercise of student know-how in disciplines including chemistry, engineering and math.
One figure amid the eager student horde showed serenity: Manoug Manougian, a USF mathematics professor and former rocket scientist who advises the club on its projects.
"There's a lot of excitement in putting something like a rocket together in view of the fact that it involves so many various disciplines to make that happen," said Manougian, a bespectacled, soft-spoken man with silver hair.
An Armenian born in Jerusalem, Manougian said his own interest in rockets was inspired by his childhood reading of From the Earth to the Moon, the 1865 novel by Jules Verne.
In that book, Manougian noted wryly, the French novelist — famous for his fictional foresight of such inventions as the submarine — chose a then-unlikely spot for the launch of his protagonists' rocket vessel: Tampa, Fla.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.