Relaunch! Alum Helps Bethel University Rocket Society Return to Flight

The pandemic grounded many rocket groups, but Bethel was able to take flight again with support from Art Gibbens ’82, who returned to Bethel to share his love of rocketry. After winning the Midwest High-Powered Rocketry Competition in May, the Bethel University Rocket Society is looking to grow in its second year back.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

September 09, 2022 | 9 a.m.

Bethel University Rocket Society (BURS)

After the Bethel University Rocket Society (BURS) won the Midwest High-Powered Rocketry Competition in May, Art Gibbens ’82 described the victory as a David and Goliath story. “I don’t think anybody expected Bethel, with three freshmen students, to win this competition,” he says. Gibbens, who has flown rockets since eighth grade, helped relaunch BURS after the pandemic. The 2021-22 BURS team consisted of (pictured from left) Alec Braun ’25, Ben Teigland ’25, Nathan Engman ’26, and Gibbens, who served as their advisor.

When Art Gibbens ’82 helped relaunch the Bethel University Rocket Society (BURS), he simply wanted to share his love of rockets and give students opportunities to work with their hands. When the team competed at the Midwest High-Powered Rocketry Competition on May 21-22, 2022, the experience was more of a priority than winning. But Bethel’s team won. “You could have blown me over with a feather when we got the announcement,” Gibbens says with a laugh.

Rocketry isn’t new to Bethel, but Professor of Physics and Engineering Keith Stein admits it probably wouldn’t have continued without Gibbens. Students from the Department of Physics and Engineering launched the Bethel Rocket Club, as it was then known, in 2018 through the NASA-sponsored Minnesota Space Grant Consortium (MnSGC)⁠—of which Bethel has been a member for decades. But then COVID-19 hit. “The rocket club was grounded during the pandemic and would have remained grounded if Art had not reached out,” says Stein, who notes the group isn’t yet officially sanctioned as a Bethel Student Government club. “His willingness to mentor our rocket team and his extensive experience in model rocketry was a godsend.”

Gibbens read about the initial club in an alumni newsletter. As he neared the end of his time as president of the Minnesota Amateur Spacemodeler Association (MASA), he contacted Stein to help relaunch Bethel’s rocket team. It was a natural step in Gibbens’ lifelong passion. Gibbens started flying rockets on his family dairy farm while growing up in New York. He continued launching from nearby parks after transferring to Bethel to play football and earn a degree in physical education. Rocketry remained a passion as he and his wife raised his children and worked various jobs. Gibbens is level-two certified for high-powered rocketry and has long been involved with the National Association of Rocketry and MASA. His experience proved extremely beneficial since 2021-22 team members Ben Teigland ’25, Alec Braun ’25, and Nathan Engman ’26 were all new to rocketry. “Art has been an absolute gift for us,” says Teigland, an electrical engineering and physics double major. “There is absolutely no way Alec, Nathan, and I could've gotten this going without him.”

Art Gibbens ’82

Art Gibbens ’82 (pictured far right) remembers exactly how he got hooked on rockets. A self-described “motorhead” from an early age, Gibbens gave an oral report in eighth grade on his passion for model cars, but then the student behind him presented on model rockets. “It’s all his fault,” Gibbens says with a laugh, noting he was enthralled by how rockets weren’t static—you built them to take flight. Both students received As, but Gibbens never built another model car. “I’ve been flying rockets all this time,” he says. “I just really enjoy it.”

Gibbens admits it was challenging to get the team up to speed over the course of one school year, but he was thrilled with their progress. “They learned so much,” he says. The team credits Gibbens, whom Engman calls an excellent mentor. “He allowed us to learn about rocketry and then apply it to the rockets we were building. Art is very knowledgeable about everything rocketry and enjoys sharing what he knows,” says Engman, a mechanical engineering major who joined to pursue his interest in the aerospace field. Braun adds that it was great to learn from a Bethel alum. “It was fun having Art as an alumnus because it was easy to talk about the Bethel community,” says Braun, also a mechanical engineering major.

Gibbens loves that rocketry provides an opportunity for students to build something with their hands. Though all first-year students, the team already applied classroom lessons. In General Physics, Teigland learned about the center of mass and net force, which he used when analyzing their rockets’ structure and flight. “It was cool to see these theory things we learn being used for a rocket in the sky,” Teigland says. As the team’s rocket abilities expand, Teigland anticipates they’ll continue applying lessons from more advanced classes. Along with technical skills and lessons, Braun says the experience helped them learn about hard work and teamwork paid off. Engman was pleased that they were able to rely on each other, building team comradery as they each built a rocket.

After COVID-19, Midwest High-Powered Rocketry Competition organizers simplified their goals ahead of launch day in New Branch, Minnesota. They wanted students to return to flight, and they also wanted students to earn certifications or increase a level as high-powered fliers. While past competitions focused on complex rocketry, the 2022 competition centered on flight diversity and reliability. “They wanted everyone to get back to flying and flying well,” Gibbens says. Judges valued successful flights of both a standard rocket and additional rockets featuring a diverse set of different parts.

Bethel University Rocket Society (BURS)

Bethel University Rocket Society (BURS) members (from left) Nathan Engman ’26, Alec Braun ’25, and Ben Teigland ’25 appreciated being able to learn from an alum like Art Gibbens ’82 (right) on the team. Gibbens transferred to Bethel to play football and earned a degree in physical education. He was able to connect Teigland ’25, who currently plays for the team, over their experiences on the team.

As the smallest team competing, BURS signed up for the smallest bracket to launch three rockets. They competed against larger schools, with many signing up in higher categories to launch five or eight rockets. While Bethel’s three rockets—all painted and named with a Top Gun theme—utilized different parts like guide rails, engines, kits, parachutes, and altimeters, the key to success was consistency. “We had three flights that had no problem,” Gibbens recalls. Teigland and his teammates saw the benefits of the time and experience Gibbens shared with the team. “It stood out come competition time as we were by far the most prepped team there, getting all of our rockets up on time and smoothly while other teams were scrambling most of the day,” Teigland says.

Gibbens and Stein call the win a key building block, and Bethel now has two students certified as level-one fliers. “The first-place finish by our team at the Midwest High Power Rocketry Competition is an outstanding achievement in the first season back,” Stein says. “Our hopes are to build off of the successes from the past year and add some additional members in the coming year.” Going into year two of BURS, the focus is incremental growth. They plan to return to the 2023 Midwest High-Powered Rocketry Competition with an eye toward future competitions. “This next year, we’re just going to do the same one again and try and build the momentum, but it sure would be nice in three or four years to take some students to New Mexico and fly 20,000 feet and be involved in larger rocketry and bigger contests,” Gibbens says.

BURS will launch its 2022-23 year on September 13 with an ice cream social to invite new students to join. Teigland sees the club in a wonderful spot to move forward and grow. “I definitely intend to participate in the club for as long as my college life and life let me,” he says. “It's a rare opportunity to be a part of something so young and to be able to have a say in how that is going to grow.”

Gain hands-on experience at Bethel.

The Bethel University Rocket Society (BURS) is one example of how you’ll gain hands-on experience at Bethel. Throughout all programs, students find many opportunities to apply classroom lessons in meaningful ways in and outside the classroom. To join or support BURS, contact Professor Keith Stein in the Department of Physics and Engineering.

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