Women‘s History Month: Celebrating the Women on HNS
HNS Member: Jenna Kay Foertsch (She/They)
HNS Position: Executive Director
Hi - My name is Jenna Kay, and my introduction to the hobby led to the creation of what we now know as the Hot Nozzle Society.
As a woman (or gender queer* individual) in the high powered rocketry (HPR) hobby, I have often found myself not quite fitting into the normal equation of what I should look and act like. I was fortunate to have mentorship as soon as I entered the hobby, and this has made a tremendous difference in my confidence level, from attending events to pursuing more difficult builds. Although I was fortunate to have mentorship in multiple forms, I've found that the mentorship I've received from other gender minorities in STEM has been the most meaningful. Life is a lot easier when you surround yourself with people who are able to empathize in ways that validate your experiences. Similar to the mentorship I first received, I’ve found that my gender (and for some reason my hair?) have allowed me to connect with and inspire other gender minorities who may be interested in pursuing this hobby but feel intimidated or unsure of where to start - which has been the most rewarding part of starting the Hot Nozzle Society.
The hobby presents the normal challenges that come with spaces that lack diversity, and diversity is essential to progress and innovation. We desperately need a resurgence of passionate rocketeers of all ages, identities, backgrounds, etc., to keep the hobby on the right track.
I feel hopeful about the future of HPR. The number of allies we have collected for HNS leaves me optimistic that despite that the future of the hobby is in good hands. There is much work to be done to make spaces more inclusive - but I'm confident progress is on the horizon.
*gender queer: denoting or relating to a person whose gender identity does not correspond to conventional binary gender distinctions
HNS Member: Allison Byrnes
HNS Position: Event Flight Operations Lead
How did you get into hobby rocketry?
It’s a somewhat disjointed story, but I first started when I was younger, as a kid. I used to do [rocketry] with my dad - in recent years, our relationship has sort of been quite bad, so I don’t speak to him anymore. There was a while where I didn’t do rocketry because it reminded me too much of him and I didn’t want to do it, and then I saw HNS on Twitter and I decided, you know what? I wanna go to this, and I wanna get my L1*. I’d been wanting to do that for a long time, I just hadn’t, cause I hadn’t had the time or motivation. I couldn’t go to HNS 1, but I did go to the second one, down in Texas. L1’d there - that was probably the best weekend of my life - really enjoyed it. I L2’d later that summer at FAR**. I decided I wanted to L2*** about 2 weeks before I did it, so that was a bit of a crunch but it was really fun - got to learn a lot - and I also joined HNS as staff after volunteering at the first event. So essentially, a lot of my rocketry journey, what I do nowadays, is tied up in HNS, but when I first got into it, it was more so just like a hobby thing with the Estes kits when I was a little kid, because I enjoyed watching SpaceX launches and wanted to be a part of it all.
*L1 = Level 1 high-power certification: allows rocketeers to fly high power rockets with a total installed impulse of up to 640 newton-seconds
**FAR (Friends of Amateur Rocketry): a high power rocketry launch site in the Mojave Desert, California
***L2 = Level 2 high-power certification: allows rocketeers to fly High Power Rockets with a total installed impulse between 640.01 and 5120.00 n-sec.
Can you talk about your experience on SRL (Sounding Rocket Laboratory, at CU Boulder)?
I’m doing a lot of work with [SRL]. They were a big part of what got me into HPR* - I got the opportunity to meet with Cam and Zoey and some other leadership the summer before I went off to college (the summer of 2022). This was before HNS, actually - I went out there in April or so, saw their old lab, got to meet everybody, and that was basically what made me decide, ok - this is where I wanna go to school. And so I’ve been going there, and I’m learning a lot more about the commercial and industry side of rocketry from them, and from my classes, which has been a really great experience.
*HPR = high-power rocketry: uses H-motors and above
What challenges have you run into throughout your journey in rocketry (technical, personal)?
Technical challenges are sort of inherent to the hobby - it’s honestly part of what makes it so fun. I would say one of my biggest technical challenges in hobby rocketry specifically was probably figuring out how exactly I was going to build that L2 rocket I mentioned, that I had 2 weeks to build. It’s not exactly easy to build a whole rocket that can go to a mile from the [Earth’s] surface in 2 weeks, so to do that I basically had to figure out (I had to 3D print this - my 3D printer actually has a bed size that I’m limited to) how to make those prints strong enough, but also print in a reasonable amount of time. And then essentially it did limit my design in the sense that the fin can* could not be bigger than the size of the bed on the printer. It has to be fairly small fins relative to the size of rocket we’re talking about, which meant I had to make the thing go really fast so that it would be stable. It was an interesting challenge - it was good, though. Learned a lot from that.
As far as personal challenges, there’s a lot of them, especially being a trans lesbian woman in aerospace. It’s hard to find your place in that industry, because obviously I don’t fit in with the cis** male majority in our industry. There are also a lot of women's spaces that people aren’t really willing to have me in because I'm trans, and so it’s been difficult to find that community, and to be able to have the same kind of connections and career success that other people would expect. But HNS has helped a ton with that - just putting me in contact with so many great people, and also it’s been really good with SRL. We have quite a few good people there - I made a ton of friends in my classes who are very kind and supportive. We have a very good support network at the university too.
*fin can = component of the rocket’s airframe to which the fins are attached
**cis (cisgender) = a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth (i.e., not transgender)
What are you excited about right now (projects, goals, dreams)?
I’m very excited about my degree, and I’m extremely excited about HNS this summer. I’m running Flight Operations. I’m just very excited that I get to be in charge of something like that - it feels very good to be trusted with that, and I just hope we can make a really fun event that people will be excited to come to. I’m also very excited about some of the stuff we’re working on with SRL. We have a launch on May 20th of Mamba that’s going to go to 100,000 ft and about Mach 3*. It’s a P** motor, so it’s a big rocket. That one’s been a long time in the making, and it’s basically the precursor to our space shot, which we’ll be doing next year. So, super excited about that. I’m also just excited to get into the industry after graduation.
*Mach 3 = 2301.81 miles per hour at sea level (3704.4 km per hour)
**P motor = motor with a total impulse between 40,960–81,920 Newton-seconds
What do you hope to see change in hobby rocketry?
There’s a few things. The first, and most obvious (and this is essentially the mission of HNS) is changing some dynamics and also lowering barriers to entry into hobby rocketry - [this] would be really wonderful to see. Hobby rocketry is and always has been dominated by middle-to-upper class, white, cisgender straight men, and that is typical with a lot of hobbies that have been around for a while. I know people who have thought about doing the hobby but have not been comfortable because they thought, “well, I’m going to go to this launch and it’s going to be a bunch of boomer dudes who aren’t going to be ok with me.” It’s kind of sad to see that, especially when I know that they’re people who would probably really enjoy it - it’s just that they don’t feel comfortable, and rightly so. So, it would be good to see that change, for sure.
The main thing for me is getting the social and political aspects of rocketry [to be] more open. I would love to see more diverse groups of rocketeers. People of color in particular really have very little representation, currently. I'm also hoping to make things more open to queer people going forward. Seeing more of them, and really more of every minority group in rocketry, would be wonderful.
Any closing thoughts?
To anybody who’s reading this article, no matter who you are, you should go for it. Jump in! Our whole organization is dedicated to making this an inviting space for you. Come to our events, go to your local NAR or Tripoli chapter. Even if they’re a bunch of older people who you don’t think are going to be accepting - they might not be - you also have the ability to help change that club for the better. Just by being there, you’re contributing to that change.
HNS Member: Dayna Erdmann (they/them)
HNS Position: JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) Co-Lead
I didn’t really know that rocketry was even a hobby until I was a freshman at MIT. Growing up, I thought that space was cool, but it was never my obsession. I entered college thinking that I would get a degree in Chemistry! I was sitting in the front row of my chemistry class and the person next to me wouldn’t stop talking about rockets and how awesome they are - his passion was contagious. I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and that was the start of a 4-year long adventure with the MIT Rocket Team.
Thanks to the kindness and dedication of a few older students, I learned how to properly use power tools. I learned that one should never Dremel after 3am (though I can’t pretend that I didn’t break that rule! I’m lucky to have all my appendages intact). I worked on many parts of a very big rocket, and I also built my own personal rocket and got my L1 certification on the first try. I designed parts, and a lot of them failed - and some of them worked! I felt like the more I learned, the less I knew, and most of the time I felt terrified of doing something stupid, or looking like I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I grew up thinking I could do anything. I was raised by Kazakh immigrant women, tough as nails. I never once thought that there were things I couldn’t do because of my gender, or sexuality, or neurotype. But gradually, reality gave me a rude awakening. I got used to being talked over, ignored in technical conversations - it became a self-perpetuating cycle in which the less I was given the space to speak, the less I was convinced that I had anything to say. So the exceptions to those moments really stood out - the people, usually women, queer folk, and other people used to being on the sidelines, and the men who diverted attention from the technical subjects they were interested in to learn more about other perspectives, were the ones who took the time to really listen, and thanks to them, my confidence had a chance to grow.
My dream is that anyone who wants to build rockets feels like they not only can, but that they have a community that will help them get there. That they feel included, and welcomed, and that their perspective is valuable and that their unique identity is appreciated and vital. It takes a village, after all! I want people to feel more comfortable not knowing the answers to things, and to be open to being wrong, and to changing their mind. I want conversations surrounding rocketry to include more voices, and for everyone in those conversations to have the time and space to get their say. I want hobby rocketry to be not just about what we build, but how we build it - by that I mean, how we treat people along the way. The unfortunate reality is that it often takes being discriminated against in some capacity to really internalize the concept that engineering is about people, and not just hardware. I don’t think it’s enough to blindly focus on building a cool thing. I think we need to be critical of the systems surrounding the field of rocketry and engineering as a whole - systems that are currently designed to make it much easier for some to succeed, and pose endless roadblocks for others.
I am a non-binary, queer, autistic rocketeer, and I went through hell to get into rocketry. It shouldn’t be that way. I have an aerospace degree from MIT and I’ve worked on a NASA spacecraft, and I still struggle with imposter syndrome. I believe that rocketry and space is for EVERYONE. I hope to see HNS continue on our path to help make the hobby more inclusive. I hope that others are also inspired, and start to believe that they too can build rockets - we’re all on this tiny blue marble spinning in space, which I find rather absurd, and amazing.
Here’s what I wish was said to me more often:
YOU can build rockets. You are smart, and you are capable. It’s ok to not know what the hell you’re doing. You can’t do it without help from other people. Your experiences and feelings are real. Don’t let negativity stop you from doing cool things - there’s still so much to be done! Find the people who make you feel welcome, and stop spending time with those that don’t. You’re going to do awesome things. You GOT this.