Liftoff: Westside students learn rocketry at former missile base

Published 4:11 pm Thursday, April 13, 2023

“Three. Two. One,” Rilynn Moore counts down.

Once she presses a button, a small rocket roughly the height and width of a candlestick takes off in the blink of an eye and a puff of smoke.

Her classmates look up, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rocket in flight.

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Moore is one of 82 Westside Elementary sixth graders who traveled to Nike Park on April 6 for the culmination of a hands-on rocketry lesson.

Westside teacher Karen Pryor organized the excursion with grant money from the Isle of Wight County Education Foundation. She used the money to purchase do-it-yourself rocket kits from Amazon.

The choice of Nike Park, a former Army missile base, as the school’s launch site is no coincidence. Pryor designed the activity to incorporate math, language arts, science and a lesson in Carrollton’s Cold War-era history.

Nike Park, named for the 1950s-era Nike-Ajax missile, operated as one of eight surface-to-air missile bases in the Norfolk Defense Area from 1954 through 1961, according to the Isle of Wight County Museum’s website and past reporting by The Smithfield Times.

During the base’s heyday, more than 30 Nike-Ajax missiles would have been stored underground, with soldiers awaiting an alert from Norfolk to launch. None was ever fired from what is now Nike Park, and by 1958, the Army had begun production of the Nike Ajax’s successor, the Nike Hercules, which had more than double the Ajax’s range and could carry a nuclear warhead.

Each teacher’s class, Pryor said, built a different type of rocket. Some were slightly taller and thicker than others. One of the goals of the exercise, she said, is for the students to determine what made one fly higher than another. The students were able to build and personalize their own rockets after studying rocketry for a month.

On site for the occasion was Patrick Dashielo, a high school student and junior firefighter with the Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department who was in Pryor’s sixth grade class at Westside when she originated the project in 2018. Also on site assisting the students was Pryor’s husband, Paul, a retired Air Force fighter pilot who himself built and launched rockets in elementary school.

Isle of Wight County Museum Director Jennifer England and reenactor Albert Burckard provided the history lesson. Burckard, in his circa-1955 “missileman” reenactor’s uniform, unveiled to the students an actual Nike-Ajax missile undergoing restoration.

The restoration is still in progress, England said. It was unveiled only temporarily for the Westside program.

The city of Hampton donated the missile to Isle of Wight County in 2019 as part of a years-long effort to put one on display at the park. In 2020, the pandemic put the county’s restoration plans on hold. In 2022, County Administrator Randy Keaton told county supervisors the missile had tested positive for toxic lead-based paint, which would need to be removed before the missile could be put on public display. Its rusted launcher is also “too far gone” to be part of the display, Keaton said.

The roughly 8½ acres comprising the base-turned-park includes nearly all the original buildings and three underground missile magazines. The site was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 2019. Isle of Wight erected a skate park atop the missile magazines in 2000.