A Long Island Teen Is Forging a Path to Mars, One Homemade Rocket at a Time

"No one wanted to give me any advice in case I blew up and they were involved."

Justin Schiavo

America’s Cradle of Aviation is Long Island, New York, where Northrop Grumman engineers built all of NASA’s lunar modules in the ‘60s and where two remain earthbound at an aerospace museum alongside a replica of one of the earliest modern rockets. Fittingly, it’s the home of Justin Schiavo, an 18-year-old who describes himself as the space nerd.

It’s too late to question whether the high school senior would have become as space-crazed if he wasn’t raised near NASA’s east coast outpost. The love has rooted: His room is covered in space memorabilia, including planets that hang from the ceiling; his emails end with the sign-off “stay stellar.” He’s been unanimously voted president of Roslyn High School’s astronomy club since he was a freshman. And most importantly, Schiavo is building rockets — affordable, efficient ones.

His latest project, “The Effect of the Aerospike Nozzle on the Hybrid Rocket Engine,” earned him a ticket to Washington, D.C. in March as a top 40 competitor at the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the oldest science and math competition for high school seniors in the country.

It was while working as a docent at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Long Island that his love for space grew into a wish that space wasn’t an abstract concept but something everyone could explore.

“I realized that I wanted to — in addition to helping put the first man on Mars — I also wanted to bring space to as many people as I possibly can,” Schiavo tells Inverse.

The way to do that, he decided, was to build a rocket — one that was cheap, controllable, and accessible.

Justin's experiment.

He stresses that the hybrid-propellant, aerospike nozzle-tipped rocket that he created is a crude one — one that merely takes two existing technologies and puts them together — and underplays the fact that he built it himself.

A hybrid-propellant rocket uses rocket propellants in two different phases — one solid and one that’s either gas or liquid. It’s not widely used because it doesn’t produce a lot of thrust. However, Schiavo points out, “it’s very mechanically simple to make,” and the fuel he used was PEX tubing — “the same stuff you use for the plumbing underneath your toilet.”

“It’s used a lot in amateur rocketry and college rocket teams, but not by NASA or SpaceX,” Schiavo says. “I wanted to try to find a way to make this engine more useful. So I started looking at ways that I could increase the thrust of the engine.”

His creative efforts produced a rocket with a new design. Most rockets use a traditional bell nozzle — the triangle in a kid’s drawing of a spaceship — but an alternative is the aerospike nozzle, an inverted version that produces more thrust. So, Schiavo designed two hybrid rockets and two different nozzles on a computer-automated design program called Autodesk Inventor, sent them to a company to get printed, and tested them side by side, measuring the thrust and comparing the values.

The liabilities of creating a rocket engine, he points out, “are obviously very high,” so he had trouble finding support for the project.”

aerospike nozzle
The aerospike nozzle.

“No one wanted to give me any advice in case I blew up and they were involved,” he admits.

Fortunately, Schiavo’s dad is a mechanical engineer. He tested his son’s experiment at his office under the supervision of his fellow engineers. In the first trial, the aerospike nozzle melted completely. Later, while on a college tour, Schiavo came across a professor who told him what went wrong.

“He basically said that I wasn’t going to cool this down by just changing the shape alone — I needed to add a regenerative cooling system,” Schiavo explains. “So, from with that piece of advice, my second experiment took on a wild new direction and I was able to essentially use the process of thermodynamics to my advantage and use the water going through the center of the nozzle to pull the heat away as it was running.”

Justin Schiavo
Justin at the Regeneron Science Talent Search.

With this advice, he successfully produced a proof of concept — an aerospike nozzle paired with a hybrid engine that became the foundation of the paper he submitted to Regeneron.

Scaled up, he thinks his invention could propel CubeSats — light nanosatellites that weigh less than three pounds — into space. But in the shorter term, he sees it as a teaching tool to bring space to the masses.

“A class can build a hybrid rocket together, send it to sub-orbit, and collect data,” Schiavo says. “That’s the future I imagine for this technology. I see it as an educational tool.”

Schiavo will have the chance to build more tools soon as a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He wants to build rockets, engines, and spacecraft systems for a living because his crystalline vision of the future is one where humans are a multi-planetary species.

“I don’t care about the glory or money — I just want to build the things that get us to Mars,” he says. “I want to be a part of the story of getting us there in any way that I can.”

Media via Justin Schiavo, rocket, Justin Schiavo