K College Student Aims High - With Rockets

Apr 24, 2018

A model rocket blasts off during celebrations of the 51st anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first manned flight in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2012
Credit Dmitry Lovetsky / AP Photo

In the summer of 2016, many American athletes had their sights set on Olympic gold in Rio De Janeiro. But they weren’t the only ones aiming high. A Kalamazoo College student found herself on top of the podium nearly 6,500 miles away at the Spacemodeling World Championships in Ukraine.

When Emma Kristal tells people she builds and launches model rockets, many assume she’s destined for a career as an astronaut or a physicist. Instead, the senior at Kalamazoo College has a double major in psychology and biology, with a concentration in neuroscience. To her, model rocketry is just a pastime.

“It’s kind of that distinction between work and play. Rocketry has always just been my hobby and I was so worried that if I pursued it in a more rigorous way, or like career pathway situation, that it would just lose some of that play to it.”

Emma Kristal with some of her model rocketry medals
Credit Steve Kristal

Emma’s hobby started at age five as she put stickers all over her father’s model rockets. Steve Kristal began building rockets when he was seven. He decided to follow up on his daughter’s interest by launching rockets each year for science day at her school, and Emma helped build them as she got older. But when the National Association of Model Rocketry convention came to Michigan, her father could only convince Emma to go by allowing her to sell his old rocket kits.

“And then he’s like, ‘Well you know, you’ll be really bored while you’re there if you don’t fly anything, so why don’t you just build a couple rockets. It’ll just be for fun.’”

Emma built a nine-foot-tall “superoc,” came in first place, and set a national record that weekend. She was only in the fifth grade. Over the past 12 years, she's gone on to set 21 national records, while competing internationally in Serbia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, and Ukraine. Her father, who holds nine national records, says the reason they've kept going is simple.

“It’s been no different from the first time that we did it, which is - the maxim has always been it has to be fun. If we’re not having fun, we don’t want to do it.” Emma says she’s enjoyed her time competing through the years. But she admits that she almost quit in 2010 after her first international competition in Serbia. She says the experience was a wake-up call because she didn’t come close to winning anything. Looking back, though, she says the moment was a great source of motivation.

“I think that was a really important life lesson for me because I really had to suck it up and realize that you’re not always immediately going to be the best, especially when you’re competing at a level like that. You can’t just give up if it doesn’t work out or if someone’s better than you. The only thing to do in those situations is to just keep trying.”

After six years of international competition, Emma finally found herself atop the medal stand at the 2016 World Championships in Ukraine, where she earned individual and team gold medals in the precision payload event. The moment was very gratifying, given her past struggles. Steve Kristal says it’s been an incredible journey with his daughter.

“Very few parents have the opportunity to do something like this with their child. A lot of parents support their children doing something. But to actually participate together has been the most incredible experience.

Emma Kristal will graduate from Kalamazoo College in June. Afterwards, she and her father will begin preparing for the 2018 Spacemodeling World Championships in Poland in late July. The competition runs through August 4.

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