HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Students at 10 high schools and engineering academies in Alabama and Tennessee aren’t just cracking science texts and deciphering advanced math formulas this winter. They’re helping NASA plan, build and test vehicle hardware to ready the stage for America’s next-generation Ares I rocket.

The student teams are participating in NASA’s “High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware,” or HUNCH project. Now in its fifth year, the project is designed to boost students’ interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the cornerstones of technical and aerospace careers so vital to the nation’s economy.

It’s also a key component of NASA’s work toward U.S. Space Exploration Policy goals: developing the Ares I rocket and Ares V heavy cargo launch vehicle to carry human explorers and advanced science missions to space, return American astronauts to the moon and launch robust new missions of exploration into the solar system beyond.

Through March, student teams, partnering with engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will analyze current plans, model hardware and fabricate prototypes for elements of the Ares I upper stage and the J-2X engine that will power that stage to orbit. These prototypes will be used for functional “fit checks” — hands-on studies to determine how the designs function when translated from two- and three-dimensional computer models to full-scale hardware mockups.

The liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen-fueled J-2X engine will power the upper stage of NASA’s next-generation Ares I, a two-stage rocket topped by the Orion crew capsule. It will serve as the nation’s primary means of delivering astronaut crews to orbit, to the International Space Station and, in years to come, to the moon and beyond.

As work on the rocket continues, the HUNCH project benefits NASA and students alike. It helps NASA engineers finalize Ares I hardware and component designs, while students gain proficiency with cutting-edge design modeling tools and techniques. They also participate in professional design meetings and teleconferences with NASA teams and contractors, and learn practical career tips from their Marshall Center mentors.

“NASA’s desire to increase the technical capabilities of the nation’s future work force is the impetus behind HUNCH,” said Tammy Rowan, manager of the Marshall Center’s Academic Affairs Office, which organizes the annual project. “The project allows today’s bright young minds direct access to NASA people and projects, engaging and preparing them to lead the nation’s laboratories and research centers of tomorrow.”

NASA will review all completed HUNCH project work in April, and in May will hold a celebration at the Marshall Center to recognize the teams for their participation.

Schools taking part in the 2008-2009 HUNCH project are Lincoln County High School in Fayetteville, Tenn., and from Alabama, Bob Jones High School in Madison; Brewbaker Technology Magnet High School in Montgomery; Brewer High School in Somerville; Dothan Technology Center in Dothan; Hewitt-Trussville High School in Trussville; Huntsville Center for Technology in Huntsville; Limestone County Career Tech Center in Athens; Madison County Career Tech Center in Huntsville; and Walker County Career Tech Center in Jasper.

HUNCH is a collaborative NASA effort supported by the Marshall Center’s Ares Projects, the Academic Affairs Office, and the Training and Crew Operations Branch of the Engineering Directorate’s Mission Operations Laboratory. The Marshall Center is leading development of the Ares I rocket for NASA. HUNCH is sponsored by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Corporate sponsorship is provided by Siemens PLM Software of Maryland Heights, Mo., which will provide the modeling software for the HUNCH project.

For more information about NASA education initiatives such as the HUNCH project, visit: