She's shooting for Mars

John Christensen
Natalie Yonts prepares her rocket for her certification under the watchful eye of her mentor Jerry Briggs, URRG Launch Director. To see more photos, visit

A 13-year-old girl from the Finger Lakes is not the person most would picture as a future rocket scientist. But why not? Our minds are still filled with images of the men who went to the moon 50 years ago, but haven’t we come far enough in that half century for young women to be as accepted as space pioneers? Well, the members of the Upstate Research Rocketry Group (URRG) certainly think so, and have welcomed Natalie Yonts as their newest qualified member.

At the age of five, after watching a documentary on NASA with her grandparents, Natalie told her parents, Matt and Alicen, that she wanted to go to space, not as an astronaut, but as a “builder.” Within a few years, she planned to have a job at NASA. A few after that, it was refined as an engineer on the Mars Rover teams. More recently, her dream is to be an aerospace engineer, specifically, a Dragon 2 Propulsion Engineer for SpaceX. 

This is no idle dream either. Alicen says Natalie studies the “Careers” page on the SpaceX website, and has plotted a path to earn the necessary degrees she will need to get herself to Hawthorne, Calif. “With guidance from helpful and enthusiastic members of (URRG) right down the road in Potter, she’s on her way,” says Alicen. “California or bust!”

From April to November, URRG hosts a launch one weekend each month at Torrey Farms right in the middle of the Potter muck. May’s launch was Natalie’s introduction to the group. “We just showed up with two rockets she had already built, were immediately welcomed and introduced to everyone and we started learning the ropes. She flew for a couple of hours that day and she couldn’t have been happier,” says Alicen.

Natalie learned of the June 21-23 Upstate Research Rocketry Festival, and planned to build a rocket that would allow her to earn a Level 1 High Power Rocketry Certification through the National Association of Rocketry. Despite day one being cancelled because of heavy rains the night before, the weather on Saturday and Sunday was almost perfect. Luck played a role, but so did a lot of hard work. 

URRG organizers were very grateful to Jerry Stape who worked diligently to prepare the laneway and the field in time for the event; and as always, URRG expressed their gratitude for hosting all the URRG launches year after year. Rocketeers consider Torrey Farms one of the finest fields in the Northeast and with an 18,000 foot permitted altitude ceiling, the highest east of the Mississippi, has been described by Rockets Magazine as “the Northeast’s summer time rocketry destination.”

That reputation, plus all the people welcoming her and the excellent weather all bode well for Natalie’s chances of a successful certification launch. Level 1 has to be completely built and the engine assembled alone, and with a strong independent spirit, Natalie was determined to do so. “She barely lets me in the room most times!” jokes Alicen. Natalie also had to complete the 30 question multiple choice Tripoli Mentoring Program test to be able to attempt her Level 1 High Power rocket certification flight and have a mentor sign off. Jerry Briggs, Launch Director of the festival, was her mentor. 

The Tripoli Mentoring Program (TMP) allows Tripoli Junior members to learn the skills of high power rocket construction and launching in an environment that is both safe and consistent with all high power rocketry safety codes and legal restrictions. Junior flyers can design and build high power rockets, and launch their own rockets under the direct supervision of a Senior flyer or Mentor.  The Mentor will handle all aspects of the launch that, due to legal restrictions, require flyers to be over the age of 18 and certified for high power motor usage.

“To pass the test, you cannot have more than five incorrect answers,” says Alicen. “She took one look at the first page of the question booklet, asked where the study materials were and said she was in no way ready and did not feel comfortable taking the test until she could study. I agreed and said we would get the study material and wait until July’s launch weekend to certify. She thought about it all for a moment and asked if she could re-take the test if she didn’t score well the first time. She wanted to give it a shot.”

Alicen recounts, as they walked to Mike Dutch’s (President of URRG) tent to get her answer sheet scored, Natalie said, “I bet I didn’t get five right! I’ll study this month.” She told Dutch she didn’t feel very confident about her test attempt.”

He asked if she had studied and he seemed surprised that she hadn’t. “He was so encouraging and told us that they would go over every incorrect question until she was comfortable. He held the answer key transparency to her answer sheet, lined it all up and said, ‘She only got two wrong!’ In Natalie’s laidback fashion, she smiled at me widely, shrugged her shoulders and asked to go buy a motor,” Alicen wrote in an email, confessing she felt a little silly getting teary-eyed with pride.

Everything in the launch went as planned until Natalie’s rocket fell into the trees surrounding the field and she was unable to find it. Recovery is required in order to certify. “Natalie seemed mildly irritated but everyone else was so disappointed,”says Alicen. 

Many of the URRG members and even the vendors were rooting for her and felt terrible that she lost her certification rocket. As a result, she was gifted two rockets — one assembled and one unassembled.

The unassembled rocket came with the condition that she start the build, with guidance if needed, right away and finish it before the next morning for a certification flight Sunday. 

Following rocketeer tradition, her unpainted 50 inch beauty went off without a hitch and was successfully recovered. She had passed! And is now certified to fly, with her mentor, Level 1 High Power rockets. 

Natalie is now teaming up with URRG to start a youth Rocket Club here in Penn Yan. It is a very accessible hobby with support from scout troops and other youth organizations. Some of the beginner kits start at $10. “We would love to get a group of kids who have a kit and the few tools needed together to do a group build,” say Matt and Alicen.

About URRG

The Upstate Research Rocketry Group Inc. is a N.Y. State incorporated non-profit 501-C3, focusing on educational and research aspects of amateur rocketry. They are dedicated to promoting model and high power rocketry , and are registered as prefecture #139 with the Tripoli Rocketry Association and NAR Section #765. Visit their website at

Next event

July Launch  celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 July 20 - July 21, 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Bring your Best Rockets to Honor The Apollo 11 Moon Landing.

Range setup starts at 9:30; range is open from 10 to 5.