Mar 21, 2003

Eggs in a Rocket




The first-ever national high school rocketry competition will send dozens of eggs hurtling into the air




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March 21, 2003: "Five! ... four! ... three! ... two! ... one! ... ignition!"

Into the sky soars--not a towering behemoth weighing hundreds of tons--but a 2-pound rocket built by a handful of high school students.

This homemade rocket will never reach space, and the only passengers it can carry are a pair of raw eggs. Yet this little rocket could carry its team of student rocket-builders all the way to Virginia to compete in the first-ever national high school rocketry contest. At stake is nearly $60,000 in awards--and the satisfaction of achieving a difficult, technological goal.

After all, this is rocket science!

Above: No, this isn't the latest communications satellite on its way to orbit. This model rocket was built by high school students. Image courtesy NASA.




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Called the Team America Rocketry Challenge, the competition has attracted 873 teams comprising over 9,000 students from high schools in all 50 states. Only the top 100 teams will compete in the final event, which will take place on May 10. The organizers of the competition, the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry (NAR), will announce the qualifying teams today.

"The idea is to get kids interested in the world of aerospace," says Trip Barber, director of the competition and vice-president of the NAR. "And they will learn some important lessons about the power of math and science--and cooperation and teamwork--along the way."

The challenge is much more difficult than merely building and launching a rocket. Each team must try to meet a very specific goal: build a two-stage rocket no heavier than 3.3 pounds that will lift two raw eggs to an altitude of exactly 1,500 feet, and then return the eggs to the ground unbroken. Some components, like the rocket motors and the altimeter, are ordered pre-made, but the students can't use hobby-store rocket kits. They have to build the rocket from scratch.

"We started working on it back in December, and we've been working on it constantly since," says Daniel Laroue, a competitor from Richland High School in Lynnville, Tennessee.


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"We've gone through about six different designs, and the first four or five launches we tried all fell apart or crashed," Laroue says. "Those eggs didn't make it."

They learned from each crash, Laroue says, and made adjustments to their design. Now they have a working rocket that has flown to a near-perfect 1,490 feet.

Left: The Amity High School team poses with their Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) entry "ATA-1 Von Braun." From left to right: Colin Theys, Toby Schneider, Dany Qumsiyeh, Nicole Giannini, and Nick Santucci. They had two mostly successful flights and recorded altitudes of 1,150 and 1,615 feet. Photo by Jay Calvert.

NASA has become involved in the competition as well to fuel interest and to "sweeten the pot." Administrator Sean O'Keefe will attend the finals in Virginia, and teachers for the top 25 teams will be invited to an advanced rocketry workshop in July at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

Perhaps most exciting for the students is the chance to work side-by-side with NASA engineers to build a larger rocket that can fly even higher. Students from the top 10 teams can apply to participate in the Student Launch Initiative at MSFC, where they will design and build a rocket that can fly higher than 5,000 feet--a mile into the sky!

But the contest isn't just about winning, of course.

"This competition has done wonders for them," says Kay Howell, mother of competitor Drew Howell from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "They have learned how to work together and how to share ideas; they have learned to take pride in what they do."

"My husband and I have watched over the last few months while (our son) chose not to play video games, working instead on model rockets and exploring ideas about how to make them work," she says.


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Above: The design for the rocket built by Daniel Laroue and his team. Daniel says they spent the first month trying different designs in a computer simulator program before ever building a real rocket.

Building and launching rockets requires a wide range of skills--from calculating trajectories to assembling the rocket to assessing the weather. That means that students with different talents can all get involved, notes Vince Huegele, a NASA optical physicist.

Huegele should know: he's a sport-rocket enthusiast, too. In fact, it was building and launching his own rockets as a boy during the 1960s that convinced Huegele that his life's work would involve rockets and space, he says.

Today, Huegele is working at the leading edge of space exploration at NASA, helping with projects like the successor for the Hubble Space Telescope, called the James Webb Space Telescope. But in his free time, he still enjoys launching his own homemade rockets.


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"It's really just a lot of fun!" says Huegele, who helps as a mentor for the competition and for the NASA Student Launch Initiative. "At NASA our work is so specialized; you can spend years on just one small part of a project. With amateur (sport) rocketry, you get to experience the whole process in just a few months--from concept to construction to launching it and chasing it down."

Right: Students participating in the Student Launch Initiative at the Marshall Space Flight Center will get a chance to build a much larger and more powerful rocket with the help of NASA engineers. Image courtesy NASA.

That experience of seeing a complex, technological project through from beginning to completion is what young people benefit from the most, Huegele believes.

Standing out in a grassy Virginia field, gazing up at the twisting trail of smoke along with the dozens of spectators, many students will certainly discover what Huegele means. Between the excitement of space and the satisfaction of seeing your project fly, sport rocketry can make "looking up" a life-long habit.




Web Links


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Team America Rocketry Challenge - home page at the National Association of Rocketry. See also this page from the Aerospace Industries Association


Right: Amateur rockets on the launching pad. Jay Calvert's egg loft entry "Tubal Ligation" waits on blue pad 5. Calvert is the president of the CATO Rocketry Club in Connecticut.

NASA Student Launch Initiative - an information sheet about the 2003-2004 Student Launch Initiative at the Marshall Space Flight Center (PDF format). See also this page from MSFC.

Model rocket resources - from NASA's Glenn Research Center


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