Youngsters shoot for the stars in rocket-design competition - The Buffalo News
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Youngsters shoot for the stars in rocket-design competition

Standing in front of the big blue box on the table, seventh-grader Adam Keller flicked the toggle switch to arm the device and then gazed around at the grass field in front of him.

“Range is clear,” he said. Glancing at the overcast sky, he intoned, “Sky is clear.”

Then, with excitement building, he and three classmates counted down, “Five, four, three, two, one,” and he pressed the bright red button.

With an explosion of white light and a burst of gray smoke, the slender 2-foot-tall rocket shot off the launchpad rail and into the air Sunday morning, propelled more than 800 feet high as friends and parents watched.

Its acceleration complete, it topped out and began to fall back to earth, only to be slowed by a red parachute that quickly deployed and lowered the projectile gently to the ground, where Adam and his team ran out to a grassy median in the East Aurora Senior High School parking lot to retrieve it.

The youthful team of four, one of several on the field from nearby Immaculate Conception School, had just launched its first rocket test using a commercially available kit as part of their months-long preparation to compete in the national Team America Rocketry Challenge.

The competition is designed to encourage middle school and high school students across the country to learn more about engineering and math, in the hopes that more of them will consider them for future careers.

“There’s been a big push in recent years to get kids interested in the science fields, to compete better globally,” said Justin Mullen, the science and math teacher at Immaculate Conception. “Hopefully, this gets them more interested so that when they go to college, they choose those fields.”

Sponsored jointly by the National Association of Rocketry and the Aerospace Industry Association, the competition for seventh- through 12th-graders calls for teams to design rockets that can be fired into the air and land safely, while carrying a payload of eggs. The engines are commercially made, but the rocket frames and other parts are designed and built by the students, with few specifications to meet.

“They design their own fins, they decide what shape the nose cone will be, how long the rocket will be. They learn how making small changes to the rockets can lead to big changes,” Mullen said. “And with it all coming down to seconds, it matters.”

Last year, the rockets had to fly 750 feet in 48 to 50 seconds, carrying one raw egg, in order to qualify. Teams are scored based on penalties for every foot or second they are off the mark, with the cutoff to qualify last year at 16.22 penalty points. This year’s competition requires a height of 825 feet, with two raw eggs.

So far, Immaculate Conception is the only local school participating in the contest, and this is only the school’s second year of doing so. Last year, the school’s only team of five girls placed 105th out of 750 teams nationwide that had registered to compete, after coming in just over the 16.22-point mark. But that was still enough to qualify as an “alternate” team, so they were able to go to Washington, D.C.

This year, the five friends – 14-year-olds Grace Brach and Claire Zwack and 13-year-olds Aoife Scannell, Cassie Whittemore and Julia Wing – are back for another try, with hopes of moving up at least six places to be among the national competitors. Two of the girls graduated last year and now attend other schools, but they’re still on the Immaculate Conception team.

Meanwhile, the school was able to form three more teams of four students each, with three of the five team members from last year volunteering to be “junior mentors” for the new teams.

“The fact that the girls last year, just a small group of seventh- and eighth-graders, came so close to competition in the nationals really says a lot about their determination,” Mullen said. “They were successful enough to get more interest in the school.”

Finally, the school and its local sponsor – East Aurora-based aerospace company Moog, which is also a national sponsor – are trying to reach out to other schools and organizations for participation, including the East Aurora high school and middle school, as well as the East Aurora Boys & Girls Club.

Indeed, Moog CEO John Scannell – whose daughter is team member Aoife and whose wife, Eileen O’Brien, is an Immaculate teacher and STEM education coordinator – introduced the competition to the school through his wife after learning about it at an industry conference. He said he would like to see enough local teams to have a Buffalo “fly-off” contest.

“Engineering is a wonderful career for boys and girls,” Scannell said. “The nice thing about engineering as a career is it’s portable. It’s a completely transferable skill and gives you the ability to go into anything.”

Sunday morning, the teams were gathered in a small area of the high school’s athletic field, cordoned off by yellow caution tape, with three tables in the middle for “rocket flight preparation,” “pre-flight inspection” and “launch control.” The third table held the rectangular 14.67-volt lithium battery, hooked by a winding set of wires to the bright yellow, three-legged launch pad about fifty feet away.

One by one, the teams worked with Mullen, O’Brien and Moog executive Roger Lipke to prepare their rockets. All three of the new teams had successful test launches, using off-the-shelf rocket kits so they could get used to firing rockets before they design their own.

The competitive team from last year, meanwhile, worked to test and perfect its prototype design, since the rocket’s flight time has been too short so far. The first launch of the 2.6-inch-diameter rocket went off course, angling too far and too low, and landing in the mud near Center Street. The second launch, almost straight up, was better.

“I’m very impressed so far,” said Lipke, who volunteered to help the local teams as an adviser on the competition. “Even last year’s team has learned a lot. They’ve come a long way.”

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