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Three local teams soar high in national rocketry competition

On May 8, three Team America Rocketry Challenge teams from Western New York attended the national finals in The Plains, Va. The Team America Rocketry Challenge, also known as TARC, is the world’s largest model rocket competition. Each year, more than 700 teams submit their scores from across the nation, yet only the top 100 attend.

Each team must design, build and fly a model rocket that reaches a specific height in a certain time limit while meeting the correct weight. In addition, a raw egg must be in the rocket and return to the ground safely. Two teams from Immaculate Conception School in East Aurora qualified for nationals as well as an independent team called Youth for the Exploration of Space, otherwise known as YES.

On April 3, the top 100 teams were announced, as teenagers from across America in 48 states crossed their fingers in hopes of qualifying. Hotels were booked and flights were made, and on May 8 the three qualifying teams from Western New York attended the fourth annual Rockets on the Hill reception in Washington, D.C. Here, the students displayed their rockets and told their stories of success and failures to congressional staff members. Guest speakers included Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.); Dr. John Langford, Aurora Flight Sciences chairman and CEO; NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan; and Jim Fraser, Thales USA vice president of government relations.

These speakers talked to the teams freely and individually, and gave short yet inspiring speeches to the crowd that included participants’ family and friends. The speakers spoke of students reaching for careers in science, technology, engineering and math. With the goal to inspire the young adults, the speakers focused on sharing their own lessons with the students.

The next day was launch day. The night before students retreated to their hotel rooms to prepare for the launch. Measurements had to be made, weights adjusted due to the weather, and a game plan set. After picking up registration packets with team badges and launch information, teams were prepped and ready to go.

The day of the launch was humid and hot. For some teams, the day started early, with check-in at 6:30 a.m. Teams reported to the check-in station, where they received a launch pad number and flight time window. The students then entered the prepping area, where they prepared their rockets without the help of mentors, parents or teachers. Teams were required to make decisions on their own until their rocket was safely recovered.

Teams held hands and crossed fingers as the countdown began. Parents and friends stood on the outskirts of the field and cheered from afar as each rocket landed successfully. Not every rocket was successful though; there were multiple misfires and even a few crash landings. If a rocket neared the crowd, a loud horn blew in warning. If a rocket’s parachutes did not properly deploy, another horn was sounded. The safety of the spectators and participants was never at great risk.

After each team’s first launch, it was time to wait. The first 100 launches lasted all morning, and teams anxiously waited around a large board where scores were displayed. If the teams were in the top 40, they were eligible for a second launch. One of the three teams from Buffalo had an outstanding score in the first flight, and qualified for the second round.

As teams waited throughout the day, there were many other events – booths with representatives from major engineering companies handing out information and free goodies; students could participate in Rocket Jeopardy, the mini model rocket-building contest, or the presentation competition; the TARC photo booth even took pictures of teams for the Best-Dressed Contest.

The event’s main sponsor, Raytheon, is sending the winning team from nationals on an all-expense paid trip to the Paris air show. The top 10 teams shared $100,000 in prize money.

The local team that qualified for the second achieved a perfect altitude with their rocket in round two, but had a parachute malfunction. The winning team this year was from Russellville, Ala., and will got to Paris in July. All three teams from Western New York were proud to have qualified for the national competition.

“I’ve learned so much about teamwork,” said Katherine Jancevski, an eighth-grader at Immaculate Conception whose team made it to the second round. “To make it this far in such a big competition requires more than just the smarts to do so. You need to have cooperation and motivation. I encourage everyone who is searching for a career in STEM fields to take that jump and go for it. If you put your mind to it, anyone can be a rocket scientist.”

To find out more about TARC, visit rocketcontest.org.

Grace Brach is a freshman at Nardin Academy.