May 28, 2005
Quick recap: 712 student teams comprised of 10,000 young ladies and gentlemen from across the US (and one DoD school in Germany) entered the contest, vying for $60,000 in scholarship money (plus extra goodies, more on those later). Each team had a teacher sponsor, and many had mentor volunteers from the National Association of Rocketry. Bottom line though, the kids themselves had to design, build and fly the rocket without adult assistance.
The challenge was to build a rocket that would be aloft for exactly 60 seconds, carry one or two fresh eggs, and return the eggs unbroken. The rocket could be a single stage model, but would incurr a 3 second penalty. Carrying only one egg incurred an additional 3 second penalty. So if a team built a single-stage rocket that carried one egg and stayed aloft for 61 seconds, then their score would be 1 (the difference from the target time of 60 seconds) + 3 (single stage) + 3 (single egg) = a score of 7. Note that whether their time was long or short didn't matter (a time of 59 seconds in that example would result in the same score of 7), and it's scored the same way. A lower score is better.
Clear as mud? It's harder to explain that it is to understand.
So all 712 teams were required to make a qualification flight. The flights were witnessed and the results were sent in for tabulation. The 100 best scores were selected for the finals. Five finalists couldn't make it for various reasons and alternates were selected in order from the top scores. To give you an idea of the difficulty of the challenge, less than 300 teams were able to enter qualification flights.
At the finals, each team made a single flight for score. Talk about pressure!
We drove to the Friday night briefing at the newest high school in the county. First we had ours (the volunteer range crew), where we learned the details needed for the following day. While that was going on, the cafeteria was quickly filling with excited students and teachers. Teams had to register and then pick up their equipment. Many teams has shipped their rockets ahead to Aurora Flight Sciences (based in Manassas, Virginia and owned by one of our club members). Because of postal and airline regulations, most teams had pre-ordered rocket motors to be delivered at the contest.
After the range crew brief, the students filed in. Mixed in among the students were the volunteer from AIA (blue polos) and the NAR (white polos and khaki pants). Mookie and I talked to a couple of teams that were sitting near us before things got started.
In order to run an event this big and keep it strictly fair for everyone, things have to run on schedule. The two guys who put it together again this year are retired military, and have a unique way of driving that point home.
When everyone was seated, the contest director stood in front of the group and pointed to a digital clock on the podium. You know, the kind that synchronizes itself via a radio signal to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) (similar to this). He called a time check and hack exactly on the hour. There were some snickers amongst the kids, but it was emphasized that each team had a set prep 'window' and set launch 'window'. Failure to make your flight during your window was an automatic disqualification. No exceptions. That put notice to everyone that the schedule wasn't merely a suggestion of when things should happen, it listed when things *would* happen. Gee, just like the real world, eh?
After some remarks by the head of the NAR and AIA, the safety and information briefing was done, followed by a neat little presentation by Dr. Jay Apt, who flew on the shuttle four times. He started off by asking everyone to imagine the most fun they'd ever had, and then imagining that times 100. Then he said, "Space flight is even better than that". He went on to give a short autobiography, touching on his postings at various observatories (he's an astronomer by training), and showing the things he did to become an astronaut (it wasn't easy and he did some career moves specifically to get into space). A very impressive show. Dr. Apt is a trustee for the NAR and a helluva nice guy.
After the briefing, Rachael and I headed home for some sleep. We had to be back at the field at 6am the following morning.
The field had been set up the day before by about 25 volunteers who worked through about 2" of rain in four hours, all of it blowing straight sideways. Mookie and I have volunteered to help set up in previous years, but couldn't do it this year because of work and school commitments. I'm a bad person for not feeling guilty about that, because those guys worked their tails off in miserable weather.
The field was wet and squishy but there were no massive mud pits, thanks to the fact that it's like a huge front lawn and there's great drainage of the entire area.
Mookie was tasked to be a runner for the day, shuttling flight cards and paperwork amongst the various checkpoints (egg issue, safety check, range control, etc). They had enough runners to adaquately cover the main places, so she spent much of the day with me, running notices up to the PA and radio announcers and escorting teams and teachers to their media interviews.
I was one of two designated bad guys (referred to as "trolls" during the pre-brief). Along with a rocketeer from Florida named Bruno, we handled access to the flying field through the only open gate. Past us, only student teams were allowed. No parents, no teachers, no advisors. We said "no" a lot to folks all day long and even caught a few who tried to
sneak casually stroll by, thinking that the rules couldn't possibly apply to them. On the upside, every single team and rocket went past us, and we got to see many of them up close and talk to the kids. I can honestly say that no team went onto that field without hearing Bruno, Mookie (when she was around) or I wishing them good luck. We also answered lots of spectator questions and made sure the media folks knew where things were.
Early in the morning, after a group of students sang the National Anthem (with a Jr ROTC color guard display) there was a helicopter flyover by the Marine Helicopter Squadron-1 (HMX-1), the first Marine aviation unit ever established and the unit responsible for all Presidential helicopter flights. Last year it was a pair of F18 fighters, but apparently the jets on afterburner scared the crap out of some local folks who thought some sort of emergency was going on. The choppers were cool though, check here and here for pics of the aircraft involved.
There was a "pool feed" for local television stations to tap into during the event, and I've heard from several people that they saw reports on various news programs. The winning team appeared on the Today show.
Also, there were plenty of VIP's around. Rachael and I spent a few minutes talking to Vern Estes and his wife Gleda. They attend a lot of rocketry events all over the country, and Vern mentioned that he'd never imagined this many young people all flying rockets in one place at one time. Mookie got her picture taken with the Estes, and her field pass autographed by Vern himself.
After the contest flying was over, several demo flights were made. There was a celebrity impersonator present who did a pretty good Albert Einstein (100 years ago he introduced the theory of relativity - Albert, not the impersonator), and then the Goddard rocket flight. Then nine high power rockets took to the sky, dwarfing the rockets that the students flew and showing them what the next step was if they wanted to pursue the hobby. Big wow factor, including a very nice flight made by a rocket sporting an Animal Motor Works "Green Gorilla" motor which fires with, you guessed it, a brilliant emerald green flame.
Then it was time for the awards. Speeches, VIP's, giant "prize" checks, photos of all the teams, special awards given by the various aerospace companies for things like best craftsmanship, lightest successful rocket, teamwork, etc. I can't quote her exactly, but The Director of Education for NASA said something I thought really brought things into perspective:
You designed and successfully flew a payload carrying vehicle. It launched safely, completed the mission it was designed for, and brought the payload it was carrying back unharmed. (pointing to the three NASA astronauts on the platform) I think they'll agree that you've conquered the important parts of this challenge, especially the 'bringing back the payload unharmed' part.
This contest is truly a space program in miniature, and for the third year in a row the kids kicked its butt.
If you go to the TARC site (click through the opening pages), you'll find photographs of many of the teams and what awards they won. The final results are up too, and I'm amazed at the precision these kids achieved. Remember that the challenge was a targeted time aloft of 60 seconds, and 43 teams out of 100 were within 10 seconds of that. Six teams were within 2 seconds of the target! Two teams dropped out of the top 10 because they decided to design and fly a less complex single-stage rocket and accept the time penalty involved.
The shortest successful flight was just under 18 seconds. The rocket arced near horizontal right off the launch rod. Staging was perfect, except for the horizontal part, and just as everyone was expecting it to slam into the ground (about 20 feet above and 200 yards downrange) the chute ejected. The recovery was abrupt and violent, but the chute opened, the eggs were intact (!!!) and everything else held together.
After the awards ceremony I got to play troll again and manage access to a huge catered BBQ. Talking to the caterer, they fed 400 people in the first 20 minutes, and almost a thousand in all in less than an hour. Mookie and I got our food (I was the last in line) and sat with an adult from one of the teams. Don't know if he was a parent or teacher, we originally thought he was just quiet, but it gradually came out that he was royally pissed at another adult who talked the kids into changing their parachute size at the last minute, and it cost the kids a place in the top 10. It was very uncomfortable because the students and adults were sitting at three or four different tables and nobody would talk to each other. I'm glad I didn't have to share a ride home with them!
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