May 19, 2008

Team America Rocketry Challenge 2008

Yesterday was the Team America Rocketry Challenge for 2008, rightly billed as "the largest model rocket contest in the world."

You can look through my archives for posts about TARC from previous years, but the short version is that teams of middle and high school kids design, build and fly rockets designed to accomplish three goals:

1.  Get as close as possible to 750 in altitude.
2.  Be airborne for exactly 45 seconds - from first motion to touch down under parachute.
3.  Carry aloft two raw eggs and return them undamaged.

This year, around 650 teams from all fifty states and Puerto Rico accepted the challenge.  Over 60% made successful flights and sent their results in to be scored.  The top 100 teams were invited to The Plains, Virginia for a one-day flyoff to determine the winner.

There were a few new wrinkles for this contest, besides the usual alteration of the objectives to keep things fresh from year to year.  This time around, the top 18 teams were required to make a second flight, and the scores from these two flights were added together.  This way, consistency was rewarded and the contest was less likely to be won by a team making that one perfect lucky launch.  A presentation event was also added which teams could enter to explain their process and thinking as they designed, built and tested their rocket designs.

Here are some highlights that I remember... (oh, and lots and lots of pictures here!)
On Friday night we had the traditional pre-event launch crew briefing, followed by the student briefing.  The National Association of Rocketry uses a crew of over 100 volunteers to run this event, and the Aerospace Industries Association provides funding through their member corporations and additional manpower.

Imagine a school auditorium packed - SRO - with excited and nervous students, teachers and families.  They heard the usual introductory speechifying, and then the interest level really picked up when a project manager for the NASA Ares project stood up to explain how America is going back to the moon and beyond.  Lots of cool audio and visual, because if there's one thing NASA does well, it's propaganda.

Next up was the real star of the evening.  A young man who had been working as a jet propulsion engineer for over a year, got his start when he was part of a team at the first (or maybe second) Team America Rocketry Challenge!  He'd gone on to college and when he graduated he went interviewing.  The company that hired him specifically mentioned his TARC involvment.  The aerospace industry is actively recruiting these kids, one executive mentioned later that Lockheed Martin is looking to hire 10,000 engineers a year for the next five years to support the space program!

After that, the rules of the launch range were gone over, stressing safety and fun.  I got home about 10:30 that night.

I arrived at the field the next morning around 5:45, having left the house about an hour before that.  Despite the insane amounts of rain that we've had lately, the forecast was for a clear day with steady winds between 10-15mph, maybe picking up some in the afternoon.  The field was very wet, and hadn't been mowed in a while, leaving the grass some 6" high.  Soft enough to cushion a hard landing with a little luck.

My job this year was, once again, access control to the flying field.  Only the students are allowed on the field to prep and fly, the contest is about the kids doing the work, not the parents, teachers or advisers.  Mostly, I answered questions (or pointed folks to the information tent), shooed adults towards the spectator area and away from the entrance gate, and made sure VIP's and press had escorts before heading out to where the rockets were launching.  It's not the greatest job, but I get to see every rocket up close and wish every team good luck as they go through.

A team from North Carolina won it all, including a trip to the Farnborough Airshow courtesy of Raytheon.  The top 10 (18?) teams also won telescopes and invitations to participate in NASA's Student Launch Initiative (SLI).  Very cool.  Teachers and schools got prizes too.

I believe that among the top 18 there were, besides the public schools, a Boy Scout troop, an Explorer Post, a 4H club, a group of home-schooled students and at least one parochial school.  A pretty good mix of participants, and as usual there were several all-girl teams and teams with both guys and gals getting things done.

We had our first team in the finals from Hawaii.  A girl's school team qualified and made the long trip, five or six girls and three adults.  They didn't make the top 18, but they did win the Presentation contest.  Like most of the teams, they were an exhilarating mix  of enthusiasm, excitement and nervous tension.

Amongst the coolness of the day were a few standouts for me.  Around 2pm we were treated to a low level flyby by a B2 Stealth Bomber.

Later that afternoon some "special guests" stopped by.  Since there were no escorts available and things were calm around the gate area (there were two  of us assigned), I walked them out to the launch area for some photos.  It turns out the they were from the German Aerospace liason office (or something like that) in Washington DC.  The guy wanted pictures of the high power rockets - rare but not completely unheard of in Germany - and got a close up look at the large scale model of the Ares I rocket that will lift our next moon crew into orbit.  The winning team of the British version of TARC were also there prepping their winning rocket for a demo flight, one of their prizes was a trip to our finals.  Eventually we headed back to the spectator area, but not before Dieter and I had our picture taken together and he gave me his card so he could email me copies of the photos he and his photographer took.  Very nice people.

The cherry on top of the perfect sundae happened after the contest was over.  We'd broken down the flying range and put most of the equipment away, and I had finally wandered over to get in line for the catered BBQ (another event provided by one of the aerospace sponsors, the kids and our range crew didn't pay for a thing all day).  I was almost the last person in line, and was talking to another rocketeer that I had first met a few years before at another TARC.  His name is Jim Barrowman, and if you've ever been involved in rocketry you may remember the "Barrowman equations", which were the first mathematical explanation for stability in rocket flight.  Most simulators today use his equations, and certain engineering disciplines are very familiar with them.

So anyway, while we're chatting, the team from Hawaii bubbles up and gets in line behind us.  Another rocketeer says "Hey girls!  Rock Star!", and points at Jim.  The girls read his name tag and it's full-on squee time!  They're absolutely freaking out that "Mr. Barrowman" himself is standing right in front of them.

After a few minutes things calm down and everyone is chatting again when one of the girls mentions her dream of flying on the space shuttle.  I asked if they had flown from the Goddard launch range that morning (there were two ranges, Von Braun was the other).  They had, so I asked if she'd realized who the Range Safety Officer was.   Nope, they hadn't, so I let them know that it had been Jay Apt, former astronaut and veteran of four shuttle flights.  Cue another squee moment.

I finally dragged home, dead dog tired but happy.  Love rocketry, and love these kids.  If we stay the hell outta their way, they'll get us to Mars and further.

Posted by: Ted at 02:34 AM | category: Rocketry
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