Sunday, May 17, 2009

Team America Rocketry Challenge 2009

Yesterday was the 2009 Team America Rocketry Challenge. 100 teams of students from all over the US (43 states had teams entered and 36 states were represented in the finals) competed for scholarship money, educational prizes and more.

A high school from Madison, Wisconsin took top honors. Twice, in fact. They had three teams make the finals. One team won the flight competition and another team won the presentation award. Kick ass, and their teacher was a justifiably proud man.

Here's a brief recap for those reading about this for the first time. Teams of students (middle school, high school, 4H, Boy Scouts, Explorers, home schoolers, etc) are given a task and must design, build and fly a rocket to do successfully do that task. Adults can mentor and advise, but the kids do all the actual work. Teams make official entry flights and send the results in, and the 100 best scores are selected for the finals. A one-day flyoff determines the winners.

Seven years ago, the first TARC was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flight. The aerospace industry saw it as a chance to get kids interested in math, science and technology, because the industry is rapidly aging and new blood is needed. Some 13% of all aerospace workers are now eligible for retirement! Remember, the big catalyst for these guys was Sputnik and Apollo.

After batting around ideas about radio controlled airplanes and such, the organizers of the event, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) decided to ask the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) to help out. And TARC was born.

It was so successful that it has grown to be an annual event, and the payoffs are starting to roll in. Companies are hiring the college graduates who participated in TARC as high schoolers. They're taking it that seriously.

How seriously? Last year our keynote speaker at the awards ceremony was Secretary of Defense Gates. This year it was the Secretary of the Air Force. We've had the Director of NASA. Buzz Aldrin has attended, as have many other astronauts.

So this year the challenge was to design, build and fly a rocket that would fly as close as possible to 750 feet and spend as close to 45 seconds as possible in the air from first motion to landing on the ground. The payload was a raw egg and it had to be carried sideways inside the rocket and be returned unbroken.

The prizes get better every year. Besides the scholarship money, telescopes were awarded, as were seminars and workshops for teachers. The winning team is going to the Paris airshow, courtesy of Raytheon, who also flew out the winning team from the UK to participate in our finals in the second "Transatlantic Championship". The kids from Great Britain won for the second year in a row.

So it was a long, satisfying day. My job again this year was access control to the team prep area. When we say that the kids have to do the work, we mean it. Adults are not allowed into the areas where the kids prep their rockets, or on the field where the kids set 'em up and launch them. The kids have to go through the safety check alone, and they have to know what's going on to pass that. I mostly spent the day answering questions from nervous parents and teachers who, for the first time, couldn't hover around the kids while they did their rocketry.

I spent quite a bit of time talking to the adults with the British team. We were laughing about the bureaucracy that exists in both countries. His daughter is 14 years old and has her explosives permit from the London police department. She also has a government license to handle explosives, both required in England to fly high-power rockets. She can legally purchase over 100 lbs of black powder. Yet because she's not 18, she can't buy fireworks, even though she's better qualified than the people selling them. Bizarre.

I also learned a bit about Mr. Arundel (pronounced Aaron-dell, not a-RUN-dell), who founded the Great Meadow foundation, the field we fly on. When he found out that developers wanted to buy that land and slap 200 homes on it, he bought it instead and turned it into the most beautiful equestrian park, and made it available to the public for all kinds of events. Like rocket launches. Mr. Arundel is one of those quiet heroes you never hear about.

Another long (at the field before 6am, home around 8pm), tiring, yet oh-so-rewarding day.