October 04, 2003

Team America Rocketry Challenge

(Note: I originally posted this in three parts when I first started blogging. I never moved it over from the old site, so I'm reposting it here in revised form.)

See the link on the right side of the page (under "I'm involved") for the official word about the Team America Rocketry Challenge. One thing for sure is that the TARC is proof positive that kids will rise up to expectations.

The task for teams of high school students was that they had to plan, design, build and fly a rocket. Because you can buy kits in Wal-Mart to do that much, a lot of required complexity was added. The rocket had to fly as close as possible to 1500 feet, and since altitude measurement was a required, the team had to plan on using an electronic altimeter.

The next requirement was that the rocket had to have two stages. In other words, the first motor has to stop burning before the second motor fires. If you've seen pictures of the old Saturn V moon shots, that's how it worked. Three stages, each one dropping off as it was done.

The last requirement was that the rocket had to carry a payload. Two fresh hens eggs, to be brought back to earth unbroken.

Now that is a challenge!

The organizers expected a couple hundred teams to enter, and planned for twice that. Instead, almost 900 teams of students signed up.

Designing a rocket is like any other engineering project, it boils down to tradeoffs. Think about a car for example; designing for lots of people room means a larger body which means a heavier vehicle which means a bigger motor which means less room for people which means…

For the rocket design, the only set dimension was the size and weight of the eggs. The teams were provided with eggs that were weighed and measured to be within contest tolerances (and candled to make sure there were no unseen hairline cracks).

Other than that, the design was freeform. Each team was given a list of commercially available rocket motors that they could use for the flight. These motors ranged in size and power – the largest allowed motor was 256 times more powerful than the smallest. The teams had to come up with a combination of staged motors to meet the requirements. There were other considerations too, because some motors required additional electronics to ignite the upper stage.

There are photos of the teams accessable from the TARC page. In particular, look at the rockets they flew in the finals, and how teams devised different solutions to the same problem.

Each team consisted of high school students and a teacher. There were entries from every state and one from an American school overseas (APO address). Over 9000 students were participants. The teachers were there for adult supervision, but the students were required to do the actual design and construction work, and to fly the rockets themselves. Some teams were only a few students, while other teams comprised a whole class. Some schools entered more than one team. Looking at the team photos, you’ll notice a fair number of young ladies involved, including a few all-female teams.

Each team received sophisticated rocket design and simulation software so that they could build and fly ‘virtual’ rockets before starting construction. Teams were not required to use the software, but I think the benefits far outweighed the time spent learning to use it well.

The team photos were taken at the Finals, held in Virginia in May. Many teams couldn’t afford to send the entire team, but I thought it interesting to see that the teams from small towns often had banners or shirts listing their sponsors and local businesses who donated money to help them meet expenses for the contest. For some, it looked like everyone on ‘Main Street, USA’ chipped in!

An unofficial member of many teams were the mentors, who were experienced rocketeers volunteering time to help. Few students and teachers had experience building and flying rockets, so the teams were encouraged to contact their closest rocket clubs for assistance.

And what is a contest without prizes, eh? From the AIA site:
A grand prize pool of $59,000 in cash and savings bonds was shared by the top five teams. In addition, the top ten teams will compete for three $2500 grants to design, build and launch an advanced rocket with NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Each of the top 25 teams is being invited to send one of their teachers to an advanced NASA rocketry workshop.

This is real rocket science.

The TARC was originally concieved as a one-time event, but the response from students, teachers and industry was so overwhelmingly positive that the 2004 Challenge has already been announced.

A couple of good articles about the 2003 Challenge have been posted this month (.pdf files).

Posted by Ted at October 4, 2003 11:39 PM
Category: Rocketry
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