May 26, 2004

Final Report – Team America Rocketry Challenge 2004

I’ve rattled on about this for a year now, and last Saturday, May 22, 2004 was the big day. The purpose of TARC is to promote an interest in aerospace sciences and technology fields among students, and in it’s first two years it has been a rousing success.

In the extended entry is a rundown on the whole event, and let me summarize by saying that this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Here are some numbers about the TARC 2004:

609 teams entered, comprising over 7,000 students, from all 50 states and DC.
201 teams submitted qualification flights
102 teams were selected to come to the flyoff (three way tie for 100th place)

Flight profile: Using a rocket designed and constructed by the student team, make a two-stage flight to as close as possible to 1250 feet, as measured by an electronic altimeter, while carrying a payload of two fresh eggs and returning them safely.

To qualify, the teams had to make a flight as witnessed and verified by a member of the National Association of Rocketry (NAR). The flight would be scored based on altitude and condition of the eggs and the scores sent in. The top 100 scores were invited to the finals.

More numbers:

7 teams submitted perfect qualifying scores (exactly 1250 feet and unbroken eggs)
41 teams qualified by making flights within 25 feet of the target altitude
The average qualifying score in 2003 was 99, in 2004 it was 38 (lower is better)

All day Friday, NAR and Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) volunteers set up the flying range at Great Meadows. Mookie and I helped last year, but this year I couldn’t take the time off from work.

On Friday evening, the NAR volunteers got together at a local high school for our final review of range operations. There were 70 volunteers, many of whom had also volunteered in the 2003 finals and/or had worked during the year to help organize this year's contest. Several had mentored one or more teams. Many were from out of state, from as far away as Colorado Springs and Minneapolis. There were quite a few New Englanders pitching in as well.

After the volunteer’s brief, the student teams entered the auditorium. Several hundred students, parents, and teachers were officially welcomed and given the rundown on the procedures that would be in effect for the contest. Speakers included the presidents and vice-presidents of the NAR and AIA, but the biggest buzz was saved for a surprise guest speaker, Vern Estes, founder of the Estes rocket company.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a picture of one of my rockets used on a promotional billboard at the briefing.

After the briefing, Mookie and I headed home – about an hour away – and got home around 10:30pm, needing to be at the flying field – more than an hour away – at 6am on Saturday.

In 2003, the weather at the finals was miserable and rainy. The contest even had a delay when a thunderstorm cell moved through and the field was cleared. For this year’s contest, the weather was clear but unseasonably hot and humid. The temperature hit the 90 degree mark, but the winds were near calm and the expected afternoon storms never materialized.

First order of business on Saturday morning was to help clear away the remains of a large party canopy that had been destroyed by the wind during an overnight storm. The canopy had smashed through a fence surrounding the field, so we did what we could to improvise repairs and make things safe.

Teams started to show up around 7am, and there were some high-power rocket demo flights made early on. Around 9am a local high school color guard presented the colors, and a student choir sang the National Anthem, followed immediately by a low level pass from a pair of US Marine Corps F18-Hornets. Oooo-Rah!

Mookie was a runner, delivering flight cards to the check-in table for teams that had selected their eggs. I was part of the recovery team, in case someone hung a rocket in a tree my job was to help them get it down if possible (and safe) using our 40 foot extensible poles, or qualify them for a re-flight if needed. Because of the calm winds, only one team treed a rocket, and they got it down safely. Basically, us recovery guys spent the day giving the runners breaks and spelling other volunteers as needed.

The most fun was watching the various teams. Many wore matching outfits or school colors, like the team who all had matching Hawaiian shirts with name tags showing their jobs (“egg specialist”, “ground support”, etc.). One memorable team wore togas, complete with laurel wreaths on their heads. I hope they used plenty of sunscreen.

Regardless of the uniform, or lack thereof, the focus was on their rockets. Each team made one flight for all the marbles. Limited exceptions were made for an encounter with the aforementioned rocket-eating trees (none needed) or altimeter malfunction or motor malfunction. Disqualifications were awarded for unsafe recoveries (i.e. – lawn darts) or broken eggs, which didn’t always match up. One team had their rocket come in sans parachute, and the eggs survived the sudden stop at the end of the flight. At the end of the day there were maybe six re-flights allowed, including one unfortunate team who suffered altimeter malfunctions on two different flights using two different altimeters. They took solace in the fact that they made two perfect flights, it was the electronics that let them down.

It was pretty neat to see the different ways the various teams tackled the technical problems involved. Same task, same goal, very different solutions and designs.

During the day, Vern Estes and his wife were out and about, talking to the kids and teachers. So was Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, who is a big supporter of hobby rocketry. Homer Hickam of “October Sky” and “Rocket Boys” fame also got to speak to many of the teams.

There was also an area where several organizations had information tables. NASA had their mobile flight simulator set up, and various technical colleges and various other group reps were talking to people and handing out cool loot like posters and pens. Mookie scored a CIA pencil.

The competition was close, and everyone expected some ties among the top finishers, but it wasn’t until midway through the afternoon that a team nailed it – perfect score of zero. Right after that a team scored a five. Four more teams flew to within 15 feet of the target altitude, and ten more within 50 feet.

And then came the awards ceremony and guest speakers. Aside from the NAR and AIA representatives and the VIP’s mentioned above, speeches were given by NASA’s Director of Education (or some similar title, I tried to Google her name but had no luck), and Admiral (ret.) Craig Steidle, who now heads up NASA’s new Office of Exploration Systems, aka the “manned mission to the Moon, and beyond to Mars” projects. The high-profile of the guests demonstrates the importance attached to the TARC.

The kids really perked up when the NASA lady (damn, I wish I could remember her name) let everyone know that according to current plans, the first person to step onto Mars is currently in middle school or early high school. There were a LOT of “hey, that’s us!” looks and comments.

I may get some of the specifics about the awards wrong, but the gist is correct. The top 20 team’s faculty advisors (usually Science teachers) were each awarded $1000 to purchase equipment for their school science department. Several of the teachers were also awarded a trip to Space Camp for teachers, in addition to invitations to educational seminars sponsored by NASA and AIA member companies. I believe the top 15 teams will have the opportunity to submit proposals for further experiments to be flown aboard real NASA sounding rockets, the Space Shuttles, or the International Space Station. There is also an advanced version of the Rocket Challenge called the Student Launch Initiative sponsored by NASA where the teams compete using high-power rockets and the target altitude is one mile. The top teams also took home cash prizes for the students.

Head on over to the official website (click the “button” in the lower right corner to proceed through the title screens), and check things out. The official results are posted, and clicking on the team name displays a picture of the winning team with their rocket or with the VIP’s at the awards ceremony.

So that’s how Mookie and I and about a thousand friends, rocketeers and fellow space enthusiasts spent last Saturday. Like I said, it was one of the great days of my life, and I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.

Posted by Ted at May 26, 2004 11:27 AM
Category: Rocketry
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