Rocket club launches dream for national title

April 29, 2014

By Neil Pierson

Many of them don’t have the desire to study physics in college, but the eight members of the Skyline High School rocketry club are united this year in lessons in propulsion, weight distribution and mass.

Along with Newport High School in Bellevue, Skyline is one of two teams from Washington that have qualified for the Team America Rocketry Challenge, a 100-team national competition that takes place May 10 in The Plains, Va., near Washington, D.C.

The eight team members are Kieran Dong, Griffin Johnson, Crystal Liang, Ankit Madhira, Gleb Sych, Ben Therrien, Ian Walp and Pan Zhang. Skyline physics teacher Rebecca Fowler is their adviser, although contest rules prohibit her from providing physical help.

Contributed Skyline High School rocketry club students, including (from left) Ian Walp, Ankit Madhira and Kieran Dong, prepare to test launch the solid fuel rocket they will enter in the national Team America Rocketry Challenge in Virginia.

Skyline High School rocketry club students, including (from left) Ian Walp, Ankit Madhira and Kieran Dong, prepare to test launch the solid fuel rocket they will enter in the national Team America Rocketry Challenge in Virginia.

It’s the third time in four years Skyline will send a team to the challenge, which invites students in grades seven through 12 to participate. The rules change annually, and teams must submit data from practice launches to qualify.

This year, teams are trying to launch their rockets to a precise height of 825 feet, with the flight lasting 48-50 seconds from launch to landing. Every foot above or below 825 feet adds a point to a team’s score, and every second outside the time window adds four points. The lowest score wins.

Several Skyline club members are seniors who are in the school’s International Baccalaureate program, and their busy academic schedule caused the team to have a late start in design and construction.

“We eventually caught up, we met the deadline, we finished the rocket,” said Sych, a sophomore in his first year with the club. “I think everything’s going good right now.”

Constructing the rocket isn’t a simple ordeal, said Johnson, a senior. Once the team receives specifications for the challenge, it uses computer models to design a prototype.

The students sand, cut, glue and screw materials together, and that requires precision. Contest rules limit a rocket’s weight to 650 grams, about 1.7 pounds, and Skyline’s qualifying model weighed 649 grams.

“One gram can make a difference,” Johnson explained. “Last time we launched, it was kind of moist, so we had to take some weight off … Each launch, the rocket would get wetter and it would add a little mass to it.”

“The guidelines are very precise,” Sych added, “and you have to be very precise when you’re building the rocket, because if you’re not, then you’ll end up 10 seconds longer in the air than you want to be.”

In addition to the challenge’s height and time requirements, there’s an additional task. Each rocket contains two raw eggs, and both must return to earth uncracked.

To accomplish that, Dong, a senior, was responsible for installing Tempur-Pedic foam. She said the super-cushioned material has saved the team from disaster in practice launches, when portions of the rocket have separated and fallen without a parachute. Because the eggs were wrapped in foam, they haven’t cracked.

This will be Dong’s third and final trip to the national finals. She’s headed to the University of Idaho in the fall to major in biology.

“I’m a little bit of an outlier,” she said. “I’m here just because once you start, it’s kind of hard to stop, partially because it’s such a small group.”

Johnson is in a similar situation — he plans to study computer science at California Polytechnic State University.

“When I first got into physics last year, I was really interested in this, and I actually built a larger rocket over the summer on my own,” he said. “I’m finishing that up now and I’m going to launch it sometime before school ends. It’s kind of just opened up another hobby for me to pursue.”

Fowler said the club has to pay its way to Virginia, and did some fundraising earlier in the year. They’ve also received financial support from the Issaquah Schools Foundation and Aerojet Rocketdyne, a Redmond-based company that specializes in missile defense systems.

Fowler said she’s amazed by her students’ teamwork and problem-solving capabilities.

“They’re able to really work coherently together as a group, which is a really important skill that a lot of teenagers don’t have,” she said.

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