The annual Team America Rocketry Challenge is the world's largest and most prestigious rocket contest. Of 669 teams who registered this year, 330 submitted qualifying results, with the top 100 moving on to the finals. The first school outside the continental United States to enter this prestigious contest, Elena Christian came in 61st in the finals.
Elena Christian science teacher Steve Bullock started the rocketry club a little over a year ago, and his entire 8th-grade science class participated, with a core group of seven students actively building and launching rockets.
Dequan Prentice is team captain, responsible for setting up the rocket, while co-captain McClent Langellier helps with launching. Kaila Mitchell oversees safety measures; Silkia Carmona is responsible for documentation, photos and media; and Aaleyah Joseph, Kayhania Gumbs and Gevron Labeau are tasked with locating and recovering the rocket after its flight.
After qualifying in April, these seven flew to the May 15 finals in Great Meadow—an aptly named park in the green, rolling hills of Virginia horse country outside Washington, D.C.
The goal was to carry a hen's egg aloft and return it safely to earth, while flying a controlled height and time. Rather than using parachutes, this year the rocketeers had to use streamers to slow their payloads' descents. Each team was to fire a single rocket, after which the best 20 would compete for the top prizes.
The Elena Christian rocket fired just fine, took off to a good height and returned to earth in 46.5 seconds -- a good time. (See video link at story's end.) But the altimeter measuring how high it flew was defective and gave no reading. Competitors have to set up and fire their rockets without any adult supervision or assistance, so when the altimeter failed, Carmona and Prentice had to find the appropriate officials to certify the altimeter did not work and decide whether to allow a re-flight. After trooping from one official tent to another to get the "T"s crossed and "I"s dotted, they had only a few minutes to fix a broken fin, reload their payload and launch again.
"At least we get a re-flight," said Mitchell, crumpling blue tissue paper with Joseph to pack around the payload while Prentice folded up a long aluminized plastic streamer. Officials measured and weighed the rocket for its re-flight, then the team hustled off to their new launch pad. Again they had a successful launch, returning an unbroken egg to the earth. But a second brand new, never used altimeter also failed to give a good reading. This time it looked like the jig was up, because the altimeter gave a minimal reading of 75 feet—far lower than the rocket actually flew, but high enough to count as a score.
At first, officials said the score was final, but the team pressed the question. The second altimeter was tested and found to be defective, and the team got a rare third try. On the final launch, the team's rocket flew 1,230 feet and stayed in air 59 seconds—too high and too long to win, but placing the St. Croix team respectably in the middle of the pack.
"The students did their jobs fine; the problem was a technical one out of their control," Bullock said. "But if you extrapolate the height from the time, our first flight lasted 46.5 seconds, which would put us right in there with the top scorers, if the altimeter had worked correctly."
Although their journey was brief, the students and teachers took advantage of the opportunity to do a little sightseeing in the nation's capital. The day before the contest, the team toured the Library of Congress and Delegate Donna Christensen spent half an hour on Capitol Hill talking with the students and answering questions, Carmona and Joseph said.
Lessons learned this year will give them an edge next time, Bullock said. "We learned a few things and will be a lot savvier next year," Bullock said after returning to St. Croix. "We need more redundancy. … Next year we plan to go back and put two, already tested altimeters into the rocket."
The Team America Rocketry Challenge was created eight years ago by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry to encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math and help prepare the next generation of aerospace engineers and professionals. Even as these fields continue to grow, the number of new graduates with the right specialties is shrinking, creating a growing demand for these high-paying professional positions.