American students get ready for Team America Rocketry Challenge

Registration for next year’s Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) is now open. Over the course of the 2016-2017 school year, middle and high school teams will design model rockets from scratch. The rockets must carry a raw egg 775 feet into the air and return it to the ground, intact, within 41-43 seconds. 

Early next year the teams will launch their rockets at qualifying events. 5,000 students on 800 teams are expected to compete in the qualifiers. The top one hundred teams will travel to Washington, DC, to compete in the finals. 

This year's TARC will pose a greater challenge for the rocket teams. Their rockets must have two different body tube diameters and the rocket bodies must be painted. Both design elements will affect the rockets' flight significantly.

Practice is one of the key elements to success in TARC. The students that do best launch a lot of rockets before their first competitive launch. They must learn how a variety of weather conditions affect their rocket’s performance. Nobody knows what the weather will be like on the day of each competition so the students must know how to tweak rocket fins and other elements at the last minute.

That does not come cheap. Teams can expect to spend $500 to $1000 on supplies alone depending on how many test launches they conduct. Add on to that the cost of traveling to the East Coast. Fundraising becomes another factor - many teams turn to crowdfunding and sponsorships from local businesses.

But there is a payoff for the top teams. TARC’s sponsors will offer more than $100,000 in prizes and scholarships. Raytheon gives the TARC champions an expense-paid trip to Paris to represent the United States in the International Rocketry Challenge at next year’s Paris Air Show. 

Students from Odle Middle School watch as their rocket leaves the pad. Over the course of the two day Team America Rocketry Challenge, the students out-performed one hundred other teams to become America's rocketry champions. Credit: Team America Rocketry Challenge

A team of middle school students won this years Team America Rocketry Challenge. Mikaela Ikeda, captain of Bellevue, Washington's Space Potatoes, told TARC staff that “it felt like I was hovering five feet off the ground for the rest of the day.”  Jim Petoskey, the team’s Assistant Coach explained how practice and data drove Odle Middle School’s success “with each group launching rockets around 20 times, [the students] had 60 launches of data to guide [their] decisions at the national launch… more data meant more accurate results.”

The Space Potatoes out-rocketed teams from Great Britain, France, and Japan to win the International Rocketry Challenge. Credit: Team America Rocketry Challenge

The Space Potatoes went on to win the International Rocketry Challenge held at the Farnsborough International Airshow outside London. “Representing the entire country was really intimidating,” Ikeda explained. “Luckily, we had each other for support and everyone did their jobs perfectly!” The Space Potatoes competed against champion rocketry teams from the UK, France, and Japan to win the world title.

Founded in 2002 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, TARC has become the largest student rocketry contest in the world. More than 65,000 students have competed in the contest over the past fourteen years. It’s goal is inspire America’s students to pursue careers in science and engineering by giving them hands-on experience with an engineering project. David F. Melcher, President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association said in a press release that “the students building model rockets in TARC are the future scientists and engineers who will launch manned missions to Mars and beyond.

The Space Potatoes have taken TARC’s educational mission to heart, using their rocketry skills to conduct atmospheric research. The students’ structured approach to their work earned them another prize at this year’s TARC: the Engineering Notebook Competition. Teams are asked to document their work in a notebook just as professional engineers and scientists do. They must detail every aspect of their project from concept to design to testing. (Here's a PDF of the Space Potatoes’ prize-winning notebook.)

TARC encourages its teams to conduct outreach just as professional aerospace engineers do. It awards a one hundred and first spot in each year’s championship competition to the team that “excels at spreading the word about the Team America Rocketry Challenge to their peers and community.” 

This year’s outreach prize went to the RCS Engineering Rocketry Team. These Alabama students won both the TARC and the IRC in 2015. They used their local fame to help other schools in northern Alabama develop their own rocket programs. “It’s been something we’ve really enjoyed,” team captain Andrew Heath told the Franklin County Times. “We saw a lot more interest in the community. It’s been really great to see other kids get involved.” 

The team didn’t repeat their championship performance at this year’s TARC. But don’t feel bad for the kids at RCS Engineering. Their performance in 2015 earned them a spot in Nasa’s Student Launch Initiative where they held their own competing with university rocket teams to launch high performance rockets a mile high. The team's teacher sponsor, Mark Keeton, told the Franklin County Times that "building and launching that larger rocket - they loved that."

Registration for TARC 2017 opened yesterday. It closes December 2, but the earlier you start the better.