The American Rocketry Challenge

 

Or, “Where I’m Spending My Weekend for the 20th Year Running.” The American Rocketry Challenge is a nationwide event open to middle- and high-school-age kids, that has been going long before STEM was a thing. One day, a couple of decades ago, an executive of the Aerospace Industries Association (Boeing, Raytheon, those guys) called up the President of our little hobby group, the National Association of Rocketry. The conversation was something like, “We give out scholarships every year, and we’re really tired of reading essays. You guys have any ideas?”

Thanks to some very smart people in the NAR management, particularly retired Navy captain Trip Barber, here we are at the 20th anniversary of the aerospace industry’s flagship program to develop new engineers. Every year the challenge is different, but it involves designing, building, and flying a rocket with a very fragile payload (one or two eggs) to a target altitude (determined by an onboard electronic altimeter) and getting it back on the ground in a predetermined time. This year, two eggs, mounted sideways, and the vehicle has to have two separate diameter body sections.

The contest is open to high school, middle school, homeschool, church, and Scout groups. Each team is given a local NAR member as a mentor. So many teams sign up that we had to limit it to two from each state, so 100 teams fly at the national finals in Virginia. The best teams spend months building, flying, breaking, fundraising, and learning. These kids work hard to get here.

Of the 100 teams coming to Great Meadow, VA, this weekend, the top 12 will divide up $100,000 in scholarships, and the first-place team will travel to London at Raytheon’s expense to compete at a major airshow. The top 25 teams will be offered slots in NASA’s Student Launch Initiative.

I have been one of the 150 NAR members who makes this event run every year, along with my son and daughter and future son-in-law. Fortunately, I can sit under a tent and work at Safety Check-In with the other grumpy old men. The enthusiasm from these kids charges my batteries every year. They are a hell of a lot smarter than I remember being back in the ’60s when I memorized every word of the Estes catalog. They are also more adventurous. When you have some time to waste, ask me about the team that decided the best way to fly their egg was to coat it with Marshmallow Fluff and put it in a balloon. They placed third.

If you happen to be in the northern Virginia area on Saturday, I encourage you to come to the Great Meadow equestrian park, see the exhibits that NASA and the aero companies put up, and watch the kids fly. They will start flying at 7 am, and each team has a preassigned launch window. After the contest flying is done at 3 p.m., there is demonstration flying as the results are tabulated. Spectators are most welcome. The officials will be wearing uniform hats and red shirts, and will be delighted to stop what they’re doing and answer your questions. It’s an amazing experience, and well worth your time.

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  1. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Any idea what the parking situation is like?  A field or something?

    • #1
  2. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    I love it, Doug, and it takes me back to my own very modest model rocket days. I just read the Challenge Rules for this year. The requirements are impressive, as is the attention to safety.

    Have a great event!

    • #2
  3. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Any idea what the parking situation is like? A field or something?

    It’s an equestrian park, so there is plenty of parking and a fence to lean against. The teams will be operating in tents the other side of the fence, and two separate launch facilities will be operating. There is also an excellent PA system so you’ll hear every countdown.

    • #3
  4. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Any idea what the parking situation is like? A field or something?

    It’s an equestrian park, so there is plenty of parking and a fence to lean against. The teams will be operating in tents the other side of the fence, and two separate launch facilities will be operating. There is also an excellent PA system so you’ll hear every countdown.

    Have a great event.  Hoping the weather holds.

    • #4
  5. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Any idea what the parking situation is like? A field or something?

    It’s an equestrian park, so there is plenty of parking and a fence to lean against. The teams will be operating in tents the other side of the fence, and two separate launch facilities will be operating. There is also an excellent PA system so you’ll hear every countdown.

    Have a great event. Hoping the weather holds.

    Thankee kindly, sir. We have flown in mist and light rain, and have waited for thunderstorms to pass. If we have to switch to Sunday that’s an option, but it’s never been necessary. Virginia is nice this time of year. Actually, most times of the year.

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Doug, it sounds terrific! What a great way to encourage learning, the entrepreneurial spirit and just plain fun! Have a great time.

    • #6
  7. davenr321 Coolidge
    davenr321
    @davenr321

    You’ve provided more information on this than I have been able to find in the last two years. Thanks!

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Douglas Pratt: The officials will be wearing uniform hats and red shirts

    Works as long as you are not in the Star Trek universe.  Especially any active duty US Navy ensigns volunteering as officials. 

    • #8
  9. James Hageman Coolidge
    James Hageman
    @JamesHageman

    This is the coolest thing I’ve heard this week. In 7th grade science class we made (Estes) rockets, built our own wind tunnel, tested and flew some rockets. I had a Sky Hook, and lusted for the more expensive X-Ray or even the Saturn V, which was really pricey. Good days!

    • #9
  10. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    This man Herbert Desind was my junior high school science teacher, and the gentleman who ran the model rocket club for my years at Eisenhower Jr High in my term from 1971 to 1973. We were highly enthusiastic geeks, but with limited budgets, so every Wednesday was constricted to about 6 launches per person (the budget of two Estes engine three packs) with the dozen or so members.

    Mr Desind however was a kid with a much bigger budget, who could afford the novel Estes motion picture rockets (Cineroc, which used them big “D” engines), which were really pricy for 12 to 15 year olds. Some small selection of his rocket films are archived and live on in U tube*.

    I recall a period in 1972 where he was working thru a faulty batch of D engines that were exploding upon a moment after ignition. Which for the two stage Cineroc would get you about twenty feet off the ground, then have an impressive “kinetic destruction”.

    Estes, bless their souls, would replace the exploded camera rockets, gratis (I mean they were also sent the photographic evidence that it was their engines exploding).

    The best memory from those days of destruction was when the super macho, county dominating, EJrH soccer team came over to witness some of our “nerd fest” launch activities.  Yes, it was a day when destruction destiny happened upon a Cineroc, and I recall a few weeks later watch the launch and destruction of the mission, but in the last few frames before the image locks with destruction, you could clearly see all of the soccer guys cowering flat on the ground while the member of the club were still standing.

    I know we were laughing our butts off, but there is no photographic evidence to back me. Just a lingering memory of good time with Mr Desind, the leader of us nerds.

    Mr D died an untimely death at age 42, but his encouragement help propel me into a lifetime of service to NASA. He was one of the many people that had the ability shape ones interests. An Example…

    I use to launch the Camroc, a still picture sister rocket to the Cineroc platform, but given the round shape emulsion it could not be commercial develop at a local location. So my father taught me how to process B&W film in our windowless bathroom, and then print the still images of when the rocket took the shot while pointing down as the chute opened.

    This lead to an interest in photography, (my dad gave me his ancient Leica, a great camera even when I inherited it) and in high school that led me to being asked to be the high school photographer for my Senior year (by then I gradated to a nice Minolta SLR). That was the link to meet the Yearbook Editor, who has been my wife of the last 40 years.

    Life connections from Mr Desind.   Thanks where ever you are.

    *a few of the first segments you can clearly see the roof of our Jr High. The resolution is too poor to see myself in any of the launches, but I know I was there for most of his after school movies.

    • #10
  11. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    At the Elementary School that I went to, in Oregon, the 6th Grade class had assembled a model rocket – I don’t remember if it was Estes, or Centuri which also existed at that time – but couldn’t get it to launch.

    Back then, the igniting wire was hand-made into a small loop that was supposed to make direct contact with the fuel pack inside the motor, for ignition.  But for whatever reason, maybe previous failed attempts had somehow made the end-most bit of the fuel un-ignitable, it didn’t work.  (I don’t know why they apparently never thought of buying some new motors to try.)

    I’d been reading about the big rockets, and thought that making a “squib” might work.  So I put the wire loop into a short piece of drinking straw, secured the back wires with a dab of Elmer’s Glue having the loop protrude on the other side into a bit of a “cup,” and added a few grains of gunpowder pilfered borrowed from Dad’s reloading supplies.

    Finally, after however many years it didn’t work, the rocket finally launched.

    In later years, igniter wires came pre-looped with a small blob of something to help get things going.

     

    • #11
  12. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    kedavis (View Comment):

    At the Elementary School that I went to, in Oregon, the 6th Grade class had assembled a model rocket – I don’t remember if it was Estes, or Centuri which also existed at that time – but couldn’t get it to launch.

    Back then, the igniting wire was hand-made into a small loop that was supposed to make direct contact with the fuel pack inside the motor, for ignition. But for whatever reason, maybe previous failed attempts had somehow made the end-most bit of the fuel un-ignitable, it didn’t work. (I don’t know why they apparently never thought of buying some new motors to try.)

    I’d been reading about the big rockets, and thought that making a “squib” might work. So I put the wire loop into a short piece of drinking straw, secured the back wires with a dab of Elmer’s Glue having the loop protrude on the other side into a bit of a “cup,” and added a few grains of gunpowder pilfered borrowed from Dad’s reloading supplies.

    Finally, after however many years it didn’t work, the rocket finally launched.

    In later years, igniter wires came pre-looped with a small blob of something to help get things going.

     

    A creative solution, KE. My friends and I usually made our own igniters out of bread bag twist ties. We simply stripped the paper off and bent the wires into shape. They worked, but not as well as modern igniters.

    • #12
  13. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    At the Elementary School that I went to, in Oregon, the 6th Grade class had assembled a model rocket – I don’t remember if it was Estes, or Centuri which also existed at that time – but couldn’t get it to launch.

    Back then, the igniting wire was hand-made into a small loop that was supposed to make direct contact with the fuel pack inside the motor, for ignition. But for whatever reason, maybe previous failed attempts had somehow made the end-most bit of the fuel un-ignitable, it didn’t work. (I don’t know why they apparently never thought of buying some new motors to try.)

    I’d been reading about the big rockets, and thought that making a “squib” might work. So I put the wire loop into a short piece of drinking straw, secured the back wires with a dab of Elmer’s Glue having the loop protrude on the other side into a bit of a “cup,” and added a few grains of gunpowder pilfered borrowed from Dad’s reloading supplies.

    Finally, after however many years it didn’t work, the rocket finally launched.

    In later years, igniter wires came pre-looped with a small blob of something to help get things going.

     

    A creative solution, KE. My friends and I usually made our own igniters out of bread bag twist ties. We simply stripped the paper off and bent the wires into shape. They worked, but not as well as modern igniters.

    “Modern” igniters?  The nichrome wire igniters have been around for a long time, I’m talking about the early 1960s.  Estes started in 1958.  They probably started making igniters with a small blob of “helper” in the 1970s.

    • #13
  14. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    At the Elementary School that I went to, in Oregon, the 6th Grade class had assembled a model rocket – I don’t remember if it was Estes, or Centuri which also existed at that time – but couldn’t get it to launch.

    Back then, the igniting wire was hand-made into a small loop that was supposed to make direct contact with the fuel pack inside the motor, for ignition. But for whatever reason, maybe previous failed attempts had somehow made the end-most bit of the fuel un-ignitable, it didn’t work. (I don’t know why they apparently never thought of buying some new motors to try.)

    I’d been reading about the big rockets, and thought that making a “squib” might work. So I put the wire loop into a short piece of drinking straw, secured the back wires with a dab of Elmer’s Glue having the loop protrude on the other side into a bit of a “cup,” and added a few grains of gunpowder pilfered borrowed from Dad’s reloading supplies.

    Finally, after however many years it didn’t work, the rocket finally launched.

    In later years, igniter wires came pre-looped with a small blob of something to help get things going.

     

    A creative solution, KE. My friends and I usually made our own igniters out of bread bag twist ties. We simply stripped the paper off and bent the wires into shape. They worked, but not as well as modern igniters.

    “Modern” igniters? The nichrome wire igniters have been around for a long time, I’m talking about the early 1960s. Estes started in 1958. They probably started making igniters with a small blob of “helper” in the 1970s.

    I was into model rocketry in the mid-1960s, starting late in elementary school. We didn’t need no steenkin’ helper blob. We always wrapped the igniter wire around a round toothpick to get it into shape without breaking the wire.  we stuffed it into the rocket motor with a twist of kleenex to make sure it stayed in contact with the rocket fuel. (The paper would catch fire at some point, setting off the fuel, even if we did not have direct contact between the igniter wire and the fuel.) Worked every time.   

    • #14
  15. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    At the Elementary School that I went to, in Oregon, the 6th Grade class had assembled a model rocket – I don’t remember if it was Estes, or Centuri which also existed at that time – but couldn’t get it to launch.

    Back then, the igniting wire was hand-made into a small loop that was supposed to make direct contact with the fuel pack inside the motor, for ignition. But for whatever reason, maybe previous failed attempts had somehow made the end-most bit of the fuel un-ignitable, it didn’t work. (I don’t know why they apparently never thought of buying some new motors to try.)

    I’d been reading about the big rockets, and thought that making a “squib” might work. So I put the wire loop into a short piece of drinking straw, secured the back wires with a dab of Elmer’s Glue having the loop protrude on the other side into a bit of a “cup,” and added a few grains of gunpowder pilfered borrowed from Dad’s reloading supplies.

    Finally, after however many years it didn’t work, the rocket finally launched.

    In later years, igniter wires came pre-looped with a small blob of something to help get things going.

     

    A creative solution, KE. My friends and I usually made our own igniters out of bread bag twist ties. We simply stripped the paper off and bent the wires into shape. They worked, but not as well as modern igniters.

    “Modern” igniters? The nichrome wire igniters have been around for a long time, I’m talking about the early 1960s. Estes started in 1958. They probably started making igniters with a small blob of “helper” in the 1970s.

    I was into model rocketry in the mid-1960s, starting late in elementary school. We didn’t need no steenkin’ helper blob. We always wrapped the igniter wire around a round toothpick to get it into shape without breaking the wire. we stuffed it into the rocket motor with a twist of kleenex to make sure it stayed in contact with the rocket fuel. (The paper would catch fire at some point, setting off the fuel, even if we did not have direct contact between the igniter wire and the fuel.) Worked every time.

    A bit of tissue could work too, I suppose.  At least for an undamaged motor.  There had been enough failed attempts at my school, that I figured something more advanced was needed.  I don’t remember what we/I used to wrap the igniter wire back then, might have been a toothpick, or maybe a large paper clip.  Later, they did start making the igniters pre-wound with the “accelerant” already in place.

    And by the way, you did need a “steenkin’ helper blob,” yours was just made of tissue paper.

    • #15
  16. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    This man Herbert Desind was my junior high school science teacher, and the gentleman who ran the model rocket club for my years at Eisenhower Jr High in my term from 1971 to 1973. We were highly enthusiastic geeks, but with limited budgets, so every Wednesday was constricted to about 6 launches per person (the budget of two Estes engine three packs) with the dozen or so members.

    Mr Desind however was a kid with a much bigger budget, who could afford the novel Estes motion picture rockets (Cineroc, which used them big “D” engines), which were really pricy for 12 to 15 year olds. Some small selection of his rocket films are archived and live on in U tube*.

    I know we were laughing our butts off, but there is no photographic evidence to back me. Just a lingering memory of good time with Mr Desind, the leader of us nerds.

    Mr D died an untimely death at age 42, but his encouragement help propel me into a lifetime of service to NASA. He was one of the many people that had the ability shape ones interests. An Example…

    I use to launch the Camroc, a still picture sister rocket to the Cineroc platform, but given the round shape emulsion it could not be commercial develop at a local location. So my father taught me how to process B&W film in our windowless bathroom, and then print the still images of when the rocket took the shot while pointing down as the chute opened.

    This lead to an interest in photography, (my dad gave me his ancient Leica, a great camera even when I inherited it) and in high school that led me to being asked to be the high school photographer for my Senior year (by then I gradated to a nice Minolta SLR). That was the link to meet the Yearbook Editor, who has been my wife of the last 40 years.

    Life connections from Mr Desind. Thanks where ever you are.

    *a few of the first segments you can clearly see the roof of our Jr High. The resolution is too poor to see myself in any of the launches, but I know I was there for most of his after school movies.

    I knew Herb, and he was terribly proud of kids like you.

    • #16
  17. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Great drone shot of the launch. Two of those folks in red shirts are Valerie and Keenan, running stopwatches.

    • #17
  18. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    This man Herbert Desind was my junior high school science teacher, and the gentleman who ran the model rocket club for my years at Eisenhower Jr High in my term from 1971 to 1973. We were highly enthusiastic geeks, but with limited budgets, so every Wednesday was constricted to about 6 launches per person (the budget of two Estes engine three packs) with the dozen or so members.

    Mr Desind however was a kid with a much bigger budget, who could afford the novel Estes motion picture rockets (Cineroc, which used them big “D” engines), which were really pricy for 12 to 15 year olds. Some small selection of his rocket films are archived and live on in U tube*.

    I know we were laughing our butts off, but there is no photographic evidence to back me. Just a lingering memory of good time with Mr Desind, the leader of us nerds.

    Mr D died an untimely death at age 42, but his encouragement help propel me into a lifetime of service to NASA. He was one of the many people that had the ability shape ones interests. An Example…

    I use to launch the Camroc, a still picture sister rocket to the Cineroc platform, but given the round shape emulsion it could not be commercial develop at a local location. So my father taught me how to process B&W film in our windowless bathroom, and then print the still images of when the rocket took the shot while pointing down as the chute opened.

    This lead to an interest in photography, (my dad gave me his ancient Leica, a great camera even when I inherited it) and in high school that led me to being asked to be the high school photographer for my Senior year (by then I gradated to a nice Minolta SLR). That was the link to meet the Yearbook Editor, who has been my wife of the last 40 years.

    Life connections from Mr Desind. Thanks where ever you are.

    *a few of the first segments you can clearly see the roof of our Jr High. The resolution is too poor to see myself in any of the launches, but I know I was there for most of his after school movies.

    I knew Herb, and he was terribly proud of kids like you.

    Middle school in PG county at that time was a real poopstorm given they were trying to be a nation show case for “bussing” cause. Mr D’s class, and especially his after school rocket club were a nerds refuge for the torrential storm of typical hormonal kids who bashed on those who cared less about popularity and more about the really cool things like space, or other potential dreams.

    • #18
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