McKINNEY (May 21, 2015) — Under heavy skies, the rocket burst off the launchpad in a sudden flash of smoke and flame, hissing skyward until it disappeared into the fog that blanketed The Plains, Va., on the morning of Saturday, May 9.
So far, so good for the P.R.I.D.E. 2 team from Scott Johnson Middle School – Nathan Everett, Joey Sander, Nick Sander, Grant Solomon and Team Captain Esther Ferman.
Only moments earlier they had watched as other crews failed to launch successfully, their rockets blowing up on ignition or careening wildly over the heads of the assembled teams before crashing back to earth in a dismal heap.
Some launched successfully and rocketed off into the clouds. But, they returned in the same fashion and plowed nose first into the wet turf like a smoking javelin.
So, the Scott Johnson team anxiously scanned the clouds for the first flash of orange that would confirm their rocket’s parachutes had deployed as planned ... there! First one and then two tiny parachutes emerged from the fog and bobbed slowly earthward like airborne jellyfish. The team moved out to retrieve their rocket and examine the data that would reveal how they had fared.
At the 2015 Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) National Fly-Off, even small variations in performance could cost valuable points.
Just getting to the National Fly-Off was no mean task. These rockets are scale models – not toys. They’re handmade, crafted to perform a specific task assigned by TARC – in this case, to carry a raw egg exactly 800 feet into the air and return it unharmed within a specified time-frame.
A lot of teams tried – more than 700 from across the country – but only the top 100 qualified for the finals. Scott Johnson was one of only 12 teams from Texas and one of only two middle schools in the state to make the roster.
Both Scott Johnson teams (P.R.I.D.E. 1 – Sebastian Valdez, Kishan Patel, Tyler Hix, Madison Saunders and Co-Captains Eddie Burdick and Collin Armstrong – and P.R.I.D.E. 2) logged a lot of hours after school and on weekends to make it happen.
“We put a lot of time into this,” said Patel. Monday through Friday, the teams worked after school on their rockets until about 6 or 7 p.m., feeding data into the simulation software before heading out for practice launches. “Each Saturday we went to Frisco to launch the rocket,” said Patel.
“On the weekends, we’d stay until nine,” added Everett. “So, we were up late trying to get everything perfect.”
In the process they learned about more than just physics and engineering. Teacher Dellen Gibson said that the rocketry challenge offered a great opportunity for growth in the areas of teamwork and accountability.
“The idea is not just the physical aspect of rocketry,” said Gibson. “It’s the ability to work within a team, to understand, listen and apply, to disagree and agree in order to come to a consensus on how they want to proceed. And, then, individual accountability – that’s huge because they each have to take care of their part. It’s a real growing process for the students.”
Along the way, they learned to listen to rookie 7th grader Madison Saunders (P.R.I.D.E. 1) who kept telling them to look at the data. “She showed them that if you don’t track what you do, you have no reason behind the changes you make,” said Gibson. “You’re just shooting them up like little kids. That’s $35 dollars a pop. Whoa! Back up the trolley!
“For what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to adjust according to what the wind speed was, the barometric pressure, what direction was the wind out of? You have to have baselines. They started to appreciate tracking their data. She convinced them.”
And they got better.
Success ... and Disaster
The Scott Johnson teams used a unique propulsion design that proved to be both a blessing and a liability. Most TARC teams employ a single large motor to propel their rockets, but those motors were not available when Scott Johnson formed their rocketry teams three years ago. So, they worked with what they were able to get – and they stuck with it.
“We used a [3-motor] cluster of smaller motors,” said Everett. “It’s more risky, and it’s a gamble because if it’s set up wrong, and a motor doesn’t light, it’s not going to work. With one motor, if it doesn’t light, you’re ok because you can redo it. With this setup, if one the motors doesn’t light, you’re rocket is [going to crash]. It’s very risky.”
On the other hand, three smaller motors working together offered increased power which added the capacity for more protective cushioning for the egg and greater ability to fine tune their rocket’s flight.
With that 3-motor cluster, P.R.I.D.E 2’s qualifying launch went almost perfectly and placed them easily within the top 100.
But, when P.R.I.D.E. 1 launched ... everything went haywire.
“They had tweaked their data and were doing really well,” said Gibson of the qualifying attempts. “But, you can only expect so many launches, even if they’re good launches. The body wears out. The G’s it pulls are pretty impressive. On their third and last attempt, they were out of time. So, they put it up. But, they didn’t seal the O-rings down by the motor mounts. The motor blew out through the side. The altimeter blew through the egg up into the nosecone and blew it off. Our parachutes were a little scorched coming down. And then the nose came back down and impaled about three inches into the ground. Everything was in pieces. The altimeter was shattered.
“That’s why we’re very strict on the way we handle safety. With the kids, we do safety first. They have to wear glasses when they’re working. They start learning respect for their tools and for others. That’s huge,” said Gibson.
With P.R.I.D.E. 2 successfully qualifying for the National Fly-Off, all 10 members of the Scott Johnson rocketry team headed to Washington, D.C. – because, although they worked on two separate rockets, they are one team.
The National Fly-Off: Where Even 72nd is Awesome
With their rocket safely back on the ground in Virginia, the members of Scott Johnson P.R.I.D.E. 2 retrieved the two halves and marched back, eagerly anticipating the scoring results of their launch. If they had come close to their qualifying score, they were confident that they would be in good shape.
But, in the end, it was the fog that confounded them – along with every other team that launched in the morning. What nobody on the ground knew was that the low-hanging, misty cloud cover was very thin and concealing clear skies just above it.
The team had reduced their rocket’s weight to compensate for the drag of the moist air, and when the rocket cleared the fog bank, it soared 63 feet beyond its target altitude.
The final score tally found the team from Scott Johnson in 72nd place – which is in the top 10 percent of TARC teams from across the entire country.
Not bad for a bunch of middle schoolers in a field dominated by high school teams.
“We’re better than a lot of people think we are,” said Everett. “Now, we’ve proved ourselves.”
And, when they take what they’ve learned and apply it to next year’s effort, well, the sky’s the limit.
For additional information on McKinney ISD, contact Shane Mauldin, MISD Communications Coordinator, at 469-302-4007 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About McKinney ISD
One of the fastest growing school districts in Texas, the McKinney Independent School District currently enrolls more than 24,750 students in 20 elementary schools, five middle schools, three high schools, four alternative schools and one early childhood education school. The mission of McKinney ISD, the champion for progressive learning throughout the diverse McKinney community, is to inspire and equip all students to explore, develop and express their unique potential as innovators, critical thinkers and collaborators through challenging, engaging and diverse learning experiences in vital partnership with the community. Visit the district's website at mckinneyisd.net.