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By John Published: May 14, 2011
St. Vincent - St. Mary rocket team captains Matt Schwenning (left) and Kevin Sickels hold model rocktets in front of the rocket team members who will participate in the Team America Rocketry Challenge National Championship competition in Washington D.C. this weekend. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

Team Alpha the all-girl model rocket squad at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School prepared to launch at an industrial park in Springfield Township the Thursday before Mother's Day.

It was the first decent day to fly for weeks and one of the last chances to practice before today's national championships.

The girls tracked their 3-foot-tall, cardboard-tube rocket painted baby blue onto a 6-foot metal launch rail and slid it down onto the pad.

They prepared to ignite a slug of solid rocket fuel and gunpowder in the booster section with a wire running to a tractor battery kept inside a wooden launch box painted in yellow and green, the school colors.

Senior Aubri Farris, 17, crouched at the launch box, trying to keep the knees of her jeans out of the mud. Then she called the countdown: ''Five, four, three, two, one.''

The rocket fired with a violent wshhhppt! like compressed air bursting from a tire valve.

A veil of smoke drifted from the launch pad, and all eyes turned skyward.

''That's a nice flight,'' said team adviser Robert Engels, eyeing the silent trajectory and glancing at his stopwatch. ''Beautiful. It's going in the right direction.''

Within a few seconds, the payload section, carrying a raw egg and an altimeter, separated from the booster. Both halves drifted down under their own parachutes.

The students aimed for a 40- to 45-second round trip and a target altitude of 750 feet. Any variation is penalized in the national competition. Team Alpha hit 761 feet and 39.73 seconds.

''It was almost perfect,'' Engels said. ''A flight like that will get you in the top 10.''

National competition

The girls are among 27 students on three St. Vincent-St. Mary teams competing today near Washington, D.C., in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, billed as the world's largest model rocket contest.

Only two other teams from Ohio are among the top 100 in the country: Dublin-Scioto High School and Minster Middle School.

St. Vincent-St. Mary has fielded rocket teams since the rocketry challenge began in 2002 as a one-time celebration of the Centennial of Flight and evolved into a nationwide competition among about 7,000 middle school and high school students.

The Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry sponsors the national competition.

St. Vincent-St. Mary's teams are sponsored by National Machine Group, an aeronautics firm in Stow. Company founder Peter Piglia is an alumnus, and the second generation of Piglias has continued supporting the program, which costs about $25,000 a year when they reach nationals.

Engels, who teaches physics, started coaching when this year's seniors were freshmen.

When he started, the team had 13 students. Now 50 students belong, evenly split between boys and girls, and there's a waiting list.

Usually the teams are mixed, but after the girls complained that the guys were hogging all the design and flight duties, Engels let some of the girls form their own team.

The rocketeers vowed last summer at a team barbecue to get more teams into the national competition. Last year, only one team qualified, and none had the year before.

Normally they would have started designing rockets and running computer flight simulations after school starts. But this year, they started designing the rockets in July and building them in August.

That gave them more time during the year to fly the rockets even in snow flurries. They also got an extra qualifying flight for the national competition, taking three tries instead of the normal two.

They needed the practice flights as many as 30 to 40 for each rocket to work out the kinks.

Getting the rockets to hit the right altitude and return to earth in the allotted time without cracking the payload egg takes precise design, a little luck of the Irish and plenty of trial and error.

Solving a problem

This year, they were having trouble with the light cardboard rockets overshooting the mark. They needed more weight going up, but they didn't want that extra mass dragging the payload section back to earth too fast.

They decided to pour sand into the parachute of the booster section. When the sections split, the sand in the chute would disperse safely in the sky and the payload would come down perfectly.

On the Thursday afternoon before nationals, one of the launches revealed a problem.

When the sections separated and the parachutes deployed, Engels saw something small plummeting to earth.

''Something's falling fast, though. What is that?''

''It's probably the sand,'' said Noah Nicholas, a junior on Team Echo.

The sand was still in the baggy.

''You're disqualified for that,'' Engels said.

''It's, like, loose in the bag,'' Noah said.

''It doesn't matter,'' Engels explained.

Observers would be all over the field during nationals and if they saw anything tumbling to earth that could be a safety hazard, they'd disqualify the team on the spot.

In earlier attempts, other teams had left the sand in the baggy, but they found that sometimes it wouldn't disperse. Now they just sprinkled the sand directly into the parachute.

The innovation obviously hadn't been communicated to everyone.

''Thank goodness you told me because if that comes down like a rock, you get disqualified,'' Engels said.

They talked about using the lead tape that golfers sometimes wrap on clubs to add permanent weight to the booster section.

Engels pointed out that they wouldn't be able to make adjustments based on weather conditions. Noah figured out a compromise solution.

''We added 66 grams,'' Noah said. ''Do you want to do 40 grams of a lead tape or something, so we'll still be adding sand, but not as much?''

''Yesss,'' Engels said, smiling broadly. ''That's what I like. You need that if it's a very windy day.''

On Thursday, the school sent them off with a pep assembly.

The members of Teams Alpha, Delta and Echo sat in folding chairs on the basketball court floor in front of the entire school in the bleachers.

''You read about scientists in textbooks and you think you have to be really smart to be a scientist and come up with some great idea and all of a sudden, bingo, I got the idea,'' Engels told the assembly.

''Science isn't at all like that. It's really about toiling away, doing little things, and lots of failures and keep working at something. That's what this team's just like. These students persevere.''

The next morning, all the school's rocket teams even Bravo and Charlie, which didn't qualify for nationals boarded the bus for Washington and a chance to shoot for the stars.

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or Read the education blog at




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