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Flying High

Oakton High School rocketry team is a finalist in a national contest.

Although Oakton senior Sara Tassan has shot off some rockets before for fun, building her latest one with four other classmates has been a challenge. Not only have they’ve built a sophisticated rocket, but there’s thousands of dollars of prize money at stake.

Yet Sara said she’s enjoyed the project so far.

"[I’ve liked] the process of building rockets," Sara said.

A team of five students from Oakton High School is among 100 finalists in the Team America Rocketry Challenge sponsored by the Aerospace Industrial Association (AIA) and the National Association for Rocketry (NAR). The contest received 873 applications from high schools nationwide. The final competition will take place at the Great Meadow field in The Plains, Va. on May 10.

The goal of the contest is to build a two-stage rocket that can send two raw eggs to 1,500 feet and bring them back down again without damaging the eggs. So far, the Oakton team has reached 1,385 feet successfully.

If the team places among the top five, they will share a prize pool of $59,000 in cash and savings bonds with the other four teams and their sponsor teachers. If they place in the top ten, they will compete for three $2,500 grants to design, build and launch an advanced rocket with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. The top 25 teams will be able to send one teacher to an advanced NASA rocketry workshop.

The Oakton team, one of two from the high school that had entered the contest, consists of five seniors. The project started in December as a way to get extra credit. To determine the best design for a rocket, they used simulation software to help build three initial rockets. They’ve built six rockets so far, and are now trying to build a duplicate rocket with the help of their teacher, Stephen Scholla, and a mentor from NAR. Since December, the team has spent 50-plus hours working on the project afterschool and weekends, including going to Great Meadow on Saturdays to test their rocket.

Throughout the trial-and-error process, the team has gotten to understand fundamental engineering principles and the technical terminology for rocket building.

"Our motto became, no wet glue," joked Scholla.

The students, some of whom had built rockets before, initially thought the contest would be easy. But since then, they’ve learned more about details such as rocket shape and fin design.

"Once we started building, I realized there were a lot of parts inside," said senior Matt Simons.

Indeed, the rocket contest serves two purposes: to celebrate the centennial of flight, and to encourage younger students to pursue careers in the aerospace industry, said J.P. Stevens, AIA vice president of special projects and contest organizer. The average age of an industry worker is 52.

"We are going to be having a severe problem in the near future," Stevens said.

Stevens, who has been to Great Meadows several times to see area teams testing their rockets, has been impressed by the entries he’s witnessed.

"There are some very, very good teams around here," Stevens said. "They have gone so far since we first saw them."

If the team places within the top five, team members said they would spend the bond money for college, with one eyeing a new truck.

"We hope to win," Matt said.

To learn more about the contest, go to www.rocketcontest.org. The May 10 finals in The Plains, Va. are open to the public free of charge, with a $5 parking fee. Other area finalists include Wakefield High School (Arlington), Lake Braddock Secondary School (Burke), West Springfield High School (Springfield) and Washington International School (the District). George Mason High School (Falls Church) and ACPS Step Center (Alexandria) are among 20 alternates.