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Oakton Rocketeers Take Flight

Oakton students prepare to design rocket for NASA competition.

Christine Lowry and Chester Macklin want to lead a group of Oakton High School student 4,030 feet farther than they went last year.

The two were involved in the rocketry program at Oakton last year, which sent a rocket about 1,250 feet up. This year, they are team co-leaders in the NASA-sponsored Student Launch Initiative, and their rocket is supposed to go a mile high. "A mile is pretty challenging," said Christine, 17.

The group of 13 Oakton students is among 120 students from 10 schools nationwide selected to participate in the program. "NASA needs you," said Adena Loston of NASA. Loston came to Oakton on Jan. 24 to honor the students for their work.

"We give out a lot of awards, but we don't generally have NASA come to give them," said Principal John Banbury.

The program, Loston said, is designed to help identify and recruit top students in science and math to help design the next generation of space exploration vehicles. The agency has been challenged to send a manned mission to Mars, and about 60 percent of current scientists at the agency are set to retire in the next three to five years, she said. "We need your bright minds," she said. "We need to develop a pipeline of new scientists."

Last year, Oakton's rocketry program, which was in only its second year of existence, designed a rocket that finished 14th in a national competition. The top 25 finishers last year qualified to submit a proposal for this year's competition.

The students came in during the first weeks of school and developed their initial proposal. "We hashed out a 45-page manual and technical proposal for this project," said Stephen Scholla, a physics teacher at Oakton and the faculty sponsor of the rocketry program. "I wasn't surprised that we were selected because I know how dedicated these kids are to these projects."

The students come in after school and on weekends to design and test their rockets. "It's rockets. It's fun. Even people who don't like engineering like rockets," said Chester, 17.

Currently, the students are using computer modeling to test their design, said Chester. Once the rocket tests well on the computer, the students are going to use a small engine for a test flight. "The first try, you don't want to use the big engine," Chester said.

Additionally, rocket flights of over 4,000 feet can not be launched from their standard site in The Plains, Va. By using the smaller engine, the students can remain below that threshold for the early tests.

The payload of the 6- to 7-foot tall rocket will be a 6- to 8-ounce 3-D accelerometer, which will measure the stresses on the rocket as it accelerates in flight. "We'll watch and be able to track the acceleration in all directions," Chester said.

The students are working with Vernier Software and Technology to turn the data they collect into a video that can show the stresses. The end video can also be used as a teaching tool. "It's going to act to show you a real-life application," said Christine.