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Taking NASA Challenge

Oakton students prepare rocket for launch from NASA Space Flight Center.

Eleven Oakton High School students are collaborating with NASA to launch a rocket this May. The rocket will not orbit the Earth, but it will be designed, built and launched almost entirely by the students.

This is the second year the school has been selected for NASA's Student Launch Initiative, which challenges them to build a rocket that will fly to an altitude of one mile and carry a scientific payload, meaning an experiment will be conducted within the body of the rocket during its flight.

The group has been working on the project almost the entire school year, said senior Joe Kubiak, the team's president. "Over spring break, we're actually going to build the final rocket."

On Saturday, April 1, the team went out to Great Meadows near Middleburg for the rocket's third test launch, but they found themselves the victims of an April Fool's prank by Mother Nature, facing 25-mile-an-hour winds on an otherwise pleasant spring day. As a result, they had to settle for testing the motor's ejection charge on the ground and tweaking the payload.

The project is an exercise in precision.

WHILE STUDENTS WORKED on installing undersized video equipment in the body of the rocket, Joe Woodford, National Association of Rocketry member and Oakton rocket mentor for the last four years, explained the experiment, which tests the "effects of microgravity on capillary action."

In a nutshell, this high-powered, 10-pound projectile will take off at a speed of about 450 miles per hour. When it reaches the peak of its flight and rolls over, a mile above the earth, it will be virtually weightless for a split second, when the upward force of the launch and the downward force of gravity cancel each other out.

Inside the rocket there will be a video camera focused on a series of capillary tubes containing a dyed liquid. The camera will transmit to a video recorder on the ground, and the tubes will be oriented in different directions so that, if they know what to look for, someone viewing the video will be able to account for the effect of centrifugal force in the case that the rocket is spinning.

Meanwhile, two devices called altimeters in the rocket will detect the barometric pressure leveling off and then increasing as the rocket starts to lose altitude and will independently prepare to detonate an ejection charge that will launch a small parachute. The motor is timed to detonate the charge a moment later, in case both altimeters fail.

If the parachute fires early, the moment of weightlessness will be lost. If it doesn't fire at all, the rocket will fall to earth fast enough to plunge through a car and onto the street.

When the rocket has parachuted to a predetermined altitude, probably 300 to 500 feet, the altimeters will detonate another charge, launching the main parachute, which will carry the construction safely to the ground. Theoretically.

All of this requires repeated testing and tweaking, but these students are not beginners. All of them were part of the Team America Rocketry Challenge last year, said Kubiak.

That contest is sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association, in part, said Woodford, because of a decline in the industry's personnel. Forty percent of NASA engineers are eligible for retirement in the next five years, he said.

Their performance in last year's competition, in which they were challenged to build a rocket that would carry eggs for 60 seconds, is part of the reason they were invited to submit a proposal to NASA this year, although, as senior Justin Davis pointed out, in the final round they "had a blowout in the air and had an egg cannon."

Oakton has competed in the last three Team America challenges and has made it to the national finals each time.

Senior Danielle Crump said it also helped that a team from the school had participated in the Student Launch Initiative last year.

After 40 schools were invited to submit proposals this year, eight, including Oakton, were selected by NASA.

SO WHY ARE THESE students willing to spend their spring break — and a hefty chunk of their other free time — on what is essentially a physics project? What is the difference between the Student Launch Initiative and glorified homework?

"Homework gets really repetitive. With this, various things can happen," Davis said last Friday as he and teammates were finalizing their Flight Readiness Review while the rest of the school took the day off. Last year was his first year of rocketry through Oakton, "but I started doing it I don't know how long ago. For fun," he said.

Crump said she began to love rocketry when she was presented with the challenge from Team America last year. "I wanted to do it on a larger scale. This was the next step, where we're handling a high-powered rocket," she said, pointing out that every component must work properly in a project of this scope. "And I like being part of something and working toward a common goal that you can see happening."

"I did it last year because I had to," Kubiak said. Team America was a requirement for honors physics. But he took the step up this year. "I like learning things," he said. "Then, just going out and flying it and seeing that it works how you expect it to."

And those at the Aerospace Industries Association are not the only ones trying to draw interest to rocket engineering. "Kind of the goal of this program is not only to do this but to create a lasting legacy of rocketry at this school," said Kobiak.

The team named itself Team Legacy, and there are two juniors on board to pass on what they learn to next year's senior class. This is the last year the school can participate in the Student Launch Initiative, as NASA only contracts a school twice, but physics teacher Steve Scholla said the number of students involved in rocketry, through one group or another, has climbed from five students four years ago to about 77 this year.

It is Scholla who helped students brainstorm the idea for this experiment. "I threw lots of stuff out there, and this is the one the kids seemed most comfortable with," he said. The point, he explained, is to see whether or not the water level rises in a microgravity — or virtually weightless — environment, to determine whether or not capillary tubes could be used to measure the gravitational field in an environment such as a space station.

"Microgravity is a big deal" right now, he said, with NASA currently conducting similar, albeit pricier, experiments. "It's not an insignificant experiment for a bunch of high school kids."

On May 6, Team Legacy and the other seven teams selected will launch their rockets at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.