First-time rocket-building students launch into national finals


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two groups of Austin students head to Washington, D.C. this week to launch rockets they designed and built in the finals of a national rocketry competition.

Both teams comprise members of the rocketry club at Harmony School of Endeavor in northwest Austin, a club that only formed in the fall. The school has never competed in the competition before and both teams launched through the contest of 800 teams to reach the top 101 in the finals of the Team America Rocketry Challenge or TARC.

“We have a marvelous opportunity to shine in front of the nation,” 9th-grader Pratham Babaria said.

Babaria joined the rocketry club when it was created in the fall, and it’s opened his mind to the possibilities in space.

“I want to provide betterment and important impact to the world through the use of rocketry and aerospace engineering,” he said. “I want to work in the space industry because of this club, in fact.”

TARC was founded in 2002 by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry; it was meant to be a one-time competition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of flight, but students and teachers asked to continue the competition. The task has changed every year to prevent teams from re-using winning rockets, and this year’s contest honors the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

“We needed to paint our rocket like Apollo 11,” the spacecraft that took three astronauts to the moon in 1969, said Ibrahim Bisen, a 10th-grader at the school.

The students have to launch their rocket to a height of 856 feet — 170 feet higher than Austin’s tallest skyscraper — and return it safely to Earth within 43-46 second. Three raw eggs on board represent the astronauts, and they cannot break during the launch.

Both teams worked together to design and test rockets and modifications over the last nine months. There’s been plenty of trial and error, broken eggs and broken engines.

“We had a previous incident with another motor which was refillable, where it actually exploded and combusted,” 9th-grader Ethan Chandra said. “And our whole rocket got damaged, and we had to rebuild a completely new one.”

“We learned to grow from those mistakes and better develop our plans,” added Ambereen Haq, the only 8th-grader on the team.

The final product is built in two sections, one of which holds a foam enclosure for the eggs. “Once it starts turning down,” said Diego Macias, one of the two team leads, “it will separate and the parachutes in there will allow it to come down safely.”

The student teams launch their rockets on Saturday, May 18; the top 42 teams from the first round will launch in a second round, and the top 10 teams will split $100,000 in cash and prizes.

The winning team earns a spot in the International Rocketry Challenge in Paris this summer.

A lot of the result will depend on the conditions in Virginia’s skies over the weekend. The launch that took them to the finals reached 852 feet, just four feet short of the target, but there’s little they can do to adjust the rocket to gain the extra altitude.

And even though the rockets won’t be leaving the atmosphere, the teams are using the first small steps Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took half a century ago as a launchpad to explore the possibility of humanity’s next giant leap.

“We’re making this new technology through the use of rocketry and aerospace engineering,” Babaria said, “and that’s possibly one of the most integral aspects allowing us to become a better species as a whole.”

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