Star Time: Rocket club lands tops honors at national competition in Huntsville, Alabama

On the dreary day of Sunday, April 7, the rocket club stood in the middle of a muddy field at  Bragg Farms in Toney, Ala., under a Hawkeye tent preparing for their final flight.

They counted down from 5, and nothing happened.

“We didn’t think it was going to fly at all,” senior Will Burken said.

The button was pushed for a second time, and the rocket was in flight, almost perfect to say the least.

“The flight itself was so perfect, and I say that with humility. Seriously, this flight went so perfect. The ground station was made to follow the rocket. There was such small changes on the flight rocket that you can’t tell if it worked or not,” adviser Zeb Nicholson said.

After placing fifth nationally at the 2017 TARC competition the CFHS S.T.A.R.S. have worked on a seven month project with NASA to create their own rocket, and this is was the final moment to determine if their hard work had paid off.

After a close to flawless flight and impressing the judges with their presentation, the team received the judges choice and the rocket fair award. They were the only high school out of 14 teams to receive two awards, two of the highest honors.

“At first when we laid out this idea, we knew the basics of what the big concept would be. We didn’t know anything about how to put it together, and the logistics of all the stuff. We just worked hard at it, and eventually it paid off,” junior Randev Goonesekere said.

The two awards were awarded by both nominations from other teams and adults, showing their success from both sides of the competition.

“Rocket fair award was nominated and voted on by the student teams. We were nominated the best by our peers, and the judges choice award was judged by NASA officials and the adults. In that regard, we like to say we got the top two awards,” Nicholson said.

Prior to their flight, the club had a rocket fair where all 54 teams in attendance set up a display for their project to show off their accomplishments. Little did they know, there were secret judges walking around and examining their displays.

“So basically, the judges choice award is the best award out there for the high school division. They were really excited about our payload and what we were testing. They also really liked our team and thought we presented well,” Burken said. “We got the rocket fair award, and that was just the team that had the best display and made it look the coolest, and we won that too.”

Completely unaware of the awards, the team initially went for the experience.

“The awards were just the cherry on top,” Burken said.

The team endured a long process prior to the trip, having many meetings, reports and presentations given to NASA before they even began to build the rocket.

“The point of this project was maybe 10-15 percent flying the rocket. The rest of it was finding out what is the real world and that is what this project was designed to do. The reports that they gave and the presentations they gave, that is what you have to do in the real world,” Nicholson said.

Compared to the TARC competition last year, the NASA project was a large step for the team.

“We had to do two full reports before we could even start building our rocket. Whereas for TARC last year, you just build a rocket and go. There is nothing extensive, and you don’t have to document anything,” senior Ryan Ritter said.

Compared to the NASA project, the team looks back on their previous accomplishments as little steps to get them to where they are today.

“With TARC, you can get it done pretty quick with not a lot of background. You didn’t have to report anything. You literally give them two scores and you’re in, which is not easy either. The NASA project was designed to go along with the protocols that NASA follows every time they build a rocket,” Nicholson said

This ends up giving the team a real experience of what it is like to work at NASA, which has impacted their future career paths.

“It gives you an insight. This is a type of career that I want to go into with aerospace, so it gives me insight of what they do in their everyday jobs. The extensive reports along with everything that they have to account for, it’s pretty cool,” Ritter said.

Goonesekere agreed. “This has given us exposure to what this field is like. It is a culmination of your hard work and what it is like to launch space-sized rockets. I think the thrill of finally making the thing work after months of hard work is rewarding.”

The team has one final report to conclude their 2018 NASA experience; however, the members already have plans for next year.

“All of a sudden they got back from Huntsville and all they could talk about was what next year’s project was going to be. It was funny to see that. I knew going in that they were going to have to push through a lot of crap, but I also knew in April when they came back that they would be talking about next year,” Nicholson said.

The process was not an easy one for the team, and they had their doubts along the way.

“They started their proposal in September, and they didn’t touch a piece of rocket equipment until December. There were a couple of times throughout this project where kids were like ‘This is fun, but I was thinking next year we would go back to TARC,’ and everyone was just down because all that they were doing were reports and presentations,” Nicholson said.

After the long days and presentations, it has all come together, and their final flight concludes the seniors’ S.T.A.R.S. experience opens up larger things. Ritter and Burken are both seniors on the team and plan on attending ISU, both joining the rocket club to continue with their passions.

“Seeing it all come together and these guys actually make it happen, I’m sure there are those schools that just pudge their way through and barely make it to the checkpoints. The fact that we got the judges choice award tells us that we hit the mark and went above and beyond,” Nicholson said.

Similar to the rocket, together the team proved it had the ability to take its skills to new heights, and go to infinity and beyond.

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