Charlotte students rocket to Capitol Hill in aerospace contest


McClatchy Washington Bureau

For months, Charlotte has been littered with rockets.

Rockets flying through rain, sun and wind, hitting homes, landing in yards and lodging themselves in trees. But that didn’t discourage the ten Charlotte students who’d launched them.

Trial and error is just part of the journey to the Team America Rocketry Challenge’s national competition, where Victory Christian Center School is among 100 national finalists this weekend.

The fledgling team eventually qualified for the finals with one of the best scores – a four out of 16, and the closer to zero the better – even if a few rockets landed out of reach along the way.

“They were everywhere,” said their coach and Victory Christian teacher Kimberly Williams. “It wasn’t a discouraging moment, because we knew we could start again and it made them understand it more, even when we lost them.”

The team, one of four from North Carolina, traveled to Washington this week to test its design. On Friday morning, they joined the other finalists for a breakfast reception in the Kennedy Caucus Room on Capitol Hill as teams showcased their designs, built rockets with members of Congress and visited their representatives’ offices.

“In a very real sense, you are carrying on the torch of the exploration and discovery that President Kennedy talked about, as you give the best of your energies and skills to this incredible rocket competition,” said Susan Lavrakas, director of workforce at Aerospace Industries Association, which runs the rocketry program.

Students toted around their years’ work, handmade rockets capable of launching straight into the sky. Each design features a tube with fins on one end and a pointed or rounded top on the other. They came in an array of colors and sizes, from a hot pink rocket as tall as the girl carrying it, to the Charlotte team’s simple white cardboard rocket with visible nails holding it together.

On Saturday morning, the teams will compete in The Plains, Va., for a share of $60,000 in scholarship money and spots in more advanced contests. But the task isn’t as simple launching a rocket into the air; each design has to carry a raw egg placed on its side, remain in the air for 48 to 50 seconds and reach an altitude of 750 feet, among other requirements.

The pressure to get it just right prompts some of Victory Christian’s students to serenade their rocket. When they were out launching their prototypes every other weekend, the team would sing everything from Christmas carols to Veggie Tales songs.

“It calmed us down so we didn’t have as much nervous energy on the rocket,” said Te’Ericka Jackson, a senior on the team. “And seeing it do what it’s supposed to do and come down safely, it’s very rewarding.”

On Friday, a team from the U.S. Virgin Islands pieced together miniature plastic rockets with Rep. Donna Christensen, D-V.I. As the boys reached for small, checkered parachutes and plastic fins, Christensen leaned in to read the directions.

“It’s harder for me, but they taught me a lot,” she said with a laugh.

It’s critically important for the country to educate students about science and technology so companies don’t have to recruit as much talent from abroad, Christensen added.

“This begins them on their way to learning and practice so they can be the workers our science industries need,” she said.

While Charlotte’s team is still young, only competing for the second time this year, it has already shown teachers another way to draw students into science.

“When you’re reading books, you have to believe what other people tell you. But when you’re hands on, you see it for yourself,” Jackson said. “This is something I never thought I could do and to succeed and do as well as the team did, it gives me courage going to college.”


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