For Apple Valley High School’s rocket team, qualifying for national competition was as much about perseverance as it was about mastering aerodynamics.
The team suffered several setbacks late in the season. After a qualifying flight, a team member dropped their rocket, breaking the egg inside — used as a test of a smooth flight — before the judge verified it had been intact.
Then their rocket’s bottom half was run over by a car.
But they kept going.
“After their rocket was run over in March, I said, ‘Look, guys, you only have a few days left. You’re going to have to rebuild this over the weekend,’ ” said their coach, Neil Michels, also a physics teacher.
They not only came back with a new “booster,” or bottom half, they also “took that opportunity to change their design. I was doubly impressed,” Michels said.
The updated rocket “performed flawlessly,” Michels said, earning them a place in the top 100 teams nationally out of 725 competitors.
On May 11, they’ll compete at the Team America Rocketry Challenge near Washington, D.C. The first-place team gets a free trip to the Paris Air Show to compete internationally, while $60,000 in scholarship money is divided among the top few teams.
The competition challenges teams to build a rocket that can fly 750 feet into the air and complete its flight and descent in about 50 seconds, all while ensuring the rocket’s “eggstronaut,” a raw egg, doesn’t break. (A parachute helps create a gentle ascent.)
Michels, who has been coaching for 10 years and taken teams to nationals seven times, said the activity teaches students skills such as teamwork, dedication, planning and data analysis.
“Most importantly, they learn that hard work can pay off — and it can be fun,” he said.
The team consists of sophomores Gabby Edwards, Tori LaBonte and Maren Connell, longtime friends who came in knowing nothing about rockets, and junior Eduardo Boeing, an exchange student from Brazil. Boeing, who is interested in engineering, knew a bit about rockets before joining.
Last fall, the girls saw the school’s other rocket team launching rockets outside and “thought it looked cool,” Connell said. “That was probably the most interesting aspect — we didn’t know much about it.”
Once the team was formed, they had to figure out things such as how to make a rocket aerodynamic and how to distribute its weight, Boeing said.
“You have to be as precise as possible,” Boeing said.
Edwards said she learned about fin and engine sizes, as well as nose cone shape. They chose a rounded nose cone simply because they liked how it looked. But “I think it ended up being a strong point for us going to nationals,” she said.
Michels doesn’t guide the team alone. He’s had a decade’s worth of coaching help from Ted Cochran, a Honeywell employee who is also the president of the National Association of Rocketry.
Once a week, Cochran and Michels worked with both of the school’s teams, ensuring they were being safe while encouraging students to solve problems themselves.
“It’s very Socratic. We try to get them to ask questions,” Cochran said.
Michels is a great coach because “he’s dedicated … and he’s very, very patient,” Cochran said. “There are a lot of teachers who want to go in and give kids the answers, and that reduces the learning.”
Cochran, a lifelong model rocket fan, said that in addition to being enjoyable, the competition fosters an interest in aerospace engineering. About 80 percent of participants end up pursuing science, technology, engineering and math careers, he said. said
“This is all a secret plot to get kids interested in science and technology,” Cochran said. “Most of the workforce in the aviation community is aging out … so a new wave has got to come in.”
Michels, who also loved rockets as a kid, said he’s had students on his teams become Air Force pilots and science teachers.
His favorite parts of coaching, though, are getting to know kids and watching their skills develop.
“All of a sudden they’re building [rockets] on their own, without any help,” Michels said. “That’s what we strive for as educators, helping students have successes like that.”
As the team prepares for nationals, they’ll be paying attention to all of the little things that can make or break a rocket’s performance, Michels said.
“The biggest hurdle is that every detail matters,” Michels said.
That’s why he has them log data from each flight, recording the rocket’s weight and weather conditions, as well as examining data from the altimeter, the tiny device in the rocket measuring altitude and descent pattern.
Edwards said that after all the team’s trials, she was surprised when they qualified for nationals.
“It was a huge shock and kind of a victory thing,” she said. “We were three girls who didn’t know what we were doing at the beginning.”
But now the team has gelled and is more confident. This week they’ll start launching without their coaches’ assistance, she noted.
“I think we’re ready,” Edwards said.