Teen Rocket Scientists Go For Launch in Huge Contest
A group of middle and high school students compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) in 2009.
Credit: Aerospace Industries Association

They may not have a 100-ton spaceship like NASA's shuttle Atlantis, but middle and high school students in Virginia will launch their own self-made rockets Saturday in a nation-wide competition ? the largest such contest in the world.

The final round of the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) will be held May 15 at Great Meadow in The Plains, Va., one day after NASA launched the shuttle Atlantis on its last planned mission to the International Space Station. [Photos of Atlantis' launch.]

The top 100 teams that will compete in this final round include squads from 30 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, all qualifying from a pool of 669 teams and thousands of students. ??

The contest, which is in its eighth year, is sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the National Association of Rocketry. TARC has been held annually since 2002.

"This year's TARC contest will be among the most competitive in its eight-year history because of the high number of teams that are participating," said Marion C. Blakey, AIA President and CEO.

Teams are required to design, build and launch a model rocket to an altitude of 825 feet (251 meters) with a raw egg payload. The rockets must also achieve a total flight duration lasting between 40 and 45 seconds. To complete the challenge, the rockets must return the eggs safely and unbroken without the use of a parachute.

The contest was designed to spark student interest and enthusiasm in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in hopes of attracting young people into careers in the aerospace industry.

"It's an exciting time for young people to be exposed to rocketry and all the aerospace industry has to offer," Blakey said. "We're seeing a real surge in our industry with TARC alumni taking advantage of exciting career opportunities with many of our member companies."

One such alumnus is Johnna Esposito, who competed in TARC in 2007. Esposito's contest experience built upon her love of rocketry and inspired her to pursue further studies in engineering. She is currently majoring in aerospace and ocean engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

"I plan to pursue a career in rocketry, specifically in the field of propulsion engineering," Esposito told SPACE.com. "Unfortunately several space programs have been cut under current policies, but the way I see it, I started in model rocketry, and that will always be there."

With the present labor force in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics starting to age, cultivating student interest in these disciplines is crucial to stay abreast of the latest industry developments and discoveries, said Audrey Koehler, Team America Rocketry Challenge Manager for the AIA.

"AIA represents all the major aerospace companies, and the average age of our workforce is over 50 and will soon be eligible to retire," Koehler told SPACE.com. "We're interested in getting students to study math and science and to consider aerospace. TARC is a way for us to do that."

In the May 15 event, prizes will also await teams with the best performances, including $60,000 in cash and scholarships that will be split between the top 10 finishers. NASA also invites top teams to participate in their Student Launch Initiative, which is an advanced rocketry program.

AIA member companies, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have also sponsored prizes, which include scholarship money and a trip to an international air show.