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American Rocketry Challenge sees Portland school take 2021 championship

A Portland-area high school came out on top in a new "distributed" version of this year's American Rocketry Challenge that was optimized for pandemic safety.

Oregon Episcopal School received $20,000 for coming within one foot and 6.7 feet (2 meters) of a specified altitude in two flights, putting it best among 100 national finalists. As a first-time finalist, the school also received $2,500 for posting the best results among the rookies, and an additional $1,000 given to each finalist participant for placing best in their distributed launch site — bringing the total haul close to $25,000.

To qualify for the winner's circle, participating finalist teams had to get as close as they could to 775 feet (236 m) within 39 to 42 seconds on their first flight, and 825 feet (nearly 252 m) within 41 to 44 seconds on their second flight, according to competition rules. (The rocket also had minimum weight, length and motor qualifications, among other things.)

Related: How rockets work: a complete guide

The winners of the 2021 American Rocketry Challenge pose for a team photo. From left to right: Eliška Jelinek, Kate Bloom, Kara Gaiser, Andrew Hou, Ryan Westcott, Christian Compton, Dean Schultz, Oscar Hapke, Zack Weinstein and Alfredo Roman Jordan. (Image credit: Oregon Episcopal School)

"It's really hit me, finally, after the amount of media coverage" in the weeks after the competition over two weekends ending June 20, said Kara Gaiser, who graduates in 2022 and was OES Aerospace co-team leader. Gaiser and fellow co-leader Zachary Weinstein were among the team members attending a virtual awards ceremony June 28 on Zoom, with their various members scattered as far as Spain — making the ceremony also a unique experience, she said.

Weinstein — who also will graduate in 2022 — said the 10 team students had a range of skills, but most of all OES was working to recruit people who were willing to learn the various competencies today's rocket engineer requires, including fuels, materials, computer-assisted design and computer programming. 

The challenge, he added, takes the theoretical work of physics studied in the classroom "into something that you're actually designing, and may or may not work. I think that's really cool for people to see the skills that they've been learning applied to a real-world problem, and that gets them excited about learning more."

The 2021 American Rocketry Challenge winning team, from left to right: Alfredo Roman Jordan, Christian Compton, Eliška Jelinek, Kara Gaiser, Oscar Hapke, Ryan Westcott, Dean Schultz and Zack Weinstein. (Image credit: Oregon Episcopal School)

The American Rocketry Challenge, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this coming year, found itself having to adapt quickly when the novel coronavirus pandemic descended upon the world in March 2020. Last year's event had to be canceled for health and safety reasons. With vaccines coming in this year, the organizers planned on a range of event possibilities from a fully virtual one, to larger groups.

The compromise solution saw a new "distributed final" with 10 sites around the country where students could launch their rockets with verification from challenge officials, allowing them to chance to participate safely. The challenge of letting the students fly was not too different than the questions space companies and agencies across the world faced in manufacturing facilities and operations buildings in terms of safety protocols, challenge program manager Jeremy Davis told Space.com. 

"We saw such tremendous resilience and perseverance from the students," Davis said, adding that adjustments had been ongoing for months as the pandemic evolved. "That is really a characteristic that I feel the aerospace and defense industry really embodies, so we really felt like we owed it to them [students] to work through every possible option."

From left: Oscar Hapke, Kara Gaiser, Christian Compton; pyramid bottom row: Andrew Hou, Ryan Westcott, Walker Jones; pyramid middle row: Kate Bloom, Zack Weinstein; pyramid top row: Eliška Jelinek; behind pyramid: Dean Schultz; right: Alfredo Roman Jordan (Image credit: Oregon Episcopal School)

Another benefit for students generally was a renewed push towards diversity in 2020, when the competition started a Title I grant program. Title I is a U.S. Department of Education term broadly referring to "schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families" — historically these schools have diverse populations

The 2021 iteration of the Title I program did not go to plan and only had 11 grantees, Davis said. But the 2020 version provided 40 grants of $2,500 each to Title I-designated schools to fund rocketry work, with benefits including mentorship from the National Association of Rocketry along with the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).

One of those Title I grantees, Missouri's Woodridge Middle School, made it to the finals for the first time, Davis said. But even those Title I schools that were in the first stage of the competition (650 institutional participants in all) received benefits such as mentorship connections, rocketry experience and a push to continue studies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), he said.

The competition has so far attracted 90,000 participants in its history, and organizers say they anticipate holding a 2022 competition — although it is still too early to decide on the format given the novel coronavirus continues evolving, along with health guidance to mitigate its spread.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.