Seven girls scramble around a tube as they pull out a small ball of green and blue tape. Inside is a single egg, in perfect condition.
“Be careful!” a few cry as they hand it to the judge for inspection.
That egg has just flown 855 feet in the air on a small rocket, so high that it wasn’t even visible at it’s apex, and then came crashing back down with nothing but a parachute no larger than a piece of printer paper. But the egg cracking wasn’t even what the excited team was worried about.
Meet Team Dunuh from Thomas Jefferson High School, one of 43 all-girl teams in this year’s Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC). Their team is made up of seven students, including five sophomores: Rachel Li, Arpitha Shenoy, Mei Baek, Clara Kim and Renee Li; one freshman: Neha Chinthapatla; and one junior: their team captain, Diana Zavela. Last Saturday, they participated in their qualifying rocket launch, an event to determine if they will move on to Nationals, where they would compete with the top 100 out of 789 teams.
TARC, the world’s largest student rocket contest, is a competition designed to give middle and high school students a chance to pursue and study careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It has also become a critical piece of the aerospace and defense industry’s strategy to build a stronger workforce development pipeline, hence its sponsorship from industry giants like Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin.
For this launch, the team needed to send their rocket 850 feet in the air within 44-46 seconds. For each quarter of a second they were outside of that window, a point was added to their score. Each foot over or under the target also adds extra points.
“Last year the cutoff was 40 points, but we think it will be more competitive this year,” says Rachel. “The teams are getting better.”
Team Dunuh is optimistic. As they wait, each of them talks about life outside of rocketry. Most of them are involved in sports and a few play in their school’s orchestra. Some shy away from thinking about the future beyond just finishing this year’s challenge, but not all.
“I want to be an aerospace engineer,” declares Neha, the freshman of the group. She is confident and well spoken, taking time to explain the details of their rocket’s motor.
Team captain Diana has her career narrowed down to one of three options. “It’s either going to be astronaut, president, or teacher. I’m not sure.”
When asked about which teams they are most competitive with, they shrug. “We’re just trying to do our best. It’s not so much about beating another team,” says Arpitha. But that’s not to say the challenge is completely drama-free.
“The other teams don’t like us,” Renee laughs.
“They’re just salty,” says Arpitha. “We have the most experience between all of us and we wouldn’t join any of their groups.”
They lament that they may not be able to stick all together again next year, since the school may force them to spread out their expertise with less practiced students. As much as they want to help others, they also want to do their very best and make a team to go all the way. But perhaps that may be a possibility this year.
A team’s final score is the total of their two lowest launches out of three. With last year’s highest qualifying score at 40, Team Dunuh was aiming for something below that. Fortunately they comfortably cleared that, with their final score coming in at 33.
Now they just have to wait until April 8 to find out if it’s good enough to get them to Nationals. Until then, we here at The Mars Generation will be keeping our fingers crossed for this remarkable team of students. We wish them, and all the other TARC teams, the best of luck moving forward.
Rebecca Moore is part of the media team at The Mars Generation, focusing on public relations. She has a background in online writing and a passion for all things space.