3, 2, 1: DC-area students prepare to compete in nation’s largest model rocketry competition

The rocketry team at Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia, will compete in the American Rocketry Challenge on Saturday. (WTOP/Mike Murillo)
One hundred teams from across the nation are taking part in the competition, including several from the D.C. region. (WTOP/Mike Murillo)
The rocketry team from Oakton High School has dubbed its rocket the “McRocket,” because of its red and yellow color scheme. (WTOP/Mike Murillo)

For some people, getting an egg home from the grocery store without breaking it is a huge accomplishment, but some D.C.-area high schoolers have a much tougher mission this weekend: Send an egg into the sky aboard a rocket and bring it back down without scrambling it.

On Saturday in The Plains, Virginia, the American Rocketry Challenge holds its national finals. At Great Meadow, 100 teams from across the U.S. will compete in the largest model rocketry competition, including several teams from the D.C. region.

“A lot of work went into trying to make it,” said Stephen Vaz, a senior at Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia.

He said it took the team three months of coming in after school to come up with the perfect design.

“We had to make this rocket and then we had to make a backup rocket, too, and that takes time, you know, gluing takes time. You can’t just put glue on there and hope that works in five seconds, you got to space out the entire thing to make sure that you’re kind of working as efficiently as possible,” said team member Ty Stephens, who is also a senior at the school.

They had some fun with the designs as well, since when they discovered they only had red and yellow paint, one popular fast-food brand came to mind. With that, the “McRocket” was born.

Stephens joked that they are piloting a new program for the McDonalds restaurant chain to bring breakfast to customers, faster. Move over, drones.

“That’s why there’s an egg in there, right? So, you can deliver the egg in 42 to 45 seconds,” Stephens said.

But for the kids there is a lot that needs to happen to win. Just getting the egg back down in one piece is only part of it. The rocket needs to launch 850 feet and a team loses points for how much over and under that height it goes. The launch must also last 42-45 seconds, and points are taken away for times outside that window.

Team member Gabe Cohen joked that the compartment that holds the egg is “way more comfortable” than his bed. He also joked, this year the egg had better accommodations than last year’s rocket because they didn’t have enough cotton, so they were forced to use grass to protect the precious cargo.

“It actually worked pretty well,” Cohen said.

The team didn’t make the finals last year, but this year they are excited to be going for the first time. Stephens said they are feeling pretty good going into it, but you just never know, because anything can happen.

Sheila Condino is a physics teacher at the school and the sponsor of the rocketry team. She said it’s great watching the students problem solve and work together.

“The students are able to apply what they’ve learned from the classroom in actual real-world type of problems,” Condino said.

She said for many of the students, this may become a steppingstone toward a career as actual rocket scientists, as some hope to become aerospace engineers when they graduate.

“Which is really good because, you know, that’s, that’s the future,” Condino said.

“It’d be really cool if we did really well, but I think, you know, taking the experience, learning from others, getting to meet all these cool people from across the country, that’s really a lot of what it’s about,” Stephens said.

The public is welcome to come out to Great Meadow on Old Tavern Road to watch the kids compete. The event will also be streamed online.

Prize money totaling $100,000 is up for grabs and the winning team of this competition receives an all-expense-paid trip to the Paris Air Show to compete in the International Finals.

The team did have a final message for the challengers they’ll take on this weekend.

“Good luck! No one can stop the McRocket,” Cohen said.

The list of schools from the D.C. region includes:

  • Cumberland Civil Air Patrol — Cumberland, Maryland (8:30 to 9:15 a.m. launch window)
  • Explorer Post 1010 Science Center — Rockville, Maryland (9:15 to 10 a.m. launch window)
  • Combined Boy Scout Troops — Woodbridge, Virginia (8:30 to 9:15 a.m. launch window)
  • Oakton High School — Vienna, Virginia (9:15 to 10 a.m. launch window)
  • Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — Alexandria, Virginia (8:30 to 9:15 a.m. launch window)
Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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