All-girl teams no longer an oddity at annual rocket championship

The "Rockets on the Hill" event showcases competitors in the Team America Rocketry Challenge (Photo: Aerospace Industries Association)
The “Rockets on the Hill” event showcases competitors in the Team America Rocketry Challenge (Photo: Aerospace Industries Association)

What does it take to become a champion rocketeer?

“A lot of glue,” said Tea Escarsega of Team Captain America as she pointed to her rocket, adding that “math helps, too, so you can figure out how much drag the fins will place on the rocket.”

The 8th grader was commenting as a member of the three-girl team from San Antonio, Tex. that is one of 101 teams from around the country that have “rocketed” into Washington this weekend to compete for the national title in the 12th annual Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC).

These young rocketeers are striving to meet a challenge that is not all that different from the one that President John F. Kennedy gave in May 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

America reached that goal in July 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility and then returned astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins safely back to planet earth.

While President Obama hasn’t issued such an audacious challenge, the young rocketeers who gathered in the Hart Senate Office Building for the “Rockets on the Hill” event Friday morning are just as excited about having their rockets complete a successful mission.

Each team must launch a rocket that will rise exactly 825 feet (a somewhat shorter distance than the 238,000 miles to the moon) and bring the “astronauts” safely back to earth unharmed within 48 to 50 seconds. Precision is critical, as teams are penalized for every foot the rocket misses its target altitude and for every second that it misses its timed window.

In the rocket challenge, raw eggs — plain old grade A eggs that you can buy at the Safeway — take the place of the astronauts. Cracked eggs disqualify the team, no questions asked.

This year’s mission requires that the rocket use two parachutes during its descent, a design challenge that’s new to the competition. A lot of teams might have gone with a side-by-side parachute mechanism because that’s the conventional design. At least one team didn’t.

The Purple Pumas, who are from a high school just outside of Houston, Texas, used some out-of-the-box thinking for their parachute.

“We came up with a design that has one parachute on top of the other,” said Ella Barwick, one of six members of the all-girl team from League City, Tex. “This appeared to be a loophole at first, but we checked with TARC, and got the A-Ok for our design. So we went with it.”

That’s the kind of thinking that NASA seeks because space missions don’t always go as planned.

Just two days into Apollo 13’s April 1970 mission to the moon, an oxygen tank exploded and the crew radioed home: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” The scientists back on earth employed every cell of their creative brain powers to figure out how to use the limited material in the crippled spacecraft to get the three astronauts safely home.

In the Purple Pumas’ case, their success and ingenuity may be partly because the girls are really smart and also because the team has been together so long — they formed their team while studying 6th-grade biology with Samantha Youts at Seabrook Intermediate School — that it seems they can read each other’s minds. For example, teammates Brittany Bryant, Jade Breaux and Julia Curtis each chimed in with an explanation of how their team used a pool noodle to protect the egg, how an experiment with the egg in a baggy led to a broken egg, and how the kind of rocket body they could use changed when the egg had to sit sideways in the rocket.

“There’s lots of pressure on the egg as the rocket is rising,” explained Karina Garza, adding that the egg’s at its greatest risk when it lands. “It’s hard to survive if it crashes into a rock,” she laughed.

Although there are several all-girl teams now, the Purple Pumas, who are in their fourth competition, became the first all-girl team to complete in the TARC back in 2011.

I asked the girls, who are now sophomores, what it means to be on an all-girl team.

“Rocketry is a male-dominated sport,” Garza said. “We are kind of revolutionary.”

“Working and growing together as we’ve done for the past five years helps us become confident,” said her teammate Ella Heintz.

“As the rocket soars through the air, we’ll shatter the glass ceiling,” teammate Barwick added.

Another all-girl team pinpointed one benefit of having only girls on the team.

The San Marcos team: Elizabeth Ngan, Katherine Wong, Fatima Soto and Melissa Kosty and their advisors (photo: Aerospace Industries Association)
The San Marcos team: Elizabeth Ngan, Katherine Wong, Fatima Soto and Melissa Kosty and their advisors (photo: Aerospace Industries Association)

“Girls work well together,” said Fatima Soto, who’s on a team from San Marcos High School near San Diego, California.

Project manager Elizabeth Ngan noted, however, that she didn’t seek to have only girls for her team. “I wanted smart people on my team. I didn’t think about making it all girls, but that’s just what happened.”

Her team spent a lot of time “planning, experimenting, and pre-testing” the rocket’s trajectory before going out and doing an actual launch.

As a result, “we only broke two eggs” during the test flights, teammate Melissa Kosty said with evident pride. In an application that may apply to human astronauts as well as to the egg astronauts, one of her teammates, Katherine Wong, laughed that “since we re-use the eggs, they probably broke because of the stress of taking so many rocket launches.”

At a time when there’s a lot of hand-wringing about girls lacking confidence, it’s very refreshing to see so many girls having fun with a rocket competition.

The National finals of the 2014 Team America Rocketry Challenge take place at Great Meadow in Plains, Va. on Saturday. The winning team will travel to Farnborough International Air Show in July to compete against teams from France and the United Kingdom in the International Rocketry Challenge. After winning the local competition, the Georgetown 4-H team from Georgetown, Tex. won the international championship last year.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.
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