They say shooters shoot, and a Millington High School team has been firing projectiles for weeks while seeking the Team America Rocketry Challenge title on Saturday in Virginia.
The seven-member Millington squad hopes practice makes perfect while seeking to win the “world’s largest student rocket contest.”
“Launch, launch, launch – that’s the key,” said Mark Ratza, Millington High School physics and chemistry teacher supervising the “Luna’s Crater” team comprising Federico Formentini, Sierra Goodhue, Victoria Hall, Tristan Seal, Zzyzic Smith, Christine Styles and Sabine Weaver.
“The more we launch, the better we get,” said Ratza, who founded the Millington student-rocket program and saw Millington High take third place nationally in 2017, winning $12,500.
“And the more you launch, the more data you get,” said Hall, a Millington High School senior and captain of the squad competing in the national contest Saturday. After each launch during a series of practice launches last week in a Millington Township farm field, team members wrote down statistics including their rocket’s time in the air, outdoor temperature at launch, wind speed, wind direction, propellant mass and rocket mass.
The squad is one of 101 teams qualifying for the national event from among 830 teams – including two other Millington teams – entering the competition.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, contest rules require a rocket carrying three raw eggs – representing Apollo 11 astronauts – to soar 856 feet before returning the uncracked eggs to earth, in a flight lasting 43 to 46 seconds.
Success at such a mission requires cooperation and, well, brainstorming, according to Hall.
“This is my first year as a team captain, and when we were building the rockets, I didn’t know as much as some of the other captains, so I would always go to the other teams to check how they did stuff, and you just go off other people’s data to see if your rocket can perform better,” Hall said.
“Then you double-check everything and make sure everything’s in line. There are three teams in Millington right now, and I just bounce off of their ideas. Everyone tries to help each other.”
Millington entered its first Team American Rocketry Challenge, or TARC, in 2004, and has put one or more teams in the competition 13 times, with at least one squad qualifying for the national contest 12 of those years.
Achievements of members of the “TARC” team – as they call themselves – can fly under the radar.
“It got announced on the speakers at school that we made it (to nationals), but no one said anything to us, so we figured ‘OK,’” said Sierra Goodhue, 16, a Millington High School junior on the team headed to compete in Virginia.
“I’m betting if it was football players, (the reaction) would have been ‘Congrats for reaching the finals, you’re the best!’”
Hall said community members don’t view TARC team rocket launches, or contests, as often as they see sporting events.
“But this is something that we still do, because we kind of take pride in it ourselves to figure out and solve our own problems to get to the specifications that were given to us,” Hall said.
“Some people don’t fit into sports, so we just decided to fit into something … that we find that we can do that others might not be able to. But the community is very supportive of what we do. We’ve been asking for donations throughout the community, and we print out a bunch of letters to hand out to businesses in the community.
“Some people wait every year for the letter to come so they can give us a donation to help with the expenses when we get to nationals.”
Anyone wishing to support the team’s journey to the national event may email Ratza at email@example.com.
Donors also may write a check payable to “Millington Community Schools” and write “TARC Team” in the check memo line. Mail the checks to: Mark Ratza, Millington High School, 8780 Dean Drive, Millington, MI 48746.
The Aerospace Industries Association calls Satur-day’s national contest “the aerospace and defense industry’s flagship program designed to encourage students to pursue study and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).”
Frequently, teams from Tuscola County have represented the Thumb area well in the event. In 2016, the Deford Dazzlers 4-H Club placed second and won $15,000.
The winner of the Team America Rocketry Challenge represents the U.S. at the International Rocketry Challenge at the Paris International Air Show in June against teams from the United Kingdom, France and Japan.
Ratza figures existence of the TARC team at Millington High has helped propel a number of students to engineering careers.
“I think probably five or six kids that have graduated within the last two or three years are going into engineering, which is a fair number for a small school like us,” Ratza said. “And this year I have two kids going on to college at Kettering University to study engineering, so we have a fair number of kids that do that.”
Emilia Colman, a 2018 Millington High School graduate, and Elizibeth McVay, a 2017 Millington graduate, are engineering students at Michigan Technological University.
“They’ll be launching a rocket to 10,000 feet, or about two miles, this summer in New Mexico with their collegiate rocket team,” Ratza said.
Last Thursday, though, Millington TARC team members Hall, Goodhue, Styles and Smith launched their cardboard rocket several times in a farm field owned by Burns Poultry Farms.
When a student pushed a launch button on a control panel connected by extension cord to the launchpad and rocket, the projectile raced skyward with a hiss, making it tough to see at the height of its flight.
A “red cap” attached to the rocket contains a chemical that – when ignited in the air – explodes and propels two sets of parachutes out the top of the rocket, which separates into two segments. One set of two parachutes is attached to the portion of the rocket carrying the eggs, while one parachute is attached to the portion of the rocket containing the motor.
An altimeter, which measures altitude, is placed inside the rocket. By using a control on the altimeter, students listen to a series of beeping sounds that indicate the apex of the rocket’s flight.
On one practice flight, the rocket goes awry, crashing unceremoniously in the farm field after an abbreviated flight. The mishap sends the students into a scramble, as they debate what went wrong while searching for new parts, or the right tools, to create another cardboard rocket on a plastic table set up near the road next to the farm field.
“We only have two rockets, and one of our rockets kind of got obliterated just now,” said Styles. “So we’re working to make our second rocket now.”
The members of the “Luna’s Crater” team must bring two rockets to the national competition. They also can’t communicate with Ratza – who stays at a distance – when they proceed to the launch site. Ratza allows sophomores, juniors and seniors on Millington rocket-launching teams.
“Just because my teaching is for grades 10-12, I usually invite the sophomores in,” Ratza said. “Then we have the seniors and juniors teach the sophomores. I try to teach as little as possible.”
Team members try to launch as often as possible, and will have logged about 30 flights before Saturday’s national competition.
“The more data they get, the more they can predict what that rocket’s gonna do,” Ratza said. “It’s launched in different conditions – calm or windy – because you don’t know what you’re going to have until you arrive in Virginia.”
Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.