“It’s still smoking. That’s not right. Why did it eject so early?”
The comments came from Grady James, one of nine Animas High School students who call themselves the CloudBusters, as he offered his critique of the team’s first launch last Sunday. The launch didn’t go as planned, but it amounted to only a momentary setback.
These kids, sophomores and juniors, have the right stuff.
They’ve been launching rockets in the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings at the James Ranch in the north Animas Valley since November. They’re trying to get a perfect shot: up 800 feet and down in 41 to 43 seconds with a payload of two raw eggs that must go up and back to ground safely, uncracked.
Almost 1,000 high school teams across the Unites States have been doing similar drills, up early, tweaking their rockets to meet the same goals. Their aim is to be among the 100 teams most closely meeting the specifications, universally called “the specs,” which will allow them to compete May 12 in Washington, D.C., in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, the biggest student rocket contest in the world, with the top 10 teams splitting $120,000 in scholarships.
The CloudBusters found out several weeks ago that their best launch – up 810 feet and back down in a spec perfect 41 seconds with two perfectly protected eggs – qualified as one of the 100 best efforts in the nation this year. They’re headed to D.C.
Their winning launch scored 25 points. You want to score as low as possible. Penalty points are added to a score for missed distance and for a flight duration being too short or too long. The cutoff point was 35, and the students easily made the cut.
So the pressure was off for Sunday’s launch; it was just another test of their vehicle, which they’ll tweak dozens more times before it takes flight for keeps on May 12.
Still, deviance from nominal had team members scratching their heads.
Riley Amos, another team member added, “I’m just hopeful we had a wonky motor. We have no idea why it did that. Write down the serial number to determine if it was a bad motor.”
Grady James and his brother, Mason, whose parents, Dan and Becca, operate the James Ranch and provide the launch site, said motors can deviate by as much as 10 percent, but the team has bought bad motors in the past that are clearly defective.
Team members are endlessly refining the accuracy of data input into their computer program, RockSim, to account for humidity, temperature, barometric pressure, wind, altitude and dozens of other variables.
“There’s a lot of variables you can account for, and a lot of variables you can mess up,” Grady said.
All the variables are integrated into an algorithm that takes into account the rocket’s weight, its length and its center of gravity.
Weight is added or subtracted from the rocket by adding washers and at times a few rocks. With each new launch, the rocket must be weighed, and it’s new center of gravity must be determined – if variables have changed, that is noted, and the algorithm spits out its prediction for height and duration.
Alma Wolf, 17, a junior, said one of the differences this year has been careful attention to details. Each launch has its data entered, so students know exactly how their rocket, just short of 2 feet in length, performs given different weights and centers of gravity.
The team has been trying to land a spot in the competition for three years. Last year, details, such as recording data for each flight, were sometimes an afterthought.
“We were always like, ‘What weight was the rocket for that flight?’” Wolf said.
Sage Davis, a team captain, said she was more confident this year than ever that the CloudBusters would make the cut and advance to Washington.
“We had a goal, and we put our plans into action rather than just saying we were going to do it,” she said. “This year, when they posted the new specs, we were like right on it, smack out. We were building on our own time not just at the meetings.”
RockSim gives the team data on how its rocket will perform at lower altitudes and with greater humidity, which will be present in Washington.
But to err on the side of safety, Scot Davis, Sage’s father and mentor of the team, said he has secured a field outside Manassas, Virginia, on the Thursday before the competition to “dial in” accuracy of the CloudBusters’ rocket before the competition.
The team plans to take at least four rockets to Virginia, two to go up 800 feet in 41 to 43 seconds and one to go up 775 feet and one to go up 825 feet, which will be the new height requirements, depending on a coin toss, if the team advances to the second round.
Amos said the effort has given him new appreciation for the complexities involved in real space flight.
“I can’t even imagine,” he said of a space shuttle launch. “We have so many things that can go wrong. I have no idea how they account for everything.”
Nate Foster, 16, a sophomore, said NASA “has like unlimited budgets.”
An unlimited budget is something the CloudBusters don’t enjoy. In fact, the team has started a GoFundMe page to raise the $10,000 it will cost to finance its trip. As of Tuesday, the team had raised $3,170.
The good news from the failed first launch – which went up only 654 feet, well short of the 750 it was expected to reach – was the problem was soon identified.
“We didn’t drill holes so the altimeter would read properly,” Amos announced.
The team had neglected to open some air holes in the body of the rocket so the altimeter would read the air pressure properly and set off a small charge that would release a parachute at the proper height – one of dozens of easily overlooked details.
Sunday’s best launch turned out to be the fourth. When the rocket went up 768 feet, almost exactly matching the group’s expectation of 767 feet.
Unfortunately for the CloudBusters, a worrying corkscrew rotation was noticed on the fifth and final launch. The group meets every Wednesday to build rockets and review their status, and the worrying corkscrew is a mystery they will want to solve.