The Lodi Rocket Rebels

In a model rocketry contest, New Jersey high school students launch an egg -- and something more.

And the winners are…Landon Fisher, John Easum, and Michael Gerritsen (left to right) from Rockwall-Heath High School in Texas. (Team member Colt McNally is not pictured.) (Aerospace Industries Association)
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With a National meet just three days away, this afternoon is the last chance that members of the Lodi High School rocket club have to test their rocket designs. The team has set up a launch pad in the wilds of New Jersey, in a field lousy with gopher holes, corn stalks, and ticks. A field where Joe Fusco, the club’s mentor, has hunted for 10 years. A field near nothing, other than a small airport with the occasional airplane flying in and out.

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Over long-sleeve shirts, the kids wear dark blue T-shirts sporting the team logo: a jawless skull, two rockets, and “Lodi Rocket Rebels”—all in yellow. Fusco has warned everyone to tie down their pant leg openings with rubber bands. “Look at that,” he says to a thin girl wearing ankle socks. “I told everyone to wear long socks.”

“Fusco [none of the Rebels uses “Mister” to address him], I always wear ankle socks,” says the girl. “Even in winter.”

Fusco, 54, raises his voice a lot, spewing gibes in a New Jersey accent like Tony Soprano’s. And like Soprano’s made men, every Rebel has a nickname. The girl he lectured about socks—Annmarie—he calls “Splash.” Ishani, who towers over Fusco, is “Lil’ Zilla.” There’s Aditi, or “ABC Aditi.” Isabella and her older brother Cristian (who gets annoyed when someone says they look like twins)—they’re “Cheeseburger and Fries.” Fusco calls Fatma “Little T” because her older sister, a recent graduate, he labeled “Turk,” or “T.” Carla, a Peruvian with black hair and eyes and a perfect American accent, is “Carla” (not much originality there, Fusco). Anthony is “Santhony” because his refined sense of touch allows him to sand any object to within a hair’s breadth. Fusco calls Ko Lung Chan, um, “Snookie” (for the record, Ko, a guy, looks nothing like Snookie from “Jersey Shore”). And there’s Joe. Though Joe calls himself “Magellan” (because he journeys everywhere during preparations for a launch), Fusco teasingly calls him “the Rocket King.”

Fusco turns his attention from sock length to the rockets, which are laid out on a rickety table. Built from scratch, they are similar in appearance: Newton, named after some famous physicist; Pete, one girl’s make-believe boyfriend; and a three-foot-tall, 2.5-inch-diameter finned rocket the team has christened Lucky “because we got good scores on that one,” says Fusco. Otherwise, he keeps mum on the specifics (no need to give the competition an advantage). During its last launch, not 15 minutes ago, Lucky’s capsule touched down 47 seconds after it left Earth—barely exceeding the all-important 45-second limit the national competition specifies.

The Lodi Rocket Rebels are one of 100 teams across the United States with a shot at winning the 2011 Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) at The Plains, Virginia, an hour outside of Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the National Association of Rocketry, the challenge launched in 2002 as a one-time event to honor the 2003 centennial of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. “Actually it started out as a social event to draw attention to our industry,” says Susan Lavrakas, AIA’s director of workforce development. “It was so popular with teachers and students, they kept asking when are we going to do this again, so it became an annual event.”

Since 2002, more than 50,000 students have entered. At the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, more than 600 teams applied, each team having three to 10 members from public and private schools, Boy and Girl Scouts, the Civil Air Patrol, church groups, and rocketry clubs. “They build a rocket, fly it, and send in their qualifying scores,” says Lavrakas. From those, TARC organizers chose the top 300 to demonstrate their rockets before a representative of the National Association of Rocketry, the oldest sport rocketry organization in the U.S. The top 100 scorers were invited to The Plains.

Going to Virginia means more than prestige, a great reference on a college application, and a shot at a share of the $75,000 in scholarships and prizes awarded to the top 10 teams. “Over the years, we look at it more closely as a tool for developing our workforce,” says Lavrakas. “We’re trying to make it a fun activity and prepare people to join the activity. Sponsors interacting with the kids—that will be a huge value.”

Or more concisely: “[The sponsors] know that 92 percent of the participants will go on to be engineers,” says student Joe.

To mix it up each year, challenge organizers change the rules. This year, for example, the rocket must weigh 1,000 grams (2.2 pounds) or less, and the weight limit for the solid fuel motor is 60 grams. The capsule carrying the payload—a raw egg that must land unbroken—must reach an altitude of 750 feet and deploy a 15-inch-diameter parachute. Total flight time must fall between 40 and 45 seconds. As long as they stay within those guidelines, and follow some minor engineering details about the solid-fuel motor, the teams are invited to go nuts.

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