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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“Of the 99 other entries, you’ll see 99 different designs,” says Joe. The Rebels’ Lucky looks like your typical ICBM: It’s computer-designed and honed with data gleaned from the Rebels’ weekend launches. In general, the team doesn’t launch rockets near the high school’s neighborhood, in part because of the noise and in part because rocket bodies or capsules occasionally go astray, requiring team members to borrow ladders and scamper on roofs.

While it’s a hot summer Wednesday at Fusco’s bug-infested hunting ground in Jersey, Saturday’s forecast for Virginia is for cool temperatures, which means the air will be more dense. Fusco and Joe loudly debate cutting a spill hole in Lucky’s parachute to make the rocket fall faster in the heavier air, while Joe whips out his multi-tool and, casually eyeballing it, starts slicing a hole in the chute’s center. By the time Fusco’s protest reaches a crescendo, it’s a done deal. Fusco rolls his eyes and sighs.

Time for final assembly. Little T lays the parachute on the table and folds it lengthwise into a rectangle. She then wraps the shroud lines around the chute and holds it up for Rebel approval. Aside from her normal job—recording all flight data and producing a graphical analysis of the flight—Little T always prepares the parachute. After her wrapping passes muster, the Rebels surround the rocket, fixing ballast, stuffing in wadding, and plunging the chutes down—their arms flailing like the Peanuts gang decorating the tree in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

They all step away right as one of the Rebels puts the final quarter twist on the capsule, attaching it to the rocket body. With great care, Joe picks the assembly off the table. A couple of others gently support either end, and they carry it to the gantry Joe built last summer. Joe lifts the rocket overhead, then slides it onto its rail. On the bare cardboard tube, someone has used a black Sharpie to write the name Lucky in small, swirling letters.

The Rebels wire the engine to the ignition, and Joe makes some minor adjustments. Then everyone backs away from the gantry.

At the mission control tables, Little T, ready to record data, stands next to Santhony, who’s sitting before the launch button. And just behind them there’s Fusco. They place a hold on the launch while a four-seat Piper Warrior comes in for a landing, then Carla starts shouting out the countdown at T minus 10 seconds. When she reaches “one,” Santhony presses the ignition, firing the solid-fuel engine.

Everyone with an iPhone handy presses the stopwatch function. Lucky whooshes skyward, spewing a trail of white smoke until the motor shuts down. After the nose cone jettisons from the body, the two sections continue upward for a few seconds, deploying their parachutes between the Rebels and the noon sun.

Everyone except Santhony shades their eyes and searches the sky. Like outfielders, three Rebels back up across the corn stubble to stay under the two components. A crosswind catches the pieces, forcing the Rebel outfielders to turn and pursue. As the capsule nears the ground, Carla starts yelling the total elapsed time: 40 seconds…41…42…the capsule settles into the corn stubble at 43 seconds! Yes!

Dodging gopher holes, Ko reaches it first, and holds it to his ear to listen to the TARC-approved altimeter. It beeps seven times—“Seven hundred,” Ko yells. After a pause, the altimeter beeps another five times—“Fifty feet,” he yells. Then it beeps three more times—“Three feet! Seven hundred fifty-three feet!” TARC rules state that rockets are awarded a point based on the number of feet over or under the assigned altitude, plus a point for every second of flight below 40 and above 45. The lowest number wins. With that altitude and flight duration, Lucky would score a 3 in competition at The Plains.

Not entirely satisfied, the Rebels want to launch Newton or Pete, and they excitedly plead their case. Fusco waits for them to settle down, then says: “Let’s pack up. We know this guy can dance.”

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