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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“You mean fly?” says Joe. Fusco rolls his eyes.

As they pack up the equipment, the girls chatter about guys. Fusco calls the club the “dating service for nerds,” and lectures team members on the best way to load the van. Once they’re onboard, the two-hour ride back to Lodi begins with the kids harassing Joe for ripping the fins off a rocket that earlier in the season had landed tail-first in mud. Fusco jumps in.

Little T repeatedly asks Fusco if they can stop at Taco Bell for dinner. “No!” barks Fusco. “We’re driving straight through.”

On Friday, the day before the meet, the local Harley-Davidson motorcycle club escorted a city rec center van, packed to the gills with Rebels, luggage, and rockets, out of Lodi. Five hours later, the van rolled up the driveway of Great Meadow, a lush steeplechase field outside of The Plains, where the Team America Rocketry Challenge is held.

TARC has a convention-like atmosphere suitable for teenage rocket buffs. In between launches, contestants can wander an ad-hoc mall and fly an F-35 flight simulator, play Aerospace Jeopardy, buy souvenir T-shirts and mugs, and collect gimme pens, caps, sunglasses, temporary tattoos, Frisbees, and foam yard darts, courtesy of NASA, the Department of Defense, and 34 companies that are members of the AIA—all event sponsors this year.

The Rebels pitch their tent on the edge of the steeplechase grounds, and Friday night they crowd into a nearby hotel. At the tent the next day, Fusco makes an announcement: “I slept with Bryan last night.”

“You make it sound so wrong,” says Bryan. Tall and charismatic, Bryan Santos, whom Joe calls “the Rocket God,” now attends Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. But he and two other members of the 2010 Rebels came back to watch the competition. “It’s your second life behind school,” says Bryan. Joe hangs on his every word. “Last year [Fusco and Bryan] fought about everything,” says Joe. “In the end, they made a decision and compromised. I have taken his position almost.”

The rocket that Santos and last year’s team designed had to fly to 825 feet, and the egg payload had to descend on a streamer with a length-to-width ratio of five to one. Also—as they learned the day before the competition—the streamer could not be reinforced. “We [had] put scotch tape on the border to keep it from tearing,” says Joe. “That night in the hotel we stayed up all night going around each side of the streamer getting rid of the scotch tape, cutting it off. [The tapeless streamer] didn’t open. It kind of stuck together—it was a hot day, and humid. It opened I doubt 100 feet above the ground, and by then it had been declared ballistic and disqualified by the TARC officials.”

At Great Meadow, each team has been assigned an hour’s time slot for launching from one of seven pads. The Rebels’ hour starts at 11 a.m. They cross a broad grass field, lugging their gantry, rockets, computers, tools, and a stuffed-goose mascot to their assigned launch pad, Goddard II.

Wednesday’s rehearsal seems to have paid off: With each member performing the same job, the team launches Lucky without a hitch. Lucky’s flight time is right where it should be, but instead of gently arcing over at 750 feet, the rocket continues up for 24 more feet. “We were nailing it Wednesday,” says Fusco. “We don’t normally launch in the rain and heavy humidity; that’s why we went higher.” (Because moist air is thinner than dry air, there was less resistance to slow the rocket down and prevent it from going too high.)

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