THE PLAINS, Va. - In its three-month odyssey of trial and error, the modelrocket code-named R.A.V.E.N. had its share of disasters.
After one launch, the rocket burst into flames like the mythical phoenix.Another time, it crash-landed atop a frozen pond. And once, it nearly impaleda camcorder-wielding man eager for a close-up of the action. Close-up indeed.
But those mishaps were all behind them yesterday as students from theApplications & Research Laboratory High School in Ellicott City carted theirrocket through the rain onto Great Meadow, a 250-acre field in the Piedmontcountryside, to compete for a lucrative amateur engineering prize.
After days and nights of dreaming, designing, building and testing, 100student teams from across the country had earned the chance to see if theirtubelike, finned creations could meet the challenge: soar to precisely 1,500feet carrying a payload of two Grade A raw eggs, then parachute the delicatecargo back to Earth - unscrambled.
The prize? Bragging rights and a slice of $59,000 to be split by the topfive teams.
Braving gusts of wind and lightning, the Ellicott City students set theirrocket up on a launch pole amid the mud-covered grass and rolling hills inhopes that the craft could perform under pressure from Mother Nature.
As they walked away from R.A.V.E.N. to prepare for blastoff, flightengineer Kanwarpal Chandhok, 16, turned for one last glance and said to therocket, "I love you. Fly high, do good."
Chandhok's team was one of four from Maryland competing in the nationalfly-off yesterday. At the end of the contest, one team had overshot itstarget. One had fallen short. One had been disqualified when the rocketmalfunctioned. And one sailed to a perfect victory, finishing No. 1.
Unlike classic competitions such as the egg drop, in which students mustdevise a way for the poultry version of a crash test dummy to survive a40-foot plunge, or the building of a model bridge that can withstand hundredsof pounds of pressure, this contest required a cross-section of skills.
"When you're throwing an egg off a building, you basically have one thingyou have to work at - keep that cushioning," said Kevin Johnson, adviser tothe Rocketry And Vertical ExploratioN team from Howard County.
"With this contest, you have to know mechanical engineering, math andgeometry to calculate the altitude, physics to understand how the eggs reactunder thrust, and aerodynamics to make sure your rocket is going to bestable," Johnson said. "It's an amalgamation of a lot of different skills."
Sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the NationalAssociation of Rocketry, the Team America Rocketry Challenge is afirst-of-its- kind competition. It commemorates the 100th anniversary of theWright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, while aiming to get studentsfired up about careers in aerospace.
More than 9,000 students on 873 teams registered last winter. The 100 teamswith qualifying heights closest to 1,500 feet advanced to the finals,including the Ellicott City students, and three other Maryland teams: fromPerry Hall High in Baltimore County, Boonsboro High in Washington County andNorthern High in Calvert County.
Each team began to tackle the challenge last fall armed with the 350-pageHandbook of Model Rocketry, a miniature electronic altimeter, a copy of SportRocketry magazine and the computer program RockSim which allowed them to testthe stability and trajectory of their airframe designs before cutting thosefirst pieces of balsa wood, cardboard tubes and foam - their primary buildingmaterials.
From her home in Cincinnati, Amanda Wright Lane, 49, said hergreat-granduncles, Orville and Wilbur Wright, would have been "absolutelythrilled" with the hands-on learning approach of the contest.
"It's something that is not just reading out of a textbook," said Lane.Besides, Orville Wright was an early member of the Aerospace IndustriesAssociation. "They would have loved the idea of getting kids interested inrocketry."
Beyond insights into the complexities of rocket science, the Maryland teamssay they have also gained a keen understanding of the highs and lows thebicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, must have experienced as they labored toinvent one of the most revolutionary technologies of the 20th century: theairplane.
"I realized how much pain they had every time their plane crashed," saidMickey Hummel, 17, a Northern High senior, who once watched his team's rocketfly up in a 30-foot arc, crash nose-first into the ground and burn out. "I canrelate to how they felt and how frustrated they were."
"It's really hard to make a rocket that can get to 1,500 feet," saidseventh-grader Brett Rosenthal, 12, whose Boonsboro High team had rocketsvanish behind clouds, never to be found. "It's got to be 100 times harder tomake an airplane fly."
Early on, the students learned that clustering and simultaneously ignitingthe rocket motors - short, cylindrical tubes filled with dry fuel, similar togunpowder - would be key to success.
But between driver's education classes, student council meetings, schoolplays and prom plans, the teams learned first about failure.
Many had no experience tinkering with rockets, and even those who did hadnever encountered anything quite like the rocket challenge.
Meeting four hours a week, it took more than a month for the Ravens tobuild their 22-inch-tall, red-and-white rocket. And on its first launch inMarch, it broke apart and crashed offshore into a frozen Middletown Park pond.
They retrieved the altimeter using a remote-controlled toy car dispatchedonto the thin ice to push the yolk-soaked wreckage back to shore - all thewhile making sure their team leader, Conn Dickson, 17, wasn't contaminated.
His allergies to eggs are so severe that if he touches an egg, Dickson'shand would swell "like it was put on a hot stove," he said.
Meanwhile, the three-member Boonsboro High team struggled with rockets thatdisplayed Houdini-like tendencies.
"You see them and then you don't," said 10th-grader Ameen Mirdamadi, 15,who toiled in the basement of his home building rockets with his brother,Kayvon, 13.
"I don't know if they disappear into a cloud or what, but it had a 28-inch,bright-orange parachute. How could you not see that? We walked around milessearching."
Similar difficulties tormented the Northern High team.
Their early prototypes kept exploding into balls of flames. But eventuallytheir designs evolved from a bulky, 480-gram rocket made out of a Pringlespotato chip can to a third generation craft: Black Max, a 370-gram,2-foot-tall beauty with trapezoidal fins.
"The kids were discouraged, but we kept chanting our slogan: `We neverthrow in the tau,'" said supervising physics teacher Jonathan Everett,referring to a physics term the group used in their pun on a motivationalmotto.
That's just what the Perry Hall team was about to do March 16, the last dayto submit qualifying scores. They had redesigned the rocket only the nightbefore when they walked onto a field of dried mud at Philadelphia andIndustrial Park roads in White Marsh, for one last try.
After weeks of disappointments and several hundred dollars spent, theyhooked the igniters of their rocket to a car battery, hit the firing buttonand stepped back as it streaked off the launch pad, a modified Black & Deckerworkbench, "like a bat out of you-know-where," said team adviser Glenn Davisof Essex.
It was clear they had licked the crooked, corkscrew takeoff that hadrepeatedly sent it flying like a wounded duck. And when they retrieved it, thealtimeter reported another surprise: one beep, followed by five more, and thentwo long, consecutive beeps. Translation: The rocket had reached 1,500 feet,on the dot.
The team let out screams of joy.
But the orange-and-black rocket that raised their spirits in March broughtthem disappointment yesterday. It streaked into the air, painting the sky witha white-vapor trail. The balsa-wood body, swollen by rain, failed to separateinto two pieces as required by contest rules. The team was disqualified.
The glitch also caused the motors to char the lower section of the rocketand crippled its assent to 750 feet.
"Smells like hotdogs," said Andrew Dickinson, 17, as he picked up thescorched remains.
Said teammate Brad Spatafore, 18: "I just want to go home."
The Ravens did not fare much better. A motor on the R.A.V.E.N.malfunctioned, and the rocket reached only 1,015 feet.
"Too bad for us," team leader Dickson said. "It really cost us."
Meanwhile, the Northern High team had the opposite problem. Its rocket,Black Max, shot to 1,630 feet - 130 feet above its target.
Team member Bruce Watkins said he was "just glad it didn't blow up."
As their fellow Maryland squads packed up their gear, the team fromBoonsboro High School got ready for a television close-up. The team's rocket -a thin, sickly looking contraption covered in duct tape - flew to 1,500 feet,clinching first place.
The three members of the Boonsboro team shared $14,000 in savings bonds fortheir victory, plus $2,200 in cash for the school. The team from WashingtonInternational School in Washington, D.C., finished second; Vail Christian HighSchool in Edwards, Colo., finished third; and Manlius-Pebble Hill High Schoolin Dewitt, N.Y., and Waccamaw High School in Pawleys Island S.C., tied forfourth.
"It was just luck," said Ameen Mirdamadi of the Boonsboro team.
"And prayer," chimed in teammate Brett Rosenthal, moments before the team'sCNN interview.
In the end, many of the students said the competition met its goal: Theirinterest in aerospace engineering, and technical fields in general, isblossoming.
Chandhok, the 16-year-old flight engineer for the R.A.V.E.N. rocket,nurtures a dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer. Watkins, the NorthernHigh senior, plans on getting a college degree in mechanical engineering.
That's all in the future, of course. Before the competition yesterday,members of each Maryland team had their minds focused on finishing in the top10, a goal they believed was possible with a little good fortune.
"You could have the best rocket, but you might not have the best rocket forthat day," said Dickson, leader of the Ravens.