THE PLAINS, Va. - In its three-month odyssey of trial and error, the model rocket 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 impaled a 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 the Applications & Research Laboratory High School in Ellicott City carted their rocket through the rain onto Great Meadow, a 250-acre field in the Piedmont countryside, to compete for a lucrative amateur engineering prize.
After days and nights of dreaming, designing, building and testing, 100 student teams from across the country had earned the chance to see if their tubelike, finned creations could meet the challenge: soar to precisely 1,500 feet carrying a payload of two Grade A raw eggs, then parachute the delicate cargo back to Earth - unscrambled.
The prize? Bragging rights and a slice of $59,000 to be split by the top five teams.
Braving gusts of wind and lightning, the Ellicott City students set their rocket up on a launch pole amid the mud-covered grass and rolling hills in hopes that the craft could perform under pressure from Mother Nature.
As they walked away from R.A.V.E.N. to prepare for blastoff, flight engineer Kanwarpal Chandhok, 16, turned for one last glance and said to the rocket, "I love you. Fly high, do good."
Chandhok's team was one of four from Maryland competing in the national fly-off yesterday. At the end of the contest, one team had overshot its target. One had fallen short. One had been disqualified when the rocket malfunctioned. And one sailed to a perfect victory, finishing No. 1.
Unlike classic competitions such as the egg drop, in which students must devise a way for the poultry version of a crash test dummy to survive a 40-foot plunge, or the building of a model bridge that can withstand hundreds of pounds of pressure, this contest required a cross-section of skills.
"When you're throwing an egg off a building, you basically have one thing you have to work at - keep that cushioning," said Kevin Johnson, adviser to the Rocketry And Vertical ExploratioN team from Howard County.
"With this contest, you have to know mechanical engineering, math and geometry to calculate the altitude, physics to understand how the eggs react under thrust, and aerodynamics to make sure your rocket is going to be stable," Johnson said. "It's an amalgamation of a lot of different skills."
Sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry, the Team America Rocketry Challenge is a first-of-its- kind competition. It commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, while aiming to get students fired up about careers in aerospace.
More than 9,000 students on 873 teams registered last winter. The 100 teams with qualifying heights closest to 1,500 feet advanced to the finals, including the Ellicott City students, and three other Maryland teams: from Perry Hall High in Baltimore County, Boonsboro High in Washington County and Northern High in Calvert County.
Each team began to tackle the challenge last fall armed with the 350-page Handbook of Model Rocketry, a miniature electronic altimeter, a copy of Sport Rocketry magazine and the computer program RockSim which allowed them to test the stability and trajectory of their airframe designs before cutting those first pieces of balsa wood, cardboard tubes and foam - their primary building materials.
From her home in Cincinnati, Amanda Wright Lane, 49, said her great-granduncles, Orville and Wilbur Wright, would have been "absolutely thrilled" 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 Industries Association. "They would have loved the idea of getting kids interested in rocketry."
Beyond insights into the complexities of rocket science, the Maryland teams say they have also gained a keen understanding of the highs and lows the bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, must have experienced as they labored to invent one of the most revolutionary technologies of the 20th century: the airplane.
"I realized how much pain they had every time their plane crashed," said Mickey Hummel, 17, a Northern High senior, who once watched his team's rocket fly up in a 30-foot arc, crash nose-first into the ground and burn out. "I can relate to how they felt and how frustrated they were."
"It's really hard to make a rocket that can get to 1,500 feet," said seventh-grader Brett Rosenthal, 12, whose Boonsboro High team had rockets vanish behind clouds, never to be found. "It's got to be 100 times harder to make an airplane fly."