Boys take a crack at rocket science

With eggs and know-how, Howard County pupils let their ambitions soar


David Zuchero acknowledges he has taken on quite a task, supervising a team of seventh-grade boys as they create a rocket that can soar 800 feet into the air, stay aloft exactly 45 seconds, and cradle a raw egg without letting it break.

But there are many pleasures, too, in seeing the boys puzzle out the intricacies of the challenge. Besides, Zuchero said, there is a chance that the group of five Lime Kiln Middle School pupils could win part of a $60,000 prize package.

The team - consisting of Zuchero's son, Matt Zuchero, and fellow Lime Kiln Middle School pupils Ben Guiliford, Michael Peters, Tommy Zhang and Corey Schwab - is taking part in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, a national model-rocket competition that is open to students in grades seven through 12.

The competition, sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry, is in its fourth year. The Defense Department and NASA are both government partners, according to the TARC Web site.

Hundreds of teams and thousands of students from all over the country compete. This year, the challenge is both an altitude goal (800 feet) and a time goal (45 seconds). Whichever team comes closest to both goals, and lands its rocket without breaking the egg, will win.

The Lime Kiln rocket already cleared a major hurdle by posting a qualifying flight. But Zuchero learned Friday afternoon that it wasn't one of the top 100 nationwide, thus ending the dream of attending the national fly-off May 20 at the Great Meadow field events center in The Plains, Va.

"We were close, but not close enough," Zuchero said.

Zuchero, who is a microbiologist - not an engineer - by training, said he learned about the contest while surfing the Internet. As someone who built his share of homemade rockets as a kid, the Team America contest immediately appealed to him, he said.

Matt took the idea to his gifted-and-talented science class and quickly cobbled together a team.

The boys submitted their application in a nick of time. Throughout the winter, they braved freezing-cold Saturday mornings to test their rocket in a field behind Reservoir High School. They also met Thursday nights at Zuchero's house to discuss the project.

Once a team is entered in the competition, it receives software that can be used to design the rocket. "You actually build it right up on the screen, part by part," said Zuchero. Contestants can use only nonmetal materials for the nose, body and fins of the rocket. They are forbidden to build the motor themselves. It must be a commercially made model rocket motor from an approved list.

Zuchero gave everyone on his team assignments. "Each of these guys had a responsibility on the team," he said. "Although we're all cross-trained."

Matt probably wound up doing the most work because the rocket ma- terial was set up in his house. Zuchero, a pharmaceutical consultant, works from home, which partly explains why he was able to set aside so much time for the rocket project, he said.

One of the biggest challenges was creating cushioning for the egg, so it would withstand the inevitable fall from the sky. Corey said that the team tried Cheerios and peanut butter but eventually settled on a spongy foam material. In 30 flights, only four eggs have been broken, said Zuchero.

The completed rocket is about 34 inches long. It looks sort of like it is made from an empty wrapping-paper tube, with the engine attached to the bottom. It has fins on its tail to help steady it in wind. Small green and orange parachutes open once the rocket is airborne.

The egg sits in the upper half of the tube. It's painted red, yellow and blue.

"We chose those colors because we wanted it to look like a clown," said Ben.

"Because we are clowns," said Corey.

Zuchero said kids today are great with computers and often good at sports but that they have very little experience building things. "The cool part was getting to see them work with tools," he said.

"We learned a lot about rockets," said Ben. Matt said the project has been a lot of work. "We did a lot of flights in really bad weather," he said.

But, he added, "it was worth it."

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