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Last updated: May 23, 2003
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MASA rocketeers assist at TARC national competition in Virginia (5/23/2003)

On May 10, 2003, MASA members Ted Cochran and Mike Erpelding traveled to Virginia.  Their mission - to volunteer at the national competition for the Team America Rocket Challenge.

CNN had a satellite truck there all day, giving feeds to Atlanta--way cool. CBS had a satellite truck there in the AM feeding CBS' early show. The launches they got were not by teams, but "representative" rockets that were sent up, in some cases in driving rain, in precisely timed media windows in order to synch up with whatever was going on on the live shows the video was being fed to.

Those demo launches--there were about five of them--had no better success, on average, than the teams did. One cluster BP to BP rocket failed to light one of the booster motors until staging, resulting in the motor burning from the top down as the booster fell to earth.  Another AP to AP rocket suffered a blown forward closure in the booster, resulting in a cartwheel of smoke and fire. Fortunately, the CNN folks weren't trying to follow the flights of the rockets, just the liftoffs. That was partly because they were under rain canopies -)

All of the teams were enthusiastic, and way more tolerant of the weather than some of us staffers were. It was damp when we arrived at 630 because of rain the day before, but after the rain ended around 930 it was absolutely squishy for the rest of the day. Lots of rich red Virginia clay splattered around. Reminded me of Woodstock.

I worked the rocket checkin booth all day; Mike worked Returns. It was set up so that 18 teams had a one hour prep window followed by a one hour launch window. The range had two semicircles of 18 pads each, with their own controllers, RSO, LCO, and pad managers. Kids would be launching on the Blue side during the Prep window for the gold side, and vice versa. Very highly organized, and it had to be to get finished on time.

The kids would get their eggs, assemble their rocket, and check in.  We'd figure out the propellant weight, do a safety check, a stability check, a weight check, and note any unusual features on the flight card for the range crew. The kids were completely unrestricted by the classical conventions of rocketry, and they were allowed to fly pretty much anything they showed up with, albeit with a lot of oversight in some cases. I personally checked in three stage rockets, rockets with three altimeters, and rockets staging AP to BP, including a rocket staging a G90 to a D12-0 (Me Are you using an altimeter for ejection?" Team "No, just the motor." Me "Interesting choice of a delay. Is the motor blow by sufficient?" Team "We added a little gun cotton. Works every time.")

By my count there were over 20 configurations of motors in boosters (NOT counting delays) and over 20 configurations of motors in sustainers (also NOT counting various delay combinations). Popular booster choices were a single G80 or 3 D12s, but there were also clusters of four Ds, mixed Ds and Cs, the heroic 7 x C6 cluster, and the occasional lonely single D12, to name a few.

THe favorite sustainer was an E9-X (all of the available delays were used in at least one sustainer), but teams also tried lots of F motors (including NCR F62s!), 2 or 3 Ds, or just a C6-7.

I've just started dinking around with the data on the website just to see what was successful. Near as I can tell there were no mixtures of AP with BP in a single stage, no clustering of AP motors, and no attempts to light an AP sustainer with a BP booster.

So there are 7 combinations of single/multiple AP or BP Booster or Sustainers that were tried, 3 of which were rare. Looking at both the success rate (I counted everything not DQ'd in flight as a flight success, even if the egg was broken) and the average altitude, it seems that using AP was riskier, but more likely to give a good result when it succeeded

I think the average for the groups that include clusters of motors is dragged down by flights were one or more motors did not light.

Apple Valley's team was in the last Flight of the day. They started check in during a threatening drizzle that turned into a downpour.  Everyone huddled under the checkin canopy for an hour waiting for it to pass. The clock was restarted as soon as the rain lightened up (but it hadn't stopped), and AVHS joined some other teams at the pads. A few teams had stayed the whole time out at the range holding umbrellas over their rockets, having a ball. They had to wait while the previous Flight finished, so the rocket got a little wetter. The ignition guy on the team decided to use the NAR launch system alone (They had Thumper with them if they needed it), and it worked out fine.

Their flight went absolutely straight up, and then drifted off in the breeze, landing around a half mile away past a line of trees. The kids report finding it in a circle of staring cows. I noticed today that their checkin weight was 600 grams, which is at least two ounces heavier than when it was weighed for the qualifying flights, so I assume it was carrying more moisture to altitude than it did in the dry winter here. They were in 25th place until the last make-up flight of the day made it to the top ten. Nevertheless, they all had fun, getting Homer Hickam autographs and checking out the NASA trailer and the other teams t-shirts (and rockets).

For most of the day, even if there was drizzle, there was very little wind. The wind only came up with the last storm. The problem with two stage rockets in calm weather is that the lawn darts can go anywhere, and they did--there were probably 20 of them, and they landed all over. There were at least 60 NAR volunteers with red and white hats and shirts and another 60 AIA volunteers with blue hats and shirts, and all the pieces of every rocket were tracked to ground.

There were a few especially memorable flights

One AMRAAM-styled AP to AP rocket got launched directly into the gust front of a squall and tumbled, staged pointing up, tumbled some more, and fluttered down safely.

Another AP to AP rocket was way underpowered initially and went horizontal, aiming at the Steward's stand about 100 yards across the range (where Mike was working). It staged successfully and the sustainer screamed across the range and into the ground, 50 yards short. But it bounced up in the air again, cleared the inner fence, just missed a lamp post, and then ejected 12 feet off the ground and floated slowly to earth.

A very high tech carbon-fiber egg capsule somehow got loose at altitude and did to a windshield way out in the parking lot what Little Leaguers do every summer with foul balls, but that's what zero deductible glass coverage is for.

When the rockets failed to stage they didn't lawn dart quite like you'd expect because of their payloads the eggs did a reasonable job of imitating hydraulic highway barriers, except the splashing stuff was thick and yellow.


Lots of VIPs Mark Bundick and Trip Barber and a bunch of NAR board members. Jim Barrowman of Barrowman equations (and NASA) fame. Jay Apt. Homer "ran ten autographing pens out of ink" Hickam. Senator Enzi. The chief of NASA and a couple of NASA Center Directors. The president of the AIA (a retired general, to boot).

Most importantly, the kids had a terrific, fun, educational, safe experience.

[Ted Cochran]

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