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RCS Engineering reflects on NASA Student Launch

With the NASA Student Launch finally under their belts, the RCS Engineering rocket team members are ready to set their sights on the next challenge – returning to the national Team America Rocketry Challenge.

The NASA Student Launch competition has keep the students busy for the past eight months, in a competition primarily geared toward college students, but for which they received a special invitation because of their TARC and international success in 2015.

“It’s a lot like a NASA project,” teacher sponsor Mark Keeton explained. “They have to write and submit a proposal, and then once that proposal is submitted, (NASA) will either accept or deny it, and then all along the way … (the students) have to write more papers, turn those in and give presentations on their progress.”

At any point, if NASA disapproves of a team’s progress or presentations, the team can be disqualified and not permitted to continue – so even making it to the competition phase is no guarantee.

The teams were tasked with building a rocket that could travel a mile into the air carrying a scientific or engineering payload.

“The paperwork was the most strenuous part for them. I don’t think they cared for that too much,” said Keeton. The competition involved extensive and rigorous documentation. “But building and launching that larger rocket – they loved that.”

RCS Engineering chose to launch with a weather data collector as their payload. By competition week, the team had only minor changes to make to the 6-foot tall rocket to meet NASA approval, and the launch took place at Bragg Farms in Toney.

“They did really well,” Keeton said. “We probably placed in the top 10, so that’s nice.”

Students said although they initially were intimidated by the NASA Student Launch and were concerned about their ability to do well, it turned out to be an enjoyable challenge.

“It was really stressful because it was so new to us, and we didn’t really know if we were doing it right,” Chelsea Suddith said. “We had a lot to do in such a little amount of time, and we were so busy with everything else – it was overwhelming.”

But Suddith said team members felt they “did really well, especially for a first year team.”

“We were able to keep up with the college teams, so that made us proud of ourselves and our team and how well we worked together,” she added.

Competition week, which included the launch, also featured a number of other activities, held at Marshall Space Flight Center. One of Suddith’s favorite parts was the rocket fair, where each team had a booth set up to network and share information about their team and their rocket.

“You really got to go around and see everyone else’s rocket design up close and talk with them one-on-one,” Suddith said. “It was really neat.”

“We did a lot better than I thought we would,” Niles Butts added. “I thought we weren’t going to compete well against all the colleges and universities, but our altitude was in the top 10.”

Keeton said he, Joseph Cole and mentor Tracy Burns “knew it was something we wanted the kids to get involved with – a new challenge,” Keeton said. He said it also helped several students on the path to their Level 1 certifications, which affects what type of rocket motors they are permitted to purchase and launch.

The students have already been invited to submit a proposal again next year, and they will be more confident for next year’s competition, carrying with them the good memories from this year’s challenge.

“It was really fun getting to explore the space flight center and talking to astronauts,” Cristian Ruiz said. “Overall, an amazing experience – not something everybody gets to do.”

Next stop – Washington, D.C., for this year’s TARC.

The students’ TARC trip is coming up fast, with May 13-14 set as competition dates. In the few days they have left to prepare, students are busy fundraising to make the trip possible. The team will be at Walmart accepting donations and selling doughnuts April 29. Team members are also currently selling barbecue chicken plates from Whole Hog, which cost $10 and will be for sale through early May, with a handout day of May 21.