WASHINGTON — Sam Reich has had his eyes on the sky since he was seven, when he assembled his first hobby store rocket.
His dad unknowingly purchased the largest motor available, and when the pair got ready to launch the three-foot model, they glanced over a warning label and laughed: “Watch out for low flying planes,” it read.
“We thought it was a joke, but it ended up going about 1,000 feet and we never saw the rocket again,” said Reich, now one of about 30 students from Florida’s Plantation High School competing in the Team America Rocketry Challenge this weekend.
Four teams from Plantation High School and a group from Western High School in Davie, Fla., all about a half hour from Miami, are among 100 national finalists facing off on Saturday morning in The Plains, Va., for a share of $60,000 in scholarship money and spots in more advanced contests.
“That’s what it’s all about,” said Joe Vallone, a Plantation aerospace engineering teacher and Team America Rocketry Challenge mentor.
Because of travel expenses, Plantation planned to arrive Friday night, though other finalists met earlier in the day in the Kennedy Caucus Room on Capitol Hill as teams showcased their designs, built rockets with congressmen and visited their representatives’ offices.
“In a very real sense, you are carrying on the torch of the exploration and discovery that President Kennedy talked about, as you give the best of your energies and skills to this incredible rocket competition,” said Susan Lavrakas, director of workforce at Aerospace Industries Association
A team from the U.S. Virgin Islands pieced together miniature plastic rockets with Rep. Donna Christensen, D-V.I.
“It’s harder for me, but they taught me a lot,” she said with a laugh, as the boys reached for small checkered parachutes and plastic fins.
It’s critically important for the country to educate students about science and technology so companies don’t have to recruit as much talent from abroad, Christensen added.
“This begins them on their way to learning and practice so they can be the workers our science industries need,” she said.
Students toted around their years’ work, handmade rockets capable of launching straight into the sky. Each design features a tube with fins on one end and a pointed or rounded top on the other. They came in an array of colors and sizes, from a hot pink rocket nearly as tall as the girl carrying it, to a landscape-covered rocket emblazoned with “Peach State.”
But the task isn’t as simple launching a rocket into the air; each design has to carry a raw egg placed on its side, remain in the air for 48 to 50 seconds and reach an altitude of 750 feet, among other requirements.
Winning would be especially sweet for seniors, such as Reich. The 17-year-old said he began to appreciate the rocketry competition more as high school went on because a birth defect slowed him down in baseball and eventually became life threatening. Last year, Reich required surgery to flatten out his chest by having a titanium bar placed over his heart and lungs.
Rocketry, he said. “was another way for me to be active even though I had a hard time being active on the baseball field.”
And they should have a shot at winning, members said. The team spent four to five weeks alone on perfecting the rocket’s stability so it could balance on a pin, and then traveled to launch sites every Saturday morning to test their design and plan modifications.
Seeing the rocket launch successfully on Saturday would be reward enough, said Gabriel Hernandez, a Plantation senior who’s been designing the team’s rocket since this summer.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling,” he said. “Like when you take a test and you did perfect because you know everything on it. You achieve something and work hard for it and it pays off.”