Yes, it is rocket science. It's also much more.
Silas Graff, a junior at Palmer Ridge High School in Monument, has learned the value of perseverance, along with how to solder and what "dynamic stability" means.
Kory Hagen, a senior at The Vanguard School, has realized that he needs to rely on teammates to do their jobs while he does his: computer programming.
Samuel Pullen, a senior at Mesa Ridge High School, has acquired leadership skills as a project manager, construction expert and "motor man."
"TARC has been a big learning experience for me," he said.
TARC - Team America Rocketry Challenge - has been such a blast for these and nine other local teens that they've qualified for the national finals of the world's largest student rocketry contest.
Two teams from Colorado - both from Colorado Springs - are among the top 100 teams from around the country converging in The Plains, Va., near Washington, D.C., this week, gearing up for Saturday's fly offs and a chance for the national title.
One team is made up of four students from several schools, under the umbrella of El Paso County 4-H. The other has eight students from The Vanguard School, a charter high school that's part of Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12.
Over the past eight months, the students have channeled their knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math into building a model rocket that will fly to an altitude of 825 feet in 48 to 50 seconds while carrying precious cargo: two raw eggs that must return undamaged to the ground. They've tested their entries' capabilities, cracked a few eggs, refined their designs and repeated the process many times to compete for bragging rights as national champs and $60,000 in scholarships and prizes.
"We are extremely proud of the hard work and time this team has put in for this event. Their tremendous experience with problem-solving, teamwork and finding creative solutions truly paid off," said Deanna Mann, supervisor of the El Paso County 4-H TARC team.
In addition to Silas and Samuel, the 4-H team includes Hannah Pullen, a junior at Mesa Ridge High School in Widefield School District 3, and Jack Douglas, an eighth-grader. The three oldest also qualified for the finals in 2011 and placed 54th.
The youths are expected to create, construct and launch their rockets without any hands-on assistance from adults. Commercial rocket kits are not allowed.
"I like the diversity of information you can learn," said Kory, a member of the Vanguard team. "It's everything from simple micro engineering to computer programming, and that range of knowledge is very helpful."
Vanguard's Team Robert, named for its captain, Robert Huthoefer, is the eighth team from the school to make the finals in nine years of competition as an extracurricular club, said Jeff Lane, the team supervisor who teaches photography and art at the school.
The highest Vanguard students have placed in the national competition is fifth, he said, but this year's team is working on perfecting a competitive advantage: an onboard computer that calculates altitude as the rocket ascends, and fires auxiliary motors to correct any thrust deficiency in the main motor.
If it sounds complicated, it is, after all, rocket science.
"The biggest challenge in this competition is motor variability, so with this onboard computer analyzing the altitude as the rocket goes up, it reduces that as a variable," Lane said. "We've had partial success with it, but we basically have Friday to work out the bugs."
The Vanguard students have been working on developing the system for the past three years, and Lane said that as far as he knows, "This is the most sophisticated setup in the country."
Kory, Robert and teammates Tony Duffy, Gregory Teel, Jabarhi Hill, Ryan Chatham, Ian Wisniewski, Aidan Mullaney and Tomas Soeldner are optimistic.
"We're trying to create a code for when it launches the auxiliary motors, and it's going OK," Kory said. "Once we have it up and working, it'll be extremely helpful in eliminating the chance in rocketry."