It takes a minute or two for the teenage recalcitrance to wear off. But once it falls away, like the booster on a missile, these young rocketeers launch into their own language. Soon they’re talking about linear actuators, drone deployments at apogee and adjusting for descent variables the way other 16 and 17-year-olds may talk about PlayStation4 and Snapchat.
Of course, these are no ordinary high school juniors. They are the members of the Vertical Projectile rocket team, one of the top high school rocketry clubs in Orange County and the country. On May 13, the team will compete in Virginia against the top 100 middle and high school rocket clubs nationally in the 15th annual Team America Rocketry Challenge, or TARC.
Fittingly, these rocket enthusiasts who hail from six Orange County schools, are aiming high, hoping to improve on their fifth-place finish a year ago.
Albert Wen, 17, who hand-picked the squad, said his team plans to win it.
Among the fine-tuning the team has undertaken is the addition of the aforementioned linear actuator, a device that allows the team to adjust the trim on the rocket’s parachute during its descent.
The Team America program is intended to encourage students to pursue study and careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Middle and high school students, with the help of engineering mentors, design, build and fly rockets that must carry a raw egg 775 feet in 41 to 43 seconds and land with the egg uncracked.
Wen became involved in model rocketry in the eighth grade and became enamored. However, after graduation Wen and his friends went off to different high schools. To be eligible to compete in Team America, clubs must either represent a single school or a nonprofit. As luck would have it, Wen had earlier formed a youth nonprofit focused on another of his interests – voting rights.
So the rocket club moved under the umbrella of the Voting Involvement Association.
Vertical Projectile is one of three from Orange County, along with Fairmont Preparatory Academy of Anaheim and Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School of Santa Ana, to qualify for the competition in Virginia.
“These kids are the cream of the crop,” said Jan Koepke, who with her husband, Bob, helps to mentor the team. “They are dedicated and they’re not afraid to work.”
The Koepkes know what it takes to be a top tier rocket team. They help mentor 20 rocket teams through the Orange County branch of the Aerospace Industries Association.
Bob Koepke, a manager of software development for Honeywell, said Wen quickly emerged as a leader.
“He keeps them going,” Koepke said, but added the team is notable because of its overall commitment.