Homeschool rocket team soars to a 12th-place national finish

Competing in the world’s largest rocket contest is no pressure for the St. Monica Homeschool Student Rocketeers.

The Ridgefield-based team, made up of three girls and five boys in both middle and high school, scored in the top 15 among 99 competitors at the Team America Rocketry Challenge Final Fly-off in Washington D.C. May 13.

The aerospace industry association started the competition in 2002 to inspire the next generation of engineers in aerospace because most of the people that were working there at the time were baby boomers who eventually will retire.

Don Daniels started the team in Ridgefield four years ago when his second-oldest son expressed an interest in flying homemade rockets.

Having no previous flight experience of his own, Daniels got a group of kids together, retrieved the rules and regulations for the competition, and taught himself how to create and fly a rocket. The rockets flown are two-feet in length and have a circumference of three to four inches, and are made completely of carbon fiber.

“It’s great,” said Daniels. “I have been learning as much as they have been learning because I have to help guide them, so I have to learn enough to guide them.”

The kids started by designing their rocket and, once the designs were finished, they tested the math using a simulation program. The last step was printing their design on a 3-D printer.

The competition consisted of designing, creating and flying a rocket to a certain height and in a certain amount of time.

Each year, the height and time is changed for the contest regulations.

The rules this year were that the top of the rocket had to be bigger than the bottom to make the flying more challenging.

“The trick is the kids have to design it, they have to build it, and they have to fly it all themselves. I can provide some guidance and some help but it has to be all them; I can’t touch the thing,” Daniels said.

No intimidation

The team went to Hartford to test its rocket. While there, they received mentoring from industry leaders, including engineers and aircraft engine manufacturers.

Daniels said that one of the great things about this competition is that it is all hands-on.

“It’s not like you’re sitting in a classroom and you're going through the theory of Newton’s Law,” he told The Press. “You actually get to see it in action and that was part of the point of the whole thing, so kids get inspired to do things and not be intimidated by engineering.”

Work as a team

Daniels expressed that one of the biggest challenges with creating and flying these rockets was learning how to work as a team.

The kids had to learn to design the body, reach consensus and agree on every part of the rocket-building process.

The competition, which is held annually in Washington, D.C., pits the the younger learners in front of hundreds of teams and thousands of people.

This is the third time that the Rocketeers have competed in the national competition.

The first two tries ended in disqualification; the third time was the charm this spring.

NASA time

With its 12th place finish in the national competition, the team has been invited to NASA Student Launch Initiative — an opportunity that only 25 teams in the country get invited to every year.

While at the launch initiative, teams get assigned a member from NASA to mentor them.

The same rules apply where each team has to design, create and fly their rocket themselves, but the requirements are significantly higher.

If any team can handle the pressure, it’s the Rocketeers from Ridgefield.