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Madison West team will represent US in international rocket competition

Countdown was less than a week to the International Rocketry Challenge in London and Tashi Atruktsang paused quizzically during a rehearsal presentation of the Madison West High School team's 27-inch rocket design.

"Wait, do they use inches?" he wondered aloud.

The metric system hasn't been the only challenge the four U.S. national champions faced as they prepared to compete this week against students from the United Kingdom and France.

The damp, cool weather conditions at the Farnborough Airshow in London, though a welcome relief from sweltering Madison, will present variables the team hasn't contended with in recent months of practice. The two-day competition begins Thursday.

For Atruktsang, Hanwook Chung, Suzanne Hanle, all seniors next year, and Meng Lou, a rising junior, there are also jitters about the presentation portion of the event, a new element since a team from West last competed in the international competition in 2009. The judges have given no indication of what they're looking for or what questions they'll ask.

Just like a rocket launch, there are a million things that could go wrong, "and they're all going on in my head right now," Chris Hager, a biology teacher who has served as team adviser since it first competed in the Team America Rocketry Challenge nine years ago, said prior to the group's departure Tuesday.

She was mostly worried about getting an explosive device and rocket fuel through airport security and customs.

The competition requires teams to launch a rocket containing two eggs 800 feet in the air and have it parachute to Earth with the cargo intact. The whole sequence is supposed to take between 43 and 47 seconds,

If either of the eggs crack or the parachute doesn't deploy, the launch is disqualified. Should those objectives be met, points are added for each second outside the time frame and each foot above or below 800. A perfect score is zero.

In this year's national competition near Washington, D.C., in May, the West team scored a combined 12 points in two launches, 10 points lower than the second-place team. West has won nationals twice in the competition's 10-year history.

Another West team placed 16th at this year's national competition, which invited the top 100 scoring teams among 700 entries nationwide to compete for the top prize of $5,000 for the school's rocketry team and $2,375 scholarships for each team member.

The students say luck plays a big role in achieving the lowest score on any given launch, but Hager credits the combination of teamwork and the five to 20 hours per week of preparation over the course of the year. Many students join the team "who don't talk they're so shy," Hager said, but "by the end they are more confident."

"What makes the team so good is we have strong community within ourselves," Atruktsang said.

The launch competition hooks many students into joining the rocketry team, but they work on other projects such as designing a rocket that can break the sound barrier, also known as "Ernie's Challenge" after the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach.

There are also opportunities to participate in a NASA-sponsored student launch program in which final presentations are observed by NASA engineers. This year more students applied than the 18 available slots, said Pavel Pinkas, another team advisor.

Former West rocketry team members have landed post-college internships at NASA and CERN, the European particle accelerator laboratory that recently uncovered evidence of the Higgs Boson particle.

"NASA has told us, 'Your kids could work for us,'" Pinkas said.

Team America Rocketry Challenge

What: The world's largest rocket contest sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry.

Who: More than 7,000 students from across the country design, build and launch rockets locally that must meet certain objectives. The top 100 teams are invited to the national competition in May in The Plains, Va., outside Washington.

The objectives: Rockets should reach an altitude of 800 feet and land safely after a 43 to 47 second flight. Points are deducted for every second outside the time frame and foot above or below 800. Other specifications have changed over the years.

The prizes: The top 10 teams receive scholarships and the winning team receives $5,000 for their school's rocketry club. The winning team also wins a trip to compete in the International Rocketry Challenge, which is held in London and Paris in alternating years.

International competition: In recent years, the United States, the United Kingdom and France have sent their top teams to the Farnborough Airshow in London or the Paris Air Show to showcase their rockets. Canada, Japan and Germany are also organizing national competitions to field future teams. Top prize so far is bragging rights.

Source: Aerospace Industries Association