The Palos Verdes High School’s rocketry team has launched themselves into nationals for the third time in the past four years.

The teenage rocket engineers will compete in Northern Virginia Saturday, May 18 against 100 other middle and high schools from across the country — duking it out for $100,000 in prizes and a trip to the International Rocketry Challenge in Paris, France.

But before they get their passports stamped, the teens have to conquer nationals, needing to take first place.

The team must launch a rocket with three raw eggs on board. It must reach an altitude of at least 856 feet before separating and returning the eggs back to earth unscathed.

Their launch cannot exceed 46 seconds from start to finish, and the rocket has to be within strict height and weight requirements.

And if that isn’t stressful enough, they also have no idea how well the other teams have performed.

“The goal is just to be as accurate as you can based on the task given to you by the competition,” said Lorraine Loh-Norris, rocketry coach at Palos Verdes High. “If you’re accurate to within about a foot, then that’s pretty awesome and that’s pretty good. If you’re accurate within 10 feet then you don’t know if there’s a bunch of teams ahead of you.”

But the teens use a systematic approach to ensure they get as close as they possibly can. That approach includes calculations, gathering data and a multitude of test flights; the team has already done about 40 such tests.

“They go out, shoot off some rockets, collect some data, they come back and evaluate their data and, you know, really look at how they can improve their next flight again,” Loh-Norris said. “Shoot some more rockets, go through the data, et cetera — that’s really the whole engineering process. They’ve really been diligent and conscientious about following that process.”

Ethan Heffernan, a 16 year-old junior and one of the team’s captains, has been at it since he was a freshman and spends roughly five hours a week on the rocketry program, more than any of the other four groups he’s apart of. His plan for college is to major in aerospace engineering.

“It was exciting this year, being in charge of the team that got to go to nationals,” he said. “I’m most interested in the data analysis part. I do a little bit of everything, but I think that that’s the part that I’m the best at and that I know the most about.”

The team also includes: Glenys Rich, Stephanie Tom and William Wong.

For Chris Rich, rocketry mentor and CEO and chief technology officer of WaveFront Technology Inc., it’s all in a day’s work to get kids hooked on science. It’s the reason he’s been a mentor in the Palos Verdes 4-H Club for about 12 years and in the Team America Rocketry Challenge for seven years.

“When I was going through elementary school, I had a hard time and I got pulled aside and asked, ‘Would you like to build rockets?’ And that’s how they drew me into school,” he said. “One of my kids was a lot like me and we did rocketry at an early age. He was really one of the reasons why I got into it and then things spilled forward.”

Now, he gives back to the community the best way he knows how — teaching kids how to build and fly their own rockets.

“The ability to observe fine detail and pay attention — these seem to be the qualities that help these kids excel. Another aspect of it is an interest in building things,” he said. “Give them the skills to build stuff and that’s the thing that seems to lead these kids through. They get to go out and actually make something and fly it — or crash it.”

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