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Team of Center High School students launch into national rocket competition in 3, 2, 1

A young woman stands in the background holding a controller box in her hands while she watches a blue and yellow rocket in the foreground lifts off a small platform in a cloud of smoke.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Savannah Frank, a freshman at Center High School, launches one of the rocket team's models during a trial run on Monday, May 8, 2023.

After months of design work and practice, the Center High School rocket team is among 100 finalists competing in the American Rocketry Challenge next week.

A team of students from Center High School in Kansas City have never flown on a plane, but next week they’ll be launching rockets in Washington DC.

The Center High School rocket team is among 100 finalists competing in the American Rocketry Challenge. The small group of three beat out nearly 800 teams and 4,500 students from across the country to qualify.

Freshman Savannah Frank remembers the moment she learned they’d be heading to the national competition.

“I was refreshing the page to figure out if we made it or not,” Frank said, “And eventually, the list popped up and I looked and I was like ‘Oh my God’ and my heart was just hammering in my chest.”

Frank says that moment also marked the start of preparing for nationals. The team built five rockets for the upcoming competition and got the chance to test launch them out of their school’s field on Monday.

An adult male, left, talks with three young students. One of them is holding a blue and yellow rocket near a football stadium.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Blake Goddard, left, a volunteer at Center High School, supervises the rocket team on Monday, May 8, 2023 prior to test trials.

The team had to rebuild all their rockets after a rocky journey to qualify for the national competition. The members spent months designing and testing their rockets using online software before they began building them. Then, they nearly had to call it quits when a few rockets crashed after launching.

One solid flight inspired the team to keep going, and eventually they got another that allowed them to qualify.

“I was like, ‘Why would we do all of this work? Just to put it all to waste?’ Let's try to continue,” Frank said. “I think that little bit of motivation took it where it is now.”

Now, they’re preparing their newly built rockets to meet the final competition’s requirements. The team needs their rockets to soar more than 800 feet into the air and return to the ground safely with an egg in tow. The rocket is also required to split into two parts that land with separate parachutes.
Senior David Graves says the process is his favorite part of rocketry.

“Getting everything perfectly, everything like you wanted to, just be able to work with your team and make sure everything is great,” Graves said. “The fly is just the bonus.”

Blake Goddard, the team’s mentor from the National Association of Rocketry, says he’s blown away by what this team has accomplished, like figuring out how the way a rocket is built calculates into its altitude and resistance.

“I wouldn't have been able to do it in high school. And to watch these three just step in, pick it up and run with it. Yeah, it blows my mind,” Goddard said. “There are things that they're doing that I've never been able to think about or do.”

A hand is shown reaching into a cart that holds several blue and yellow model rockets.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Students with Center High School's rocket team prepare to roll out a cart full of test models near the school's practice field on Monday, May 8, 2023.

Getting ready for the competition has been hard work, especially since it’s just a team of three. That's the minimum number to qualify , and they’ll be going up against teams with up to 10 members at nationals.

Freshman Oscar Vargas Garcia says just making it to finals is good enough for him, but to make the top ten would be “crazy.”

“Making it with three people at this point is crazy. During the spring break, we had to basically come every day,” Vargas Garcia said. “We had no spring break, basically. But, it ended up being worth it, I guess, at the end.”

The top ten teams will split $100,000 in scholarship money. The winning team will receive a trip to Paris for the international championship.

A young man looks upward as the sun reflects in his glasses. A cloud of smoke surrounds him.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Oscar Vargas Garcia, a freshman at Center High School, watches the second launch of the day on Monday, May 8, 2023.

Miranda Young, the team’s coach, is cautiously optimistic about making it to the top.

“You’ve got about as much luck as you do skill into this. They've got all the skill that we could get at this point,” Young said. “Then, there's weather and there's all the variables. Washington D.C. is a whole different place than here.”

Young hopes the potential money won from the competition or sponsors will help fund the team’s future projects. The team currently uses a free software program, while she says most schools use software that costs $500 per user.

Each single-use rocket motor they launch costs $25, and an altimeter is $80. Those costs add up, especially when rockets get lost or they fire off several in one afternoon.

Whether or not they win, Young said she’s looking forward to sending a team to compete that reflects the diversity of their school. She says the science and technology field lacks people of color and women.

Young says she wants to science and technology to be open to anybody.

“Sometimes it gets scary, because it's rocketry or for ‘smart kids,’ but it really could be anybody, anybody that's willing to work hard,” Young said.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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