‘Cool stuff happens’: Local youth rocketry team launches into finals of national challenge

The Ivy Max team's rocket launches during the finals of the American Rocketry Challenge in Lucerne Valley in June.
(Yue Yu)

A local youth rocketry team launched into the finals of the American Rocketry Challenge, coming away “extremely proud” of its achievements.

The team, called Ivy Max, is composed of about 10 members in elementary to high school. The American Rocketry Challenge is a nationwide Aerospace Industries Association program designed to encourage students to pursue studies and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The rules required teams to design, build and launch a model rocket to carry one raw egg to three different altitude and time goals: 800 feet within 40 to 43 seconds for qualifying flights; then 775 feet within 39 to 42 seconds and 825 feet within 41 to 44 seconds at the final competition the second and third weekends in June, all without damaging the rocket or the egg.

The Ivy Max rocket sustained a broken fin during the finals, according to Ethan Sun, 13, an incoming freshman at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla. The egg remained unbroken.

“During both flights, the rocket heavily leaned to the right while flying,” Ethan said, “which caused the rocket to reach a much shorter height than we intended” and affected flight time.

Ethan guessed the change in altitude and climate in the competition’s location, Lucerne Valley in California’s Mojave Desert, impacted the rocket’s performance.

Ivy Max’s qualification flights were held on San Diego’s Fiesta Island, which Ethan said is at lower altitude and is much windier.

“Although we did not do too well, we still tried our best,” said Ethan, who joined Ivy Max in 2019 because “it sounded interesting.”

“Next year we’re going to try again,” he said. “Considering this is the first time our team has ever participated in [the American Rocketry Challenge], we are extremely proud of how much we achieved this year.”

Teammate Leo Chang, 11, a La Jolla resident and incoming sixth-grader who will transfer from Gillispie School to Francis Parker School in the fall, said he joined the team because “I love astronomy and rockets. The club is perfect for people like me. We launch rockets, see what went wrong, make any necessary repairs and repeat the cycle over and over again.”

Leo said the biggest challenge during the finals “was probably preparing the rocket. We had to sand the piston, replace the motor, weigh the rocket, protect the egg, add additional mass, turn on the altimeter (the machine that tells us how high the rocket went), measure the weight of the additional mass, and a whole lot of stuff.”

To prepare for the competition, Ivy Max designed its rocket using software called OpenRocket. Team members then created it using pre-built parts such as the piston and nose cone.

Ivy Max members prepare their rocket for launch.
(Yue Yu)

“There’s a lot of preparation,” Leo said, adding that team members also must “fold the parachute correctly to make sure it doesn’t get tumbled” as the rocket falls back to the ground.

To protect the egg, Leo said, the team put “a lot of bubble wrap” around it.

Then came testing the rocket and adapting it based on the results. “If it goes too high, then we would add more weight to it. And if it goes too low, then we take away weight,” Ethan said.

He said testing was largely unavailable this year, as Fiesta Island and other viable launch locations in San Diego were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, except for the qualifying flights.

Thus, making the finals felt “pretty cool,” Ethan said.

He said he finds rocketry challenging. He needs to learn what “they don’t teach in school. You don’t really know much about it when you start.”

Ethan said the team has a mentor to help “because it’s really hard to do on your own at first; you don’t know what anything is.”

Beyond learning rocketry, Leo said the best parts of Ivy Max are “working with my team and prepping the rocket. That’s pretty fun because we have to go through a checklist to make sure everything’s ready.”

Ethan said part of that preparation included having to “stay pretty far away from the rocket when it’s launching [and] to check that the sky’s clear and there’s nobody around.”

“There’s a lot that we learned,” Leo said. “I’d say the most important is that you have to really build it correctly, because any mistake can make the launch go wrong.”

When you launch rockets, Leo said, “cool stuff happens. And it’s really cool seeing a tiny thing go up to more than 800 feet. You’re amazed by how it achieves that.” ◆