By Carlos Morales
On a recent Spring afternoon at Presidio high school, six students on the rocketry team eagerly crowd around a desk. Some plop down on nearby chairs, others stand. They’re excited and a bit anxious to talk about the rocketry project they’ve been working on for the last few months.
The rocket’s not here — it’s already been shipped some 2,000 miles away to Virginia, where the Presidio rocketry club will compete with 100 other teams from across the country on Saturday.
But senior Paola Flotte, who painted the rocket’s design, digs into her pocket and pulls out a picture.
“I decided to do the top half West Texas like, so it’d have the mountains, and the desert, the plants that grow here,” says Flotte. “And then it goes on to be the sky, and then space, like the stars — which is our goal.”
The bottom half of the rocket, where the engine sits, was designed to look like Apollo 11, the spaceflight that saw humans land on the moon for the first time. The Apollo 11 mission celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and is the theme of this year’s national competition in Virginia.
It’s not the first time students from the rural school have made it to the annual Team America Rocketry Challenge, or TARC. Presidio has a long history of reaching the prestigious competition. In previous years, they’ve placed as high as 4th, and in 2012, they performed so well, they met then-president Barack Obama.
Each year the competition requires rockets to meet certain requirements.
“This year our rocket had to reach about 856 feet in the air and come down with a time span of 43 to 46 seconds,” says senior Leo Uribe.
Uribe says their rocket is about three feet long and weighs a little over half a pound. On top of meeting these specific measures, rockets in the competition need to safely carry three chicken eggs — so no breaks and definitely no yolk-soaked rockets.
It’s been a challenge, the team says. But what’s made it even more difficult this go-around: for almost half the school year, the rocketry team didn’t have a teacher.
“If it wasn’t for our dear teacher that came to the rescue, Ms. Santo Domingo, we wouldn’t have a program this year,” says Uribe.
When Luzvminda Santo Domingo came aboard to teach the rocketry club, the school year was already well underway, which was a bit of a disadvantage.
“We started late,” says Santo Domingo. “But they did it! In spite of the challenges, the hardships they experienced, they made it.”
Santo Domingo’s never taught rocketry before. And on top of the learning curve, the school had to play catch up to make up for lost time. She had to wrangle what little funding was available for supplies, buy and ship those parts to their remote West Texas school and the kids needed to put together a nationals-qualifying rocket in a handful of months — so the team was a bit nervous.
“Starting rocketry without any supplies is really hard,” says Santo Domingo. “But supporting the students is very easy, because you can see how they work, you can see their passion.”
So with a fast-approaching deadline, the margin for error was slim.
The team began launching in January, testing their different designs. But they needed to be judicious with the number of times they flew.
“The thing about it is, rockets have a lifespan,” explains Presidio High School senior Aaron Bustamante.
Every flight, the team’s rocket was going through combustion, experiencing high-altitude pressure and returning back to the ground with a hard landing.
“That takes a toll on the rocket,” says Flotte. “You hit someone a certain amount of times, they’re gonna knock out.”
The team was careful with their flights, because a lost engine or damaged parts would mean placing another long-distance order.
Despite the challenges, Santo Domingo says the Presidio rocketry team managed to beat about 740 other teams from across the country to qualify for nationals.
But for Paola Flotte, who’s been in the club since her freshman year, it’s not all about the bragging rights.
“It’s embarrassing to say but ever since I was little I wanted to be an astronaut.”
Flotte says her career aspirations have since changed, but she’s still gained a lot.
“I love this club and I love the friends that I made in this club, and it’s a great experience you learn a lot, you bond… it’s a real experience.”
As the team from far West Texas lands in Virgina, they hope to reach the coveted first-place prize. That way they can take their rocket to the next stage: the international competition in Paris, France.