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Young and the young at heart gathered Oct. 19 for the Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Pierce the Sky Roc Challenge at the airfield of Naval Support Facility (NSF) Dahlgren, where seasoned rocket enthusiasts and novices alike shared insight and laughs. Seven "big" rockets competed, while children enjoyed their own non-competitive category with smaller rockets. The competition provided an entertaining mix of science and fate and produced a surprising winner.

The beautiful late afternoon day was ideal for spectators, but strong and shifting winds required many adjustments and eventually affected the outcome of the competition. That was of little consequence to the most enthusiastic rocketeers on the airfield, the children.

First to launch a rocket was Stephen, 4, who was accompanied by his grandfather Steve Hock, a system engineer at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The successful launch may as well have been over the moon for young Stephen, who gleefully chased down his rocket shortly after it landed. Though euphoric, Stephen was already making plans for his next launch. "It's going to be super, super duper high," he beamed.

"Was that fun?" asked Hock.

"Yeah," was Stephen's unhesitating answer.

Among the adults, the feelings were much the same, if only a bit more subdued. After all, many of these amateur rocketeers were not amateurs at all. "Critically Optimized" was a very serious attempt at rocket greatness, built by engineers from the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWC DD) Z Department. It took the competition's scoring formula, the length of the rocket times the duration of flight, to heart with an extraordinarily long design. After the parachute of "Critically Optimized" failed to deploy during its first launch, a hard landing required a hasty shortening of the rocket's nose. But no matter; the second attempt saw it reach an impressive apogee.

Unfortunately, however, "Critically Optimized" caught a strong wind when its chute deployed on the second launch, disappearing after 72 seconds beyond the tree line at the end of the air field. Its designers searched the woods in vain; for a rocket's score to count, it must be recovered.

"Big Ugly Stick" was another impressive design, created by Craig Phillips, chief missile engineer for NSWC DD G Department. Phillips also provided a sturdy rocket launch pad that he shared with other competitors, saving the tall rockets from the increasingly strong wind gusts that were starting to make launches problematic.

"It's adjustable and amazing," said Steve Waner, the missile engineer from MDA who emceed the challenge, of Phillips' homemade launch pad.

"Big Banana," an entry constructed by a team calling themselves the B-32 Missile Monkeys, became a bent banana after its chute failed to deploy during its first attempt. After a few repairs to the appropriately-yellow rocket, however, a second attempt put in a respectable performance.

"Us monkeys work best in crisis mode," explained Bob Mack, Missile Monkey team member.

Tony Jordan, MWR custodian, worked hard to represent his organization with "Skystreaker," but problems kept him grounded until the very end of the competition, when "Skystreaker" finally lived up to its namesake. The successful launch was a childhood goal fulfilled for Jordan.

"I always wanted [a rocket]," said Jordan, "but my dad was scared it would explode."

Jordan wasn't the only non-scientist or engineer who sought to match wits with Dahlgren's finest. FC3 Mike Grudziecki's "Last Minute" won the competition. The Aegis Training and Readiness Center (ATRC) Sailor had some help from shipmate FC3 Adrien Mott and from an open source rocket simulator called Open Rocket that helped him run his design's numbers.

"I was making design changes throughout," said Grudziecki. "I tried different fins and material weights and settled on a Mylar parachute."

The preparation was not enough to make Grudzieki too confident. "I don't know if the parachute is going to come out of it," he said just before his first attempt. "It might go into the ground, but whatever."

Grudziecki was all smiles when he received his winning trophy at the end of the competition, however.

The Pierce the Sky Roc Challenge was Waner's creation. "This is Dahlgren's first rocket launch that I am aware of," he said. "I pitched the idea to the MWR as a base-wide morale design contest that leverages the already prevalent science and design community. The MWR supplemented the concept with administrative and funding support, as well as assisting in gaining permissions from the appropriate authorities on base."

Rocket competitions were a big part of Waner's youth, helping lead him to his current career at MDA. "I started building model rockets in a Kansas 4-H club at the age of 8; my first rocket was as successful as the Alpha III that burned its motor on the pad Friday. I slowly increased the size of the models over time, participating in local and state fairs; in high school I started making high-power rockets (10,000+ feet altitudes) and the interest continues today with blending customized propellants. This was a large inspiration for my aerospace engineering undergraduate degree and application to the Missile Defense Agency where I currently work in the missile development branch, allowing my hobby to synergize very well with my day job."

Waner was pleased with his inaugural competition in Dahlgren. "Friday's launch surpassed my expectations based on the limited number of entries in the official contest; it filled the two hour window very well with exciting and memorable flights," he said. "Participants as well as spectators seemed very happy with the event; with some feedback changes and tailoring of the contest I think participation could be doubled fairly easily. Early summer next year could be the next opportunity, but that is still very much on the drawing board."

While the prospects for more rocket competitions in Dahlgren are up in the air, Waner thanked all who helped him turn his idea into a reality, including "MWR staff Alice Stanton and Tiffanie Wagner for making this happen, Ben Russell of Tripoli Central Virginia #25 for providing impressive model rocket displays and Rea Manderino for data and score keeping during the launch."

In the meantime, Waner recommended that folks interested in rocketry check out the BattlePark in Culpeper, Va. on Nov. 9 and the Red Glare 13 competition in Price, Md. on Nov. 16. For more information, visit http://battlepark.org and www.mdrocketry.org.