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One Small Step for Rocket Science

Education: Students and adult hobbyists vie to see who can launch a soda bottle the highest at O.C. competition.


They came equipped with little more than empty soda bottles, cardboard paper, masking tape and enthusiasm. Lots and lots of enthusiasm.

"I've never been in a competition like this," said 13-year-old Jesus Sanchez from Carver Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles. "I was so excited I couldn't sleep. I went to bed like at 12:30."

Saturday morning, Jesus and nine classmates were standing on a soggy field at Tustin High School for the seventh annual rocket competition sponsored by Future Scientists and Engineers of America.

The Stanton-based nonprofit promotes after-school science programs nationwide. The rocket competition draws mostly Southland students, but also adult hobbyists. About 100 contestants were busy Saturday morning putting last-minute touches on their creations or building brand-new rockets. It was the first time for the Carver contingency, brought by their science teacher, Ari Sussman, a New York native who two years ago joined Teach for America, the national teachers corps that sends recruits to disadvantaged inner-city schools.

"My first year, I was just trying to survive," said Sussman, a soft-spoken 24-year-old who admits he was initially overwhelmed by the "millions of challenges" of teaching in an overcrowded, underfunded public school. "This year, I'm trying to have more activities for my students."

The rockets are made from plastic soda bottles fitted with plastic foam wings and detachable, cardboard cone heads. The cone is supposed to split from the body at the top of the rocket's climb, allowing the parachute to deploy. The rocket with the longest time in the air wins.

Sussman's students Guillermo Aravina and Mario Quijada, both 13, were ready to test their entry, a gray concoction with a painted shark's face and "Jaws" scrawled on the side.

The rockets are filled with water and pressurized air. The water gives the projectiles mass and propulsion, but too much water can weigh the whole thing down.

Guillermo and Mario waited in anticipation before a practice launch. They donned protective goggles and handed their rocket to an adult volunteer who plugged the bottle with an air hose.

Guillermo rubbed his hands before pulling on the cord that would release the air. Psst, thud. The rocket made an arc about 30 feet high before landing. No parachute.

"Ya perdimos," Guillermo said in Spanish. "We are toast."

But Sussman was not about to give up. He suggested his students cut a little bit off the top to help extricate the parachute and decrease the weight.

The students ran in search of scissors. They were back a short time later with a shorter version of "Jaws."

This time, the rocket careened straight up in a stream of water, the shark's head tumbled in the air, the parachute rolled out and ... success.

"We did it Mr. Sussman," Guillermo said. The clock marked 8.7 seconds.

Jesus and his friend Miguel Lopez, 12, continued to work at a nearby table on their rocket, the colorful "Chicano."

"If there was a prize for artistic expression," said Sussman, "we'd take home a medal."

Jesus wanted to know if the strings on the parachute should be equally spaced. Yes, Sussman told him.

"But why?" Jesus asked.

"It has to be symmetrical so the wind catches it evenly," Sussman explained.

"Oh!" was the answer.

Meanwhile, Guillermo and Mario continued to trim their shark, logging ever higher times.

Another trial run and the rocket clocked 10.07 seconds. The students and teacher traded high-fives.

Their glory was short-lived. As their times improved, so did those of their competitors.

But Sussman's students seemed unfazed and continued to work diligently on their rockets. Renee Nash, 12, and friend Faysha Thomas, 13, were the only girls in the group.

"We are representing the females," said Renee, who wants to become a "cosmetologist for the dead," because funeral homes are "where the money is."

None of Sussman's students wants to be a rocket scientist, but each has dreams.

"The challenge is to think up good plans to keep these kids engaged," Sussman later said. "Days like today, that's when you see you are making an impact."

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