It’s the best thing I do…

September 1, 2010

Okay, so let’s start by saying this post has nothing to do with Disney, and originally didn’t have anything to do with food either (and as we’ll see that did change…), but it’s something I’ve been involved with for several years and feel very strongly about, so I wanted to share it with you anyway… so if you want to pass on this, go ahead… but I hope you stay around…

In 2002 to commemorate the Centennial of Flight, the Team America Rocketry Challenge (aka TARC) was created. This event was aimed at high school students, with the main objective being to generate interest in them looking at aerospace engineering as a career choice. Sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA, the trade organization representing aerospace companies) and the National Association of Rocketry (NAR, the longest-running hobby organization devoted to model rocketry), this “one-time” event was so successful that it has been held annually ever since.

Teams from around the country compete for a chance to attend the finals in Manassas, Virginia. Around 7,000 young people take part each year to try and become members of one of the 100 teams that are selected to compete for their share of $60,000 in cash and scholarships. Each year the students are presented with a task that simulates a “real-life” engineering project… their objectives may involve reaching a specific altitude with their rocket, or achieving a specified flight time, or perhaps a combination of both… all the time with their rocket carrying a fragile payload that has to be protected and returned intact… that payload being a raw hen’s egg… and sometimes two…

During the year leading up to the event, hundreds of volunteers (most of them NAR members) serve as mentors to many of the teams, guiding them in building techniques, safety issues and the like. The students ultimately have to design and build their contest rockets totally by themselves.

Part of the beautiful Great Meadow field

At the finals, roughly 100 volunteers from the NAR spend their own time and money to travel to Virginia to run the event. These volunteers come from all walks of life: plumbers, fish farmers, real-life rocket scientists and even a four-time shuttle astronaut – all of them share a love of rocketry, science and look to “pay forward” to the next generation. Along with the NAR volunteers, many AIA staffers and the crew of the Great Meadow equestrian field (where the finals are held) put in lots of hard work to make the weekend run smoothly.

One of the rocket ranges at the finals being prepped for the days event

In addition to the contest itself, many displays are set up by the likes of NASA and several aerospace companies. Many colleges and universities also have been in attendance recruiting the contestants to attend their institutes of higher learning.

Over the years many celebrities and dignitaries have graced the grounds of Great Meadow during the TARC finals: Buzz (don’t call him Lightyear) Aldrin, Homer Hickham (of October Sky fame), Secretary of Defense Gates, as well as several officials from NASA, the military (the Secretary of the Air Force attended this past year), a senator here and there… but this past year, a special celebrity also made an appearance… but we’ll get to that in a bit…

Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley (in the blue shirt)

Secretary Donley addressing the crowd at the awards ceremony

Okay, so that’s the kinda dry nuts & bolts… for my personal experience…

I’ve been very fortunate to be involved on many levels in this event… as a mentor I’ve worked with several teams, two of which made the finals, and one of these, a team from Riverview High in Sarasota, FL actually finished in the top five one year (the little buggers actually got to meet Buzz Aldrin… did I get to meet Buzz Aldrin? No… hell I watched him walk on the damn moon years before those kids were born… Did I get to meet him??? Noooo… okay, I’m not bitter… move on Andy…). I’ve also been a supplier to many teams around the country each year – in addition to the “Real Job” I own a small business that makes model rocket kits and supplies and the like (if you’re curious you can check out Aerospace Speciality Products), but the best part is working at the finals…

The kids each year have been uniformly polite, enthusiastic and just darn glad to be there… all types of kids are there too, not just the “science nerds” that you might expect (and yes, they are there…), but jocks and cheerleaders too… I come away each year feeling very good about the future of the world and our country… you see and hear so much about the negative things about some of America’s youth, but I’m here to tell you that there are lots of great, smart kids out there that are going to take us through the decades to come.

I’ve flown rockets since grade school, so in the (many, many) decades since I started, I’ve spend countless days on fields all around the country flying rockets, but I’ve never had a better day on any flying field that the days I’ve spent at TARC, and I never fly a rocket… and I think those days are not just the best days I’ve had on a rocket field, but some of the best days I’ve ever had anywhere (and yes, including Disney…). It’s the best thing I do…

If you’d like more info on TARC, especially if you or some bright young person you may know or have sired might be interested in becoming involved, check out the Team America Rocketry Challenge website.

And yes, this is the event where I always go and eat Vietnamese food the night before (see the post Vietnamese Vittles in Virginia).

Oh yeah… I did mention a food connection and a celebrity, didn’t I??? Well, on the day of the finals this year we were visited by none other that Duff Goldman, the Ace of Cakes himself!

The Food Network star came with a metallic cake that was flown as a payload in a large high-power rocket.

Duff checking out the rocket that will fly the cake

Scale model of the cake-carrying rocket, with remnants of the cake payload

The payload section of the cake-carrying rocket

He spent most of the day (with a Food Network film crew in tow of course) at the launch, hanging out with the kids, and generally seeming to be a pretty cool guy…

Sadly I didn’t have to opportunity to meet him personally, but I did get a chance to have a piece of the cake that flew on the rocket (it was a cake, moist, not bad, but honestly nothing too unusual flavor-wise, but I can at least say I ate a Charm City cake…)… and too bad that none of the other Charm City Cakes crew were in attendance… actually I kinda have a thing for Mary Alice… and Elena… and Katherine….

Okay… check out the new Ace of Cakes episode on Thursday September 2, 2010 to see Duff at TARC! Of course if you’re reading this after that, “check your local listings”, okay, the Food Network listings for the many reruns that will exist for Ace of Cakes…

Now back to your “normal” Eating (and Drinking) around the World…

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