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Young star trekkers shine

Aerospace Industries Assn.
Wisconsin's Madison West High School

rocket team prepares for liftoff during the

Team America Rocketry Challenge.

NASA's final mission to the Hubble Space Telescope has thrown a spotlight on the best and the brightest in space exploration, but next-generation space explorers are getting opportunities to shine as well.

One of those opportunities came over the weekend in Virginia, during the final round of the Team America Rocketry Challenge, an annual contest sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry.

Thousands of students from hundreds of schools across the country participated in fly-offs that involved blasting an egg-laden rocket at least 750 feet into the air and returning it safely to the earth. The rocket launches are rated based on their altitude and time aloft, and the top 100 regional qualifiers advanced to the final competition Saturday at The Plains, Va.

A team from Madison West High School in Wisconsin came away with the winning score and the top prize. "Hard work, perseverance, teamwork and custom electronics are the reasons our rocket performed well today," team member Ben Winokur said in a news release. The winning edge included "a very intricate active parachute ejection on ascent," he said.

Marion Blakey, the AIA's president and CEO as well as the former head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said the contest succeeded in its goal of spurring young people to consider careers in aerospace and advancing their studies in science, technology, engineering and math. "This is an encouraging sign that there is a promising pipeline of future employees for our industry," she said.

The payoff for the kids will include a trip to the Paris Air Show in June, plus a share of more than $60,000 in prizes. Among the sponsors are Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, the Defense Department, the American Association of Physics Teachers and 34 AIA member companies.

Madison West's team also participated in a friendly fly-off with the winners of the U.K. Aerospace Youth Rocketry Challenge, or UKAYRoC. In this competition, the British kids from the Royal Liberty School in Essex walked away as the winners.

"We're amazed that we can call ourselves world champions," British team captain Lewis Marr said in an AIA announcement. "The team worked hard for six months, and it feels great to be so successful."

For the American side, there's always next year. Or maybe you don't have to wait till next year. Here are some additional opportunities for kids who'd like to take on a real-life star trek:

  • The Futures Channel presents online videos about space science and rocket engineering - including its latest offering, a tutorial on designing and engineering rockets. That video is part of a series that the channel has put together in cooperation with NASA, keyed to the space agency's next-generation Ares rockets. "The movie is aimed at engaging students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and the feedback we've gotten on the first two videos shows that it's working," Jenna Bowles, the channel's head of distribution, writes in an e-mail. The Web site includes suggestions for using the videos as part of school curricula for math and engineering.
  • The Universe Quest Game is a $1.5 million project aimed at developing an immersive online environment, similar to Second Life, in which teen-age girls can explore the cosmos and get a taste of software development and information technology at the same time. The educational software, now in the pilot phase, lets players collaborate with each other to capture and process imagery from remote telescopes such as Arizona's Ironwood North Observatory. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and coordinated by the University of California at Berkeley.
  • "400 Years of the Telescope" is an educational Web site associated with the recently released documentary about the history of astronomy. PBS' online portal offers background information, classroom and family activities and practical tips for anyone who is teaching (or wants to learn) about the development of telescopes and cosmic exploration. The information on the site was put together by the educational staff of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in cooperation with Interstellar Studios, the production company behind the documentary.
  • The International Year of Astronomy is now approaching its midpoint, and there are lots of activities ahead - including Galilean Nights and the Great World Wide Star Count in October. More events are listed at the U.S. Node for the yearlong celebration, as well as the Web site for Year of Science. And keep a watch for "Eyes on the Skies," a movie that's freely available for educational showings.

Looking for more big ideas from future star trekkers? Check out the winners of NASA's supersonic design competition for high-school students.