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Plans under way for aerospace club with goal of national competition

Monday, August 11, 2008

Eric Merrell's face just beams with excitement when he talks about model rocketry.

From the time he was a boy, the Putnam County resident has loved building rockets and then watching excitedly as they soared sharply into the sky above his head.

Even today, rocket-building remains on his list of hobbies. In fact, he still has the second rocket he built as a child and it's something he proudly holds onto all these years later.

"From the time I built my first rocket, I had the bug and I've never outgrown it," he said with a smile that stretched from ear to ear.

That's why he is hoping to start an aerospace club for local youth here in Putnam County.

"It's really a great opportunity for the kids," he said.

But the kids who join this club won't just be putting together model rocket kits and shooting them off in their back yards. Merrell has a lofty goal for these youngsters in grades 7-10 who want to join the club.

If everything goes according to plan, the Putnam County team will join nearly 800 others in the nation in 2010 as they compete in the Team America Rocket Challenge. There isn't enough time to get everything ready for next year's challenge, but five such teams from Indiana -- none of them local -- did manage a spot.

The Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) is said to be the world's largest and is sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry. The first challenge took place in 2002 and the event has grown in popularity since.

Merrell said there is only room for 750 teams nationwide, so a great deal of planning will have to take place if Putnam County is going to be represented.

He is looking for 10 members to be part of the team and with those, he needs parents who are willing to dedicate their time and resources in guiding the kids. But it is the kids who are solely responsible for making the team's rocket, Merrell said.

Teams design, build and fly a model rocket that reaches a specific altitude and duration determined by a set of rules developed each year. The current goal is to design, build and fly a one-stage model rocket to an altitude of 750 feet, keep it aloft for 45 seconds and return two raw eggs unbroken.

Merrell is excited to see if the egg stands a better chance of surviving if it's strapped to the outside of the rocket or secured in some other location or way.

"This is just a great learning opportunity for these kids who will be a part of this team," Merrell said.

According to the organizers of the event, the top 100 teams are invited to Washington, D.C. for the national finals. Prizes include $60,000 in cash and scholarships split between the top 10 teams.

Additionally, NASA invites the top 25 teams to take part in the Student Launch Initiative, which is an advanced rocketry program.

Merrell said that the team will need to be sponsored by an already established youth organization in the area, possibly the local 4-H club, but there is more planning to be done.

In the meantime, Merrell is inviting all interested kids and their parents to contact him at 522-5336.



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