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Which comes first: The rocket or the egg?

As NASA begins laying the groundwork for an eventual manned mission to Mars, a group of North Medford High School students on Saturday were planning an extraterrestrial journey of their own for a very different passenger: an egg.

"Last time it got a little bit scrambled," said North Medford astronomy teacher Robert Black, chuckling as he watched several students assemble a cardboard rocket more than 2 feet tall at the Ken Denman Wildlife Area outside White City.

Black said this is the third team he's coached in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, a national competition for high school students that's been going on for more than a decade.

The program, sponsored by the National Association of Rocketry along with other private and government partners, puts out a different list of flight time and height requirements every year that competitors have to meet to qualify for the national competition in Virginia and a chance at more than $60,000 in cash and scholarships. One requirement, however, is consistent year to year: Carry an egg aloft and return it to earth intact.

Model rocketry was made popular by companies such as Estes, which manufactures kits and black powder rocket engines for enthusiasts. But competition rules, Black said, require teams to manufacture every part of the rocket themselves except for the engine.

"They 3-D-printed the nose cone and, originally, the fins," he said. Team members also used a rocketry-specific software program on one of the school's computers that allowed them to calculate their rocket's trajectory and make design adjustments accordingly.

Student Levi Sinclair, the team's leader, said they spent at least 10 hours working on the rocket in recent weeks. "We spent a lot of the time on the simulations," he said.

Black said the students involved in the rocketry competition tend to be the more advanced students in the school's science classes.

NAR's rules prevent teachers from helping with the construction or design of the rocket beyond facilitating the team's ideas.

 "It's all their decisions," Black said. "Really, they're all on their own."

The 2015 contest rules require the rocket to reach 800 feet and have a launch-to-landing time of between 46 and 48 seconds. Any flight time shorter or greater, Black says, results in a penalty. The rocket's altitude is tracked by an onboard altimeter. Only the top 100 teams nationwide will make the cut for nationals.

Volunteer David Bloomsness joined the NAR specifically to evaluate the team for the competition, which requires a judge not directly involved with the school to keep score. "I've wanted to do this since I was a kid, but I grew up in Southern California and they wouldn't ship rocket engines to Southern California at the time," he said.

The team's first countdown ended in silence, the rocket still sitting on its launch rod, stymied by a bad igniter. Swapping out the igniter, the students stepped back, counted down again and pressed the button. After a couple of seconds, smoke and flames shot out from beneath the rocket's fins before it soared skyward, disappearing in a trail of smoke. After a few more seconds, the payload section of the rocket came spinning back into view beneath a small parachute. 

"Seven seconds short, which is 28 points (deducted)," Bloomsness said.

But, retrieving the payload section, the team found a silver lining: The egg was still intact.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty

North Medford High School students, from left, Garrett Ramsey, Sam Cooke and Levi Sinclair launch a rocket skyward at the Denman Wildlife Refuge on Saturday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch