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The right stuff

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune North Medford High School astronomy teacher and Space Tornado team director Robert Black talks about overcoming stress during timed challenges in StellarXplorers astrophysics competitions. The team qualified for the national semifinals in its first season.
In first year, North Medford Space Tornado team soars to semifinals

North Medford High School’s Space Tornado team is showing the rest of the country that it is capable of making the same high-pressure, multimillion-dollar decisions as some of the best engineering students in the country.

Despite some serious setbacks this past year, the high school’s first competitive aerospace engineering team is ranked at number 19 out of 354 high school StellarXplorers teams around the United States, according to astronomy teacher and planetarium director Robert Black, who has directed the team since October.

Like all teams ranked in the top 30% of the Air Force Association competition, North Medford’s eight-person team of juniors and seniors has earned a spot in the semifinals. Black said the strong showing thus far is impressive considering that it’s the school’s first year competing.

“I think they’re going to make it to nationals,” Black said, calling his team “top tier.”

Among the biggest blows of the Space Tornado’s first season was when one of the team captains, senior Sofia Marks, was diagnosed with cancer.

“She’s a champion,” Black said of Marks. “She was really able to synthesize these things into digestible problems.”

In October competitions, Marks was at the whiteboard helping the team stay focused during six hours of calculations and decision-making. By November, her leg was amputated and her immune system sensitivities forced her out of the classroom for her senior year.

On Wednesday afternoon, Marks arrived on crutches at Black’s classroom with the remaining eight students to wish the team well ahead of the national semifinals. It was the first time many had seen Marks since her diagnosis last fall.

She lit up as she learned that her team scored a perfect 20 out of 20 on the quiz that helped the team qualify for the semifinal round in the national competition.

“I’m really proud of them,” Marks said. “I just want to help on the sidelines all I can.”

If the Space Tornado does well at the StellarXplorers semifinals Feb. 26, the rest of the team could be headed to Texas. They’re up against stiff competition, however, which Black described as established high school programs around the country, including programs of kids whose parents are in the aerospace industry.

“It’s tough to beat those teams from Houston and Florida,” Black said.

The teens wrestle with the same problems that NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency face in scenarios such as selecting satellite, rocket components and launch locations for endeavors that can cost tens of millions of dollars, according to Black. They use the same software NASA uses — albeit an outdated version — to get realtime orbit data.

“You’re selecting an orbit, you’re selecting a type of transmitter, you’re selecting a receiver,” Black said, adding that they’re balancing the energy needs and weight of the system.

One scenario during a competition earlier this month challenged the team to design a camera satellite that would maximize its time in orbit monitoring WestCoast wildfires. Others have focused on satellite imagery used to monitor fish habitats.

“They’re real-life problems,” Black said.

The Air Force Association competition awards points based on the team’s ability to make the myriad complex decisions on time and under budget. The twist is that these teens have mere hours to tackle a scenario that real aerospace engineers need weeks or months to solve.

“You just can’t focus that much for six hours,” Black said.

Some on the team, such as junior Mesach Hardy, work best in Excel to quickly compile data on the roughly six dozen combinations of components and how each decision impacts gravitational force or maximum days in orbit.

Others in the team work better using a whiteboard, according to senior Charles Tang. He described how the team learned to utilize breaks to stay calm and focused on the problem at hand as pressure builds.

“We’ve been referring to them as ‘brain breaks,’” Tang said.

For junior Emmily Minihan, the competition is a relaxed chance to find out what part of the field she enjoys most.

Minihan has been interested in space since elementary school, but she’s learned that she’s more interested in the science of astronomy than the math of engineering.

“I can do the engineering, but the science is more fun,” Minihan said. “I think this is a good step for getting my feet wet before I make any decisions for college.”

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.