MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A few days ago a hundred rockets were launched into the blue sky above the Virginia countryside. Their cargo, raw eggs, was not intended for deep space, and their crews did not work for NASA. They were competitors in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, vying to see whose eggs could touch down on Earth uncracked exactly 60 seconds after launch. NPR's Nell Boyce has the story of the only all-girl team to make the finals.
Unidentified Man #1: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the largest rocket contest in the history of the world.
(Soundbite of applause; rocket firing)
NELL BOYCE reporting:
It's a perfect day for shooting off rockets: clear blue skies and very little wind. A hundred teams have traveled from 26 states to a large open meadow near Washington, DC. Under a small white tent, three teen-age girls sort through hundreds of eggs.
Unidentified Man #2: All right, ladies, pick two eggs.
BOYCE: Each egg has its weight written on it. The girls know exactly what kinds of eggs they want to put on the rocket they've spent months building and testing.
COURTNEY THADEN (Team Member): You want something a little heavier, so it'll add weight and it'll come down a little quicker.
BOYCE: That's Courtney Thaden. She's a student at Red River High School in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She built the rocket with her twin sister Sarah and their friend Bryn Putbrese. A teacher told them about the contest last year, and it started out as a kind of joke. But the engineering challenge got them hooked.
Unidentified Man #2: OK, you have two eggs you want?
BOYCE: The girls carefully take their precious cargo to a van parked nearby. There, Sarah shows off some technology that makes their rocket a little unusual.
SARAH THADEN (Team Member): This is our secret, the Irish Spring soap boxes which we stuff with Kleenex and then put our eggs in. The box is the right size to fit the eggs, and it smells good.
BOYCE: So you don't think there's anything a little strange about, like, being an all-girls team wrapping your eggs in soap that's marketed specifically to men?
S. THADEN: Well, I mean, it's kind of ironic, but I guess we like it.
BOYCE: They wrap the soap boxes in foam and then yards of black electrical tape like a mummy. Then they load this egg capsule aboard the rocket. It's a three-foot-long cardboard tube painted in a rainbow of pink, orange and yellow. Bryn came up with the rocket's name.
BRYN PUTBRESE (Team Member): Lucky Lady.
BOYCE: The girls watch the competition as they wait. It's a nerve-racking experience. One flight after another goes hideously wrong. Flaming rocket parts fall from the sky.
Professor TIM YOUNG (University of North Dakota): Watch--oh, no.
BOYCE: Some rockets give the audience a scare as they plummet to the ground.
(Soundbite of gasps and mixed audience reactions)
Prof. YOUNG: Oh, God. That looks evil when that comes down.
BOYCE: Tim Young is a physics professor at the University of North Dakota. He's been advising the Red River team for two years, watching as the girls figured out a winning combination of thrust, weight and drag.
(Soundbite of rocket)
BOYCE: One of their biggest decisions was to go with a simple one-engine design. A two-stage, two-engine rocket could have earned them extra points but at a greater risk of disaster.
Prof. YOUNG: I know you guys can do it.
BOYCE: Now Young can only watch as his team heads off to the launch site. He's not allowed to follow.
Prof. YOUNG: A little nervous. (Laughs) It's like sending your kids out into the world, you know? I can't go with them.
Unidentified Man #3: Ready to check in?
Unidentified Girl: Yes, sir.
Unidentified Man #3: All right.
BOYCE: The girls sit at a table and pack their parachute into the rocket.
Unidentified Girl: Check the knot in the parachute. Did that. Tape the nose cone on.
BOYCE: Finally the rocket's ready for the launchpad. There the Lucky Lady catches the eye of the team next to them. It's a 4-H Club from Minnesota that has a green and white rocket. The competing teams make nervous small talk.
Unidentified Girl: ...the tape and then...
Unidentified Boy: Oh.
Unidentified Girl: ...painted the black stripe.
Unidentified Boy: Sweet.
Unidentified Girl: Oh, wow. That...
Unidentified Boy: That's a good job.
Unidentified Girl: That's a lot.
Unidentified Girl: Thanks.
Unidentified Girl: Hope you guys do well.
Unidentified Girl: Yeah, you, too. Good luck.
Unidentified Girl: Yeah.
Unidentified Boy: Thanks.
BOYCE: As officials prepare to press the launch button, the girls sing the same song that took their soccer team to the state championships.
C. THADEN, S. THADEN and PUTBRESE: (Singing in unison) Here we go, one more time. Everybody's feeling fine...
Unidentified Man #1: From Red River High School, Grand Forks, North Dakota, team 3535. We ready to go? Four, three, two, one, ignition.
(Soundbite of rocket launch; cheering and applause)
Unidentified Man #1: Bird's up. Nice black smoke. It's arcing up into the sky over Virginia, straight boost.
BOYCE: Sarah scans the sky, looking for the parachute.
S. THADEN: Come on, chute. The chute is out. It's coming down. It's a good launch.
BOYCE: Officials track the egg capsule and click their stopwatches the instant it touches down.
Unidentified Man #4: Whoa.
Unidentified Man #5: One minute...
Unidentified Man #6: Holy cow.
Unidentified Man #5: ...point sixty-two. That's the best flight we've timed.
Unidentified Girl: Yes!
Unidentified Girl: One minute exactly, point six-two of a second.
Unidentified Girl: Oh!
Unidentified Girl: Yes!
Unidentified Girl: You guys, you guys...
BOYCE: The girls achieved an almost perfect score on the timing part of this contest. But now officials have to inspect the eggs.
Unidentified Man #7: Take the eggs out, unwrap them and hand them to me. And I'll be real careful.
Unidentified Man #8: You realize that you might actually win.
Unidentified Woman: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What's this? A soap box?
Unidentified Girl: Shh. It's our secret.
Unidentified Man #8: Can you smell it?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah, I can smell it.
BOYCE: The Irish Spring eggs not only smell good, they look good, too. And the girls seem like a shoo-in for at least the top 10. But the day wears on, and it becomes clear that their decision to go for a one-stage rocket has cost them precious points. They end up in 17th place, but Sarah says they're satisfied.
S. THADEN: We had a perfect launch with our rocket. It didn't place in the top 10, but I think we're pretty happy right now.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
BOYCE: The first-place winners turn out to be the friendly 4-Hers who chatted them up on the launchpad. But the Red River girls do win two special awards: best single-stage rocket and best use of unconventional materials. The male-dominated aerospace industry hopes that this kind of honor will draw talented girls like these to space science. Here's what the girls plan to study.
Unidentified Girl: I'm thinking something like with English or psychology.
Unidentified Girl: I'm thinking about international business or physical therapy.
Unidentified Girl: I'm thinking something maybe with premed or psychology.
BOYCE: But their adviser, Tim Young, hasn't given up hope that he can still convince them to switch their majors to physics. Nell Boyce, NPR News.
NORRIS: If you're interested, you can find out how to sign up for next year's competitions and see photos of the rocket girls at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.