Lake County team advances to world’s largest student rocket contest

Middle, high schoolers solve engineering problem in quest to be called national champions

Lilly Abney, 14, of Round Lake Beach, with the Prince of Peace Redhawk Rocketeers TARC Team puts a rocket on the launch pad during the last practice launch to compete in the upcoming American Rocketry Challenge at the Tim Osmond Sports Complex in Antioch. The finals are held next month in Washington, D.C. on May 14th.

Kind of like the rocket they launched, members of the Redhawk Rocketeers have reached new heights.

Made up of students from Prince of Peace Catholic School in Lake Villa and Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, the team once again has earned a spot among the top young rocket launchers in the nation as part of The American Rocketry Challenge.

The contest gives middle and high school students the opportunity to design, build and launch model rockets and hands-on experience solving engineering problems.

The Redhawk Rocketeers made their first national finals in 2021, but didn’t expect to qualify again this year after battling weather and COVID-19-related challenges.

“We had slim hope, but we did it,” said 14-year-old Brandon Czapla, a team member and eighth grader at Prince of Peace. “I’m excited to be traveling to Washington and seeing what other teams have built there and how well we will do against them.”

Like his teammates, he joined after being part of a rocket club at Prince of Peace. Club members learn to design, build and fly their own rockets, receive one-on-one instruction in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and use rocket simulation and 3D printing software.

Students potentially can advance to the TARC team, called the Redhawk Rocketeers. This year, the team competed with only three members, all advised by Bob Zurek of Antioch.

Along with Czapla, the team had co-captains Luka Weideman, a Prince of Peace graduate and ninth grader at Carmel Catholic High School, and Prince of Peace eighth grader Lilly Abney.

“We’re just so proud of all the work they’ve done that they get to be at the nationals,” said Annmarie Czapla, Brandon’s mother. “They’ve worked really hard, months and months of designing the rocket. Their mentor, Bob, is fabulous. He’s so patient and a great sounding board for them.

“The kids are really the ones doing the work. They’re driving everything.”

Among 101 teams headed to the national finals, the three-member team will compete May 14 in The Plains, Virginia, which is not far from Washington, D.C.

Finalists are vying for $100,000 in prizes and the title of national champion, which includes an all-expense paid trip to London for the international finals. This year’s competition takes place during a time of renewed national interest in space flight, led by NASA’s upcoming launch of the Artemis I mission in June, the first step to return Americans to the moon.

The top 25 teams automatically will receive invitations to NASA’s Student Launch workshop.

The contest involves more than 4,000 students from 41 states and more than 720 teams – made up of anywhere from three to 10 students – submitting scores. This year’s rules required teams to design, build and launch a model rocket that safely carried two raw eggs to a target altitude of 835 feet, with a target flight duration of 41 to 44 seconds.

The challenge changes at the finals to two flights – one whose goal is an altitude of 810 feet with a duration of 40 to 43 seconds and the other a target altitude of 860 feet with a duration of 42 to 45 seconds.

The Redhawk Rocketeers are competing this year without the team’s founder and former captain, Rebecca Zurek, a Carmel Catholic High School graduate now studying aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“The first year we had a really skilled rocketeer, Becky. She was our main guide,” Abney said. “We knew all the skills she taught us so I was confident we could get good scores, but I wasn’t 100 percent we could get to nationals. But here we are.”

Team members will fly out to the national finals. Bob Zurek will drive there with the team’s two rockets. His daughter, Rebecca, will be at the finals as part of an internship, he said.

The Redhawk Rocketeers have overcome several challenges to get to the national finals, he said. They weren’t able to meet during a two-month time period because of COVID-19 within the families. Recently, they had to rebuild one rocket after a wind shift forced it to land in a swamp during a practice run.

“Just to see the growth between last year and this year has been tremendous,” Bob Zurek said. “They did a great job. They went out there and adapted things not necessarily going their way and came out with good flights. … They’re meshing tighter as a team again this year.”

Last year, the Redhawk Rocketeers wound up in the top half of teams in the national finals but did not advance. They’re hoping for even better scores this year.

“Even though we’re a really small team, we separate work based on all of our different strengths and focus on how can we move from where we are and build from what we have,” Abney said.