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After Pandemic Lull, Presidio High School Rocketry Team Returns To Nationals

This weekend, twelve Presidio High School students are headed to Rockdale, Texas, to compete in the national rocketry competition. Presidio students are regulars at the competition –– for over a decade, they’ve been beating out hundreds of teams with more resources. But in a year defined by a pandemic, the challenge they face is a little different.

By Annie Rosenthal

It’s mid-June, and school is out for the summer. But in the physics classroom at Presidio High School this week, students are crowded around the desks, concentrating intently on the task at hand. At one table, Darinka Orona is carefully putting a long, hand-painted rocket into a box.

“The fins are very sensitive, and we don’t want them to be flying all over the place, so we have to pack them really tight,” she tells me.

Orona is the captain of Cosmos, one of two teams of Presidio High School students headed to the national American Rocketry Challenge this weekend. On Saturday, if all goes well, the cardboard creation in her hands will ferry a raw egg hundreds of feet into the sky. Specifically, her classmates explain, the rocket will have to reach two different target heights: 775 feet and 825 feet –– then bring the egg safely back to earth in under 44 seconds.

It’s not a simple task, but Presidio’s rocketeers are far from amateurs. The school has sent a team to nationals every year since 2008. That is, every year except last year –– when the pandemic canceled the competition.

“That week before we went to spring break, we had our first qualifying score,” Orona says. “And then everything got shut down and we couldn’t do anything about it.”

Presidio’s rocketry prep usually happens in class. But when school went remote in the fall, that wasn’t an option. Instead, the students got special permission to practice once a week, following social distancing guidelines.

“It’s way easier to get a rocket done when you have a whole week instead of just one day,” rising senior Yahir Brito explains.

Still, building and launching rockets in Presidio has always been complicated. The students are almost four hours from the nearest Home Depot, so they have to be resourceful about finding materials. Even ordering supplies in the mail can take a long time.

“If you’re on your last motor and you really wanna try it again, you’ve gotta wait two, three weeks depending on how long it takes to get here,” says Principal Hevila Ramos.

The weather also makes things harder. Presidio’s arid climate is very different from that of muggy Virginia, where the national competition usually takes place. And in rocketry, the smallest change in humidity or temperature can throw off your whole launch. To simulate competition conditions, previous Presidio teams would get up at 4 a.m. to practice launching their rockets in the cooler morning air.

Today, though, the students are optimistic. This year, to limit travel, they’re competing in Rockdale, Texas, where the climate is more similar to what they’re used to. Now, they’re checking the forecast for Saturday to decide how much clay ballast to bring.

“I just hope that the weather in Rockdale will be friendly with us,” says rocketry teacher Luzviminda Sto. Domingo. “And I hope it will not rain!” 

Sto. Domingo took over coaching the team three years ago, filling the void left by the teacher who brought rocketry to Presidio in 2007. She’s new to Texas –– and new to rockets. But she says she’s had a lot of help.

“Rocketry has been a culture here,” she says. “That’s what amazed me, you know –– the community supporting rocketry, the parents, the students.”

It was that culture of support that brought in several current team-members, like Ramon Rodriguez.

“We need to carry the legacy of Presidio,” he tells me. “People used to tell me about that, how they’d compete in the national competition. I was like, you know what, I wanna try that too, maybe I can do it. And here we are!”

By late afternoon, Rodriguez and his teammates are done with their preparations. They’ve packed up their scalpel, their parachute, their extra fins, and all three kinds of glue they might need if anything goes wrong. Their rocket is safely stowed in its box, ready for the big launch.

The students are all first-timers at nationals, and after two years of preparation, they’re nervous –– and excited. But they’re also already thinking ahead –– to the fall. 

Darinka Orona is heading to the University of Texas Permian Basin, where she plans to study mechanical engineering, thanks in part to her time with the rocketry club. 

And when school starts up again, her teammate Miranda Muñoz plans to put together a presentation for the elementary school kids in town. She’s already scheming to start the next generation of Presidio rocketeers.

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.