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Wichita Rocketry Team Ready To Take Off For National Finals In Colorado

Katelynn McIlwain
Maddie Leiker-Walter is part of the Wichita American Rocketry Challenge Team. It plans to compete in the national finals next week.

The Wichita American Rocketry Challenge Team has its sights set on the national finals in Colorado.

This is the team’s 11th appearance in the national competitions. It is one of 100 middle or high school teams to qualify.

“Everybody says, ‘Why rocketry?’” team coach Bill Lindsay said. “Well, it is rocketry, but if you look at the way the industry is heading today, I mean, we’re trying to get to Mars. We’re trying to get back to the moon.”

Ka’lon Kirk will be a sophomore this fall at Wichita South High School. He’s been in the program since sixth grade, when he says his brother persuaded him to join.

This is his second time at nationals. His first competition was in Virginia.

Credit Katelynn McIlwain / KMUW
Ka'lon Kirk has been on the rocketry team since sixth grade.

“In Virginia, we came pretty close,” Kirk said. “We made some pretty basic mistakes.

“So, I think this year, we all just have to be in a better mindset and work more as a team.”

However, Pueblo, Colorado – the site for the nationals – presents its own challenges. The city has an elevation of around 4,600 feet, which is more than three times the elevation of Wichita.

Higher elevation means less air density. Without as much resistance, the rockets fly farther. So, the team has had to add weight to the rockets and use different motors to keep the rockets from flying too far in simulations. It plans to head to Colorado early to do some practice launches.

For the national finals, the team has to design a rocket that can fly 775 feet within 39 to 42 seconds and 825 feet within 41 to 44 seconds. The rocket will carry a raw egg, and both the rocket and egg need to land intact.

“I think the first time we tried to launch the rocket without changing it, it went 1,450 feet,” Kirk said.

Maddie Leiker-Walter also joined the rocketry club in sixth grade. One of her favorite parts of building rockets is designing them, especially the fins.

“Sometimes they’ll be pointy,” Leiker-Walter said. “We’ll make some jokes, like, ‘You got to wear a hard hat when you shoot that off, or wear goggles so someone doesn’t lose an eye.’”

The rockets are decorated with superheroes and matching paint schemes to coincide with the superhero theme the team chose.

The program used to be housed at Wichita’s Truesdell Middle School, but the school cut funding to the after-school program in 2019. Lindsay said the team had become its own nonprofit, fundraising for building materials and travel expenses.

It’s currently accepting donations for the trip to nationals. 

Katelynn McIlwain is KMUW's Korva Coleman Diversity in Journalism intern. She will be a senior this fall at the University of Missouri.

Katelynn McIlwain is a senior at the University of Missouri majoring in journalism (with a magazine writing emphasis) and minoring in digital storytelling. When she’s on campus, she works as an intern at the MU News Bureau and as a resident advisor for MU Residential Life. She is also a member of the Alpha Omega campus ministry.