The faculty adviser for the Stony Brook School's rocketry team,...

The faculty adviser for the Stony Brook School's rocketry team, Chin-Tang Liu, with student members, David Guo and Sebastian Guaddupe-Pena. Credit: John Roca

When Sebastian Guadalupe-Pena joined the Stony Brook School rocketry team last August, the 17-year-old from Northport had never built a rocket before.

Officials of the century-old private prep school said they had never sponsored a rocketry club previously.

Last month, Stony Brook's novice team took 10th place in a national rocketry competition in The Plains, Virginia — outpacing squads from more than 900 schools.

“I definitely would say we were surprised,” Guadalupe-Pena, the team's only Long Islander, said Wednesday. “I don’t think any of us would [have thought] we would do as well as we did.”

Stony Brook School rocketeers

  • A seven-member team from the Stony Brook School took 10th place last month in the annual American Rocketry Challenge. The school had never had a rocketry team before this year.
  • Teams in the competition were required to design, build and launch model rockets that could carry an egg at an altitude of 820 feet or more for 43 to 46 seconds, organizers said. 
  • The Stony Brook team used lightweight material, such as cardboard, balsa wood and Lexan, to ensure the aircraft would fly at the required altitude, and stored the egg in a foam-lined cylinder.

Stony Brook's “BrookX” team was one of 922 squads from across the country that took part in the annual American Rocketry Challenge. BrookX was one of seven New York teams among the competition's 100 finalists, and the only one from Long Island, organizers said in a news release.

Teams had to design, build and launch model rockets that could carry a fragile object — namely, an egg — at an altitude of 820 feet or more, and then return to Earth all within 43 to 46 seconds, organizers said. 

A club from Tharptown High School in Russellville, Alabama, won the competition, taking home a $20,000 prize, organizers said. Stony Brook won $1,500 for finishing 10th.

Stony Brook's head of school, Joshua Crane, said Thursday the result was “a remarkable accomplishment in its own right, but made even more remarkable by the fact that this was the first year of the program. ... The sky may not be the limit for this program.”

The Stony Brook School team also included David Zhang, Roger Zhou, Vincent Zhao, David Guo, Stasiu Sack and Justin Hu.

Sack is from New York City; the others are from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, said the team's adviser, Chin-Tang Liu, a STEM teacher at the school, which includes students from 20 countries and 11 states and U.S. territories.

All team members were freshmen, sophomores and juniors, Liu said.

Despite their inexperience, team members learned how to fine-tune their rockets by using lightweight material, such as cardboard, balsa wood and Lexan, a type of sturdy polycarbonate, to ensure the aircraft would fly at the required altitude, Guadalupe-Pena said.

They stored the egg in a small, foam-lined cylinder for the Virginia finals, he said.

But rocket science isn't exactly rocket science.

Guadalupe-Pena said the team relied on their knowledge of math and physics to do their work, but also employed “a lot of trial and error.”

“The biggest challenge is none of us knew what to do,” he said. “It was just a challenge of making slight changes.”

At the finals, Stony Brook's first launch lasted 42 seconds, and the second lasted 43 seconds — considered perfect under competition rules, Guadalupe-Pena said, adding the team was happy with their 10th-place finish.

“The first reaction from all of us was, finally, after all the work that we did,” he said.

It was a satisfying conclusion to the group's inaugural year, which included a team bus that got stuck in the mud on the way to a competition and countless rockets that went missing during test flights, he said,

“I don’t know how many rockets we lost in this whole ordeal,” he said. “Sometimes I was tempted to climb the trees. ... Otherwise, we would just leave them in the trees.”

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