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Stick the Landing

Featured Photo from Stick the Landing

Lyman High students reach for the stars at the recent Florida Student Astronaut Challenge and bring home a first-place trophy in one of the competition’s most difficult events

Six passionate young engineers from Lyman High School recently participated in the Florida Student Astronaut Challenge, competing in four different space-themed events. The crew made the Lyman community proud, bringing home first place in the especially-tricky Landing Challenge. 

After participating in last year’s Astronaut Challenge as students at Milwee Middle School, team members Kate Walsh, Vincent Hardesty, and Tommy Robertson were eager to tackle the competition again at the high-school level. They joined Colin Gilbert, Ally Esteban, and Liam Rosenfeld to field the first-ever Lyman Astronaut Challenge Team. Given the rookie team’s performance at the Astronaut Challenge in February, you’d never guess that all six engineers are only freshmen and sophomores. 

The group began studying for the Astronaut Challenge’s required 100-question space and engineering-related test before the school year started. Based on their performance on the test, the team was invited to compete in the regional competition. They were later selected as one of the five schools in their region to advance to states, held at Kennedy Space Center.

The team spent as much time as possible preparing for the state competition, which was no easy task considering each of the six students is involved in a number of other activities at Lyman including band, softball, rowing, scouts, and other engineering clubs. They met at school, at a local restaurant, and even set up shop in a room in Kate’s grandmother’s house. There they brought in computer monitors and recreated a real space shuttle simulator environment, covering the walls with paper buttons and switches.

At the state level, teams competed in four main challenge events:

1) A Shuttle Simulator Challenge, where the team had to successfully pilot the space shuttle from liftoff to landing in 40 minutes. It was done inside a NASA trailer built to replicate the cockpit of the actual space shuttle.

2) A Lab Challenge, in which the crew worked together to find a solution to a space-related problem.

3) An Engineering Challenge that gave the team 45 minutes to solve and present its solutions to high-level math problems.

4) And last, but not least, the Landing Challenge, in which the crew had to work together and communicate perfectly in order to land the simulated space shuttle despite various malfunctions.  

Each event has its own leaders, and each team member served a specific role. Vincent and Tommy performed the Landing Challenge, for which they prepped through many practice sessions. 

The Landing Challenge was formatted into two segments. First, the pilots were forced to fly blind with only their partner to guide them. Next, the crews were tasked with landing the shuttle – at night – without the use of a visual screen, using only the guidance of their partner and their instruments. Tommy and Vincent successfully landed the shuttle thanks to their trust and flawless communication. 

“Communication was everything,” says Tommy. “It was a trust fall with a space shuttle.”

The team members agreed that the Lab Challenge was their favorite, though they only finished fourth in that competition. In this challenge, judges prompted the team to find a solution to a very messy space problem. They had to devise a way to pick up 750,000 pieces of tiny, floating debris. Vincent played a big role in developing the team’s solution. In the days before the state competition, the crew wrote out its idea in a 20-page proposal and then gave a presentation to the judges.

“We enjoyed the Lab Challenge so much that we wanted to create something that would actually work,” says Colin. “We’ve even talked about someday building it.”

“We didn’t just dump problems that didn’t work,” adds Kate. “We would fix and add to it.” 

“This way of learning really developed us a lot in the field,” says Tommy. 

During the Shuttle Simulator challenge, in which the Lyman team placed 10th, Kate was the flight engineer and Liam was part of mission control. Every team member served a different role. 

“We would be thrown different problems, like the computer system being down, so mission control had to find a quick way to relay messages and deliver every single prompt,” says Liam. 

And during the Engineering Challenge, in which they also placed 10th, the Lyman group realized that as freshmen and sophomores, there was a lot of math involved they had yet to learn in class.

On the third day of the state competition, the results were announced, and parents, students, and coaches were jumping with joy at their successes. 

“This experience was really awesome,” says Ally. “We were the youngest team by far, and to do this well was really exciting.” 

“The research that we put into this and the whole idea of the challenge is really cool,” adds Kate.

Team coaches William Hardesty and Sara Walsh were fortunate to help facilitate the Lyman team’s work from start to finish.

“Each of the team members is very different,” says Sara. “They are brilliant and unique young adults who were able to blend into one cohesive unit. Like any successful team, they pulled from their different strengths while helping each other to overcome their individual weaknesses.”
“It was an honor for us to be part of their journey,” adds William. “These are the type of young adults who are already shaping our future and giving our world an assurance of a better tomorrow.”

Overall, the state competition was an exceptional experience the students won’t forget. The team is already anticipating next year’s Astronaut Challenge and bouncing ideas off of each other about possible lab themes and new simulators. Their drive and motivation show that their Astronaut Challenge journey at Lyman High is only just beginning.

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