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As far as destiny goes, an advanced placement physics class wasn't exactly where Dave Adelman expected to find his.
Then a senior at Oakton High School in Vienna, Va., Adelman was facing a fateful choice: robotics or rocketry. With AIA's Team America Rocketry Challenge in its inaugural year, students were allowed – for the first time – to choose between participating in TARC or competing in the annual FIRST Robotics contest. Adelman was one of five (4 guys, 1 girl) who opted for rockets.
"We were all new to rockets," Adelman said.
Adelman and his classmates used a computer program, RockSim™, to come up with three rocket designs. Because nobody wanted to sacrifice their own design, the team launched all three rockets under the supervision of the National Association of Rocketry at Great Meadows in The Plains, Va.
"The one that survived was the one we used," he said.
Over the course of a school year, while making trial-and-error tweaks, the team actually hit the challenge's goal once during a test flight: taking two eggs to 1500 feet in a two-stage rocket, and returning them safely. They weren't always so lucky, though.
"We spent two hours trying to get one of our rockets out of a 40-foot high tree," Adelman said. "And then, at the finals, the rocket went off-kilter and only made it to about1350 feet. We got 30-something-th place."
39th place, to be exact, out of 875 teams from across the country
The Oakton team made it to the final fly-off that first year with the help of a nearby aerospace company, AIA member Aerojet.
Then named ARC, the company provided both mentors and financial support. The team also visited the plant for a tour, a pizza lunch during a slide show, and a chance to see a couple of rocket scientists up close and personal.
"Aerojet is the leading company in the U.S. that does air breathing rockets, and there were pictures of plasma thrusters on the wall in the test facility. They even did a batch test with a small Stinger motor for our team. Getting out to tour the plant was the best part about my TARC experience," Adelman said.
Aerojet embraced AIA's request for company sponsors in that inaugural year, searching high and low for a local team to mentor.
"We looked in every state in which Aerojet had a facility and found several schools," Mark Friedlander said. "Then we found Oakton High School and we were very impressed with these students and their teacher."
An eye to the sky
The rocket contest may not have been where Adelman's interest in science started, but it certainly focused his attention.
"From that team, we all knew what we wanted to do. Three of us are engineers now and another is earning his masters in Physics," Adelman said. "Having the contest as a requirement forced us to do it, but it was really fun once we started."
Adelman went on to attend the University of Virginia, where he majored in mechanical engineering while earning a minor in aerospace. And although he admits that first-year classes like chemistry and physics weren't easy, Adelman remained committed to his ultimate goal.
"Everyone adapts to the course load differently," he said. "Some people just breeze through it, but I was at the other end of the spectrum and I really had to work at it."
His senior year at UVA was capped with another feat of flight: a hovercraft. The 15 students in his final design class were divided into four groups – thrust, lift, chassis and controls – and organized like a company, with the leader acting as CEO. The project took a full year, with the fall semester dedicated to design, and the spring semester devoted to construction and testing. Instead of a final exam, the class flew their hovercraft .
"We were all working on that one project, so we had to talk to each other to make sure everything woud fit together when we assembled it,”Adelman said.
By the time Adelman graduated UVA, though, fate had already dealt her cards. Toward the end of his sophomore year, he decided to drop his resume off at Aerojet. Luckly he handed it directly to a HR employee in the front lobby, he quickly landed an interview and then a summer internship.
"I had some AutoCAD™ experience going in, but the thing that was the most valuable that summer was that Aerojet put me in a CAD room with a bunch of CAD operators and let me work out smaller – but important – problems," Adelman said. "I got a good introduction to technical drawings, made a few smaller parts."
He came back for another internship after his junior year and got hands-on with the motor used to remove the shroud from a D-5 missile. He also worked on the D-5's re-qualification, taking old CAD drawings and re-drawing them in new software. In addition to the redrawing and the meetings, he interacted with production people at the company's Orange County facility and worked with the program manager to get a handle on the big picture.
"I never would have known about [Aerojet] if it hadn't been for TARC," Adelman said. "When we got sponsored by them, none of us knew what they did or where they were. Then, out of the five of us who did TARC, three of us worked or interned at Aerojet.
"It was just about coming here and knowing what's available. It's also word of mouth. I've heard third-years at UVA say that Aerojet is the place to work. There's that name recognition now."
At Aerojet full-time since graduating in June 2007, Adelman has become deeply involved in Advanced Capability Patriot and has been working on rapid prototype programs. Quick-turnaround design programs. design to showcase the companies capabilities. In one case this meant going from design to test firing in about 30 days
"Actually, I had an offer from a bigger propulsion company that I didn't accept," he said. "Here, I have a lot of different things to do. I've got at least three of four things going on, so there's variety. I'm not stuck on one program for three or four years. Even though I'm low on the totem pole, I get to see the whole picture.
And what's next?
"I'm learning too much right now to really think much about the future."