It’s possible to build a model rocket in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, but those who live in the remote West Texas border town of Presidio face an extra challenge: the nearest Home Depot is nearly four hours away, in Odessa. So, Presidio High School’s rocketry club typically goes to the local Dollar Tree to purchase many of their rocket-building materials instead.
Dish sponges and cardboard, petroleum jelly and duct tape—those are a few of the items that the group of Presidio teenagers bought for a few dollars during recent trips to the store. Once those household items were hooked up to a fifty-newton, four-inch-tall motor and fueled with a few ounces of gunpowder, they were transformed into a rocket that qualified for the world’s largest student rocketry competition.
And on a warm and humid morning in mid-May, nearly two thousand miles from the Chihuahuan Desert, the students prepared to launch it nearly a thousand feet in the air.
“I’m so nervous right now,” the team’s captain, Presidio High senior Leonardo Uribe, said as he watched another team’s rocket explode. “I just hope it doesn’t blow up like that one.”
His team was one of 101 that had bested 729 other middle school and high school rocket clubs to qualify for the national finals at the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC), held annually in The Plains, Virginia. A ticket to Paris, for the international finals, was on the line. The Virginia venue, a horse pasture forty miles west of Washington, D.C., had been converted into a rocket launch field with a perpetual “3 . . . 2 . . . 1” blaring over the loudspeakers. This year’s theme: a tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing.
Hiding his nerves, Uribe, a trim nineteen-year-old wearing a Casio calculator watch, led his seven teammates to the big white tent where they would pull the requisite parts from a yellow toolbox and, in just thirty minutes, reassemble their three-foot-tall miniature rocket. They had named it Agripino, for no reason in particular, like the way some parents in their families had picked children’s names from the Mexican calendar of saints.
The team’s designated artist, Paola Flotte, had painted the bottom half to look like the Apollo 11 rocket and the top half to look like home, a landscape of cacti brushing up against a starry blue sky. To prepare it for launch, Flotte, a seventeen-year-old with a warm smile who moved to Presidio from Mexico in the third grade, sprinkled clumps of shredded newspaper into the bottom cylinder; the paper was intended to function as insulation, a wall between the gunpowder explosion and the rest of the rocket. Others greased the gunpowder-filled motor with petroleum jelly, to prevent the rocket parts surrounding the motor case from sticking during launch. The rocket, equipped with three parachutes for landing, carried three raw eggs as passengers, wrapped snugly in the dollar-store dish sponges.
This year’s challenge: to launch the rocket exactly 856 feet high and land it within 43 to 46 seconds of launch. All while keeping the eggs intact. Too much firepower might hard-boil them on the way up. Too little parachute might scramble them on the way down. It was a game of physics, requiring the right touch and a bit of luck.
“Not too tight,” Uribe reminded Omar Udave, the team’s parachute expert, a senior with steady hands and sharp focus, as he folded the chutes into bite-size squares.
Finally ready for launch, Uribe loaded Agripino onto the launchpad—and fretted about one of the rocket’s fins. It had sustained a nearly imperceptible blemish while in storage. “Some of these other rockets fly so straight,” he said. “We had a little incident with this fin, so now ours spins a little bit. Which is not good.”
The fin was one component they couldn’t find at the Dollar Tree. The one they had damaged had been ordered online from Hobby Lobby, and there was no time to place another order in time for the finals. The nearest Hobby Lobby is also in Odessa.
Presidio Independent School District’s student body is one of the poorest in Texas. Ninety-three percent of its students are economically disadvantaged and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and more than half are English-language learners. Yet over the past decade, the high school’s rocketry club has repeatedly outperformed prestigious magnet schools and science academies with twice its budget—and easy access to big-box craft and hardware stores.
The story of how that happened begins eleven years ago, when Shella Condino decided to start a rocketry club at the high school. A 46-year-old physics teacher from the Philippines who initially came to the United States in 2002 to teach in El Paso, Condino was offered a job in Presidio in 2006, but at first she hesitated to accept. She already had an offer from the Academy for International Studies, in Houston, where she would have access to a generous budget for a rocket-club project and plenty of materials—compared with none in Presidio, at least to start. She worried that Presidio was geographically isolated, its climate arid and unforgiving. But when she saw the desert surrounding the high school, Condino felt a pull. “I thought, ‘This is the perfect place for my rocket launching,’ ” she said.
She pitched the idea for the club to administrators, intending to use materials she had purchased herself to get it started, and they were sold. In 2008 she recruited a dozen or so students for a summer enrichment program that turned into something more when the club was invited to attend a weeklong rocketry summer camp at Texas Tech, in Lubbock. That felt like a big leap for her kids, who weren’t necessarily aspiring rocket scientists. Some had just moved to Presidio from Ojinaga, Mexico, just across the border, and had nothing to do in their new town. Some didn’t speak English. Some had never been to a hotel before or anywhere beyond Presidio.
Yet when Condino took them to Lubbock, they excelled. Competing against students from all over West Texas, they created one of the best-performing rockets, a testament, perhaps, to Condino’s tough-love, no-excuses teaching style. And the kids grabbed opportunities that others hadn’t seen. When the camp was over, they noticed that the other teams had discarded their used rockets in the trash. Strapped for resources, the Presidio students retrieved them, to reuse the materials.
“We were saving whatever we could save,” Condino said. “And [the camp director] saw us doing that. I said, ‘Sometimes people’s trash could be somebody else’s treasure.’ ” Weeks later, the director sent them two boxes full of reloadable motors. “I cried,” Condino recalled. “We could not afford those types of metal motors. We tried to conserve all of those materials for several years.”
In the spring of 2009, less than a year after Condino had founded the club, it qualified for the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Admittedly, some rockets had exploded along the way. And while most teams worry that their rockets might get stuck in a tree, the students in largely treeless Presidio worry more that theirs might get stuck in Mexico, because one actually had.
But despite the fact that they didn’t use any high-tech rocket pieces or have the most advanced motor, they placed nineteenth at the competition, which made them eligible to submit a rocket-design proposal to a NASA program that simulates a NASA mission from the drawing board to launch. The Presidio students got to consult with some of the nation’s foremost aerospace engineers, and as they sharpened their chops, they developed a reputation for being scrappy. One story—about how the team managed to afford their first trip to Virginia—has become almost legendary among TARC officials. “The Presidio team had to auction off a goat,” said Dan Stohr, a spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association, which organizes the competition with the National Association of Rocketry. And they auctioned a goat in Presidio every year for the next five years.
Even President Barack Obama knows the story. In 2012 he invited members of the team to the White House Science Fair and highlighted their achievements in his speech. “This is part of the fourth-poorest school district in the state of Texas,” he said, asking the three club members who made the trip east to stand to be recognized. “And I was told that teachers cooked food to sell after church, supporters drove two hundred miles to pick up doughnuts for bake sales. They even raffled off a goat—is that right?—just so they could raise enough money for the rocketry team to compete.”
In 2014 the team placed fourth at TARC, its highest ranking so far. But two months later, Condino left Presidio to teach physics at a high school in northern Virginia. Given how central she was to the program, outsiders might have thought that the club would begin to falter. But the team’s current adviser, Luzviminda Sto. Domingo, said that every teacher and teacher’s assistant who has succeeded Condino has tried to follow her example—turning her teaching method into institutional knowledge.
There have been five of them over the past five years, and as it happens, all but one of them are also from the Philippines, where Presidio ISD frequently recruits math and science teachers, according to interim principal Edgar Tibayan. It’s difficult, Tibayan said, to recruit U.S. teachers to move to the desert.
Sto. Domingo, a sprightly woman with a soft manner, arrived in Presidio from her native country in October, when she learned she would be supervising the rocketry club. Though she has a master’s in physics, she had no experience building rockets. Which, as it turned out, didn’t really matter: the contest’s rules require that she be hands-off, that she allow the students to experience trial and error themselves. She was there to supervise the launches, to order the non–Dollar Tree materials, to make sure the students’ creation was safe. For the most part, she said, Uribe does the teaching.
“Leo could build a rocket in a day if he wanted to,” she said. “He’s very passionate. When they lost their best rocket earlier this year, he didn’t eat. He skipped lunch to replace it.”
Uribe has spent all of his life in the borderlands. Born in El Paso, he lived in Juárez until he was eight, when his parents felt the city was becoming too dangerous. He remembers the day his mother picked him and his brother up from school in tears. She and their father had received a phone call from men who pretended to have their sons and threatened to kill them if their parents didn’t immediately wire money. Soon after that, Uribe and his brother, who are both citizens since they were born here, moved to Presidio, where an aunt and uncle lived. His parents, who had no legal status in the United States, had to stay behind in Mexico.
Uribe arrived knowing no English. At school, he didn’t like language arts or, later, politics classes. “But the one thing I was really good at was math,” he said. “And that’s because math is the universal language.”
His parents, both dentists, had encouraged him to become a doctor. But upon discovering the rocketry club as a freshman, Uribe set his sights on becoming an engineer. Aerospace engineering is his ultimate goal, but he’s open to electrical and computer engineering too, enthralled by all the opportunities the field presents to create technology that could reduce fossil fuels and pollution and save the earth. In August he will matriculate at Texas A&M–College Station. “I want to be one of those people that are changing the world,” he said.
Condino, for one, knows it’s possible: In the past six months, she has heard from two prior members of the rocketry club. One now works as an engineer for Boeing in Seattle; the other works at Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary in Virginia. “The tears keep flowing every time we hear from these kids,” she says.
Back at the launch field, Uribe was pacing. “I feel like I want to collapse,” he said.
The team watched as, one by one, the rockets built by the teams they were competing against blasted off in a fiery burst of sparks and thick black smoke, sizzling and hissing as they soared straight up.
“Ours don’t have nearly the same firepower as those ones,” said Ramon Aguirre, the team’s eighteen-year-old field engineer.
“I feel like ours is going to be so ordinary!” said Flotte.
When their turn came, an official stopped by to ask if they were ready. They gave him the thumbs-up and then clenched their fists or clasped their hands as the countdown began. “In 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . .” And there it went.
Agripino pierced the overcast sky, traveling in a near perfect line before splitting into two cylinders at its peak, as three parachutes—two on the top cylinder, one on the bottom—burst open. As the rocket floated back toward Earth, landing not too far from where it launched, the students checked their stopwatches. They were spot-on: 43.86 seconds.
They started running toward the rocket, like a baseball team storming the pitcher’s mound at the end of an eleven-inning nail-biter. Uribe was nearly skipping, jumping every few steps and pumping his fists.
They opened the cylinder to check the eggs: intact! But then they pulled out the altimeter—the device that detects the altitude the rocket reached—and grimaced. The rocket had traveled 773 feet—83 feet short of its goal. “At least it had a nice paint job,” Flotte said.
The team ultimately placed seventy-third, their weakest showing since 2015.
Still, from the sidelines, the school administrators were beaming like proud parents. The superintendent, Raymond Vasquez, who joined the district last fall, said that he already intended to beef up the budget for the club next school year. Sto. Domingo said she wasn’t concerned about rankings.
“The rocket launched so well. It didn’t explode. It wasn’t disqualified. It’s really an accomplishment,” she said. “They’ve proved they can make a rocket out of Dollar Tree materials.”
Leaving the launch field, Uribe was already doing the postmortem in his head, dissecting where things had gone wrong. Could they have picked lighter eggs? Should they have used a lighter acrylic paint?
But there was also the factor they couldn’t change: the stifling humidity, heavy on the rocket like a knit sweater. “That was it,” Uribe realized, and it was the one variable they hadn’t prepared for. The thing about building rockets in the desert, he said, is that there is no humidity.
Meagan Flynn, a former Texas Monthly intern and former staffer at the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Press, is now a staff writer at the Washington Post.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Launch and Deliver.” Subscribe today.