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Memphis 'Fly Boys' Soar Into Rocketry Finals


Now, we want to turn to a high school competition that is taking off this weekend, and no, we are not talking football or cheerleading. This is the finals of the nation's largest rocketry tournament. One hundred teens will gather for the Team America Rocketry Challenge this weekend in Washington, D.C.

And if you think making a little model rocket is easy, listen to this. Teams will have one chance to launch their rockets and make them fly as close to 800 feet as possible in about 45 seconds and the rockets have to carry two raw eggs into the air and bring them back safely.

Today, we are checking in with members of the rocketry team from Wooddale High School in Memphis, Tennessee. Now, Wooddale is not in a particularly affluent area in Memphis, and at first, members of the team were not sure they could even afford to make the trip. But after a local newspaper profiled the team, supporters in the city stepped up to help them get to Washington. And Darius Hooker and Wesley Carter are the two seniors on the team and they are joining us now.

Congratulations. Welcome to you both.

DARIUS HOOKER: Thank you so much.


HOOKER: We greatly appreciate all the support we're getting.

CARTER: Yes, ma'am. Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, why do I sound more excited than you two do? Is that the rocket man, kind of - you got to be really very cool to do...

CARTER: You have to be laid back.

HOOKER: It's been a lot of long mornings, long nights.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. So you're tired. Well, I was reading that nobody in either of your families has a science or engineering background, so how did you get into building rockets?

HOOKER: This is Darius. Me and Wesley actually met at a summer program that Wooddale hosts. We kind of started building little, small Estes rocket kits and it kind of sparked from there. Our 10th grade year, we had someone approach us about the Team America Rocketry Challenge and asked us were we interested in it. And, ever since then, it's just been three years of hard work and dedication towards making it to this competition. The third year was the charm and we actually qualified to make it.

MARTIN: Wesley, what's fun about it? What do you like about it?

CARTER: I like the hard work and dedication about everything. Also, the teamwork we have, like, when we go out those early mornings, once we shoot those rockets, it's either going to be a good thing or a bad thing. So what makes me really happy is just seeing the rocket go up and come back in piece and doing what we planned on it to do.

MARTIN: I'm imagining that being in the rocket club, particularly when you were younger guys, was probably like being in the glee club, not the coolest. I don't know. So I just wanted to ask - did you ever have that experience and how did you, you know, overcome the usual?

HOOKER: My ninth and 10th grade year, to be honest - yeah. We were counted like the outcasts of the whole thing. My 11th and 12th grade year, me and Wesley kind of turned that around 100 percent. We were like the guys on campus. We are what's happening and, I mean, people see that we have things going for ourselves, so everybody wants a piece of what's going on. I didn't let anybody's worries get me down. I always knew what I was waking up to go to school for at the end of the day.

MARTIN: Wesley, what about you?

CARTER: We came in our ninth grade year and we would sit in class and, you know, everybody would be like, oh, hey, Darius - or hey, Wesley, can you give us the answers to this, this, this? And we would be completely nice about it, but once we got out of class, we had no friends at all, so me and Darius had to keep each other up.

MARTIN: Well, I bet that changed, though, once your pictures were all in the newspapers, you know.

CARTER: Yes, ma'am.

HOOKER: It completely changed. Yeah. Once everybody started seeing how we were getting such publicity and how really smart that we were, everyone were like, OK, these guys are really going to do it one day. We need to hang around them and not mess with them anymore. You know, that was the thing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with two members of Memphis' Wooddale High School Rocket Team, Darius Hooker and Wesley Carter. Their team is competing in the national finals of the Team America Rocketry Challenge this weekend in Washington, D.C.

As I mentioned, when you first got entry into the competition, you weren't sure you were going to have the money to go, and then the donations just poured in. How did that feel?

HOOKER: Yes, ma'am. This is Darius. For the past three years, I know, myself - I've been talking about just this story and I kind of had this vision, all in my mind, of us making it. It's all blowing up in the newspapers. And now that it is here, I'm like, whoa. And just from that first commercial appeal ad, just within 24 hours, we were getting fan mail. We got a $3,000 check handed to us and we have pictures of the guy handing it to us and I was so overwhelmed with the support that we got from the community and everybody who reached out to us and had faith in us.

MARTIN: However it turns out, it's certainly a great journey to getting that point, but what's next for each of you? Wesley, do you want to go first?

CARTER: Once I graduate, I plan on attending Middle Tennessee State University for air traffic control and dispatch. I've been an intern for two years at Memphis International Airport. Once I leave Middle Tennessee, I have to go to the Air Traffic Control Academy in Oklahoma City and I plan on being a manager, either here in Memphis or Chicago, doing air traffic control.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. Sounds like a plan. I see you haven't thought it through at all. Darius, what about you? What's next for you?

HOOKER: Yes, ma'am. We've both been working our pilot license. When we came into Wooddale, that was kind of the thing. We wanted to be the pilots, but as we got into the field we realized that being a pilot isn't everything. After high school, I will be going to college over in Arkansas to get my A&P license for aircraft mechanic. After that, FedEx will be picking me up as a aircraft mechanic and they will be paying for my degree at Embry-Riddle and I will go from there.

MARTIN: What advice are you giving to the younger students now who want to get involved in rockets or science, in general? Maybe Darius, I'll start with you.

HOOKER: I was kind of scared coming into it. I mean, it's rocket science. This is actually something that you can consider rocket science, so I was actually intimidated coming into it, but you can do anything you put your mind to. Don't ever let anybody tell you that you can't do it.

To me, I feel like the sky isn't the limit. It goes beyond that. Once you lower your head and charge at it, go at it full force and it's good as yours.

MARTIN: Wesley, what about you?

CARTER: I think every child should listen to their mother or father in a positive way, because it's going to help in the future. If you have a mindset like you want to do something, even if you think about doing about 10 different things, I mean, that's fine as long as you're still thinking forward.

MARTIN: Wesley Carter and Darius Hooker are members of the Wooddale High School Rocket Team. They're based in Memphis, Tennessee. This weekend, they will compete in the finals of the Team America Rocketry Challenge in Washington, D.C. and they were with us from member station WKNO in Memphis.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us. Good luck to you both.

HOOKER: Thank you so much for the opportunity.

CARTER: Thank you.


MARTIN: Coming up, one of the largest folk music collections in the country is now available free and online. We'll hear how that music has already inspired groups like The Beatles.

GEOFFREY CLAIRFIELD: When you look at this stuff from a folkloric point of view and discover that it's influenced millions of people and made some people hundreds of millions of dollars, it's a really interesting thing.

MARTIN: The history and the music behind the Lomax Collection. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.