With an infectious smile and a gold medal draped around his neck, 19-year-old former Wooddale High School student Darius Hooker is still on cloud nine after competing in a national rocket building contest.
Hooker and fellow Wooddale High student Wesley Carter, 18, returned from Washington, D.C., and a meet and greet with President Barack Obama on Monday during the White House Science Fair in the State Dining Room after qualifying for the 11th annual Team America Rocketry Challenge.
"We had to shoot a rocket 800 feet with between 43-47 seconds," Hooker said, a member of Team Wooddale Cardinal Rockets. "Our rocket made it 801 feet and 45 seconds, so we scored a score of one. The lowest score wins and that put us among the top 10 percent in the country."
According to the TARC website, the rocket challenge is an extra-curricular hands-on project-based learning program and is modeled around the aerospace industry's design, fabrication and testing processes. Teams consist of 3 to 10 students and they have to design, build, and fly a rocket. Like aerospace companies work within specific design parameters, every year the challenge requires teams to achieve the same basic mission-oriented goals of hitting a precise altitude, landing within a specific flight time window, and returning a raw egg ("the astronaut") without cracking.
It's the first time a Mid-South school has ever made it this far in the competition. It took three years to qualify. As part of the reward Team Wooddale Cardinal Rockets traveled to Washington, D.C., and had the opportunity to shake the hand of the Commander in Chief.
"I knew he was coming by when he hit that corner," Hooker recalled. "I almost forgot my own name. I was kind of talking in my head, 'just get it together,' but once I started talking to him, he makes you feel real comfortable like talking to anyone else. But it was an honor."
Hooker and Carter both started at Wooddale High in the Pilots Program and it is what led them to eventually build a rocket.
"The rockets that are featured on the picture with Mr. Obama, those were the first two rockets we ever designed," Hooker said, who is working on his aircrafts mechanics license.
His teammate Carter is in school in Murfreesboro. Hooker says his foundation will always start at Wooddale High.
"We keep that piloting in our background so we both fly Cessna 172s," Hooker said. "But (Carter's) doing the air traffic control side and I'm doing the aircraft maintenance side."
Hooker says eventually he wants to work for FedEX, Boeing, or maybe Lockheed Martin as the next great aeronautical designer. Once he graduates from Tennessee Tech he plans to enroll at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and graduate with a degree in aerospace engineering.
"The sky can't be the limit," he said. "If there's moons or footprints on the moon I always live by that sky's not the limit."