Essay by Jack Tian

Jack Tian won the $2000 Orange County Mensa Scholarship for 2021.

I’m enthralled by anything and everything aerospace.

In middle school, I competed in the Science Olympiad Elastic Launched Glider event, where I built balsa gliders to be launched with a slingshot-like contraption. In venues with ceilings over 40 feet high, I would stretch the slingshot back as far as my 6th-grader arms would allow, and the glider would shoot to the rafters before slowly gliding down. This sense of freedom, combined with the wonder of flight and the thrill of winning awards as the national champion team, further amplified my interest in aviation.

I brought this passion to Wright Stuff, an event involving rubber band powered planes. Chasing those extra seconds in flight time, I stumbled upon the torque burner in the 1989 issue of a model airplane magazine. This arcane technique was used in to achieve tremendous boosts to flight time. However, the advantages it confers come at great risk, as it essentially holds back half of a rubber motor, activating the second half mid-flight. It is notorious for activating early, or not at all, and only one competitive model airplane flier has reliably used the technique in competition. Nevertheless, intrigued by this obscure technique, I resolved to experiment with it despite the tremendous odds against me.

After countless broken rubber motors, flight practices lasting long into the night, and innumerable fingers superglued together, I was able to implement the torque burner technique at the Science Olympiad National Tournament. Although I did not achieve the best flight time, I nonetheless achieved my personal goal of making something so seemingly arcane work. For me, the competition became less about the piece of metal around my neck and more about how I had been able to convert my passion into something tangible. More importantly, the project equipped me with the fundamental belief that in order to reach new heights — whether personal or professional — it’s essential for me to take on the challenges that seem the most formidable.

While I fully intend to pursue the challenges and experiences of aerospace engineering in college, I leverage my time now to explore and prepare as much as I can, beginning with an academic foundation on which I can build mastery of the topic. I have started with the essentials, pursuing college-level AP and IB classes in school, including physics, calculus, and design technology. Outside of school, I found ways to satisfy my curiosity for aerospace by taking online courses of aerospace structures and materials.

This foundation has helped me to continue exploring my passion through real life projects. I used the CAD that I learned in my Design Technology class to work as a paid research intern at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign this summer. Here, I designed a heating system simulating atmospheric re-entry conditions (>2400 F), which has been fabricated and is now being used to develop novel heat resistant materials for next-generation heat shields to ensure the safety of space crafts and astronauts.

Lockheed Martin and NASA’s silent version of the Concorde; Mars helicopters that can operate in atmospheres as thin as the Earth’s stratosphere; light sails that rely on photons from the Sun as crosswinds. Whichever horizon we’re reaching for, I’ve committed my love of learning to contributing to these kinds of advancements of this paramount field.


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