Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hey Dad, It Flies!

My brother and I briefly flirted with model rocketry back in 1986, several months after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and not too long after a visit to NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Dad bought us both a starter kit from Estes, consisting of an easy-to-assemble rocket, launch base, igniters and a couple of engines. The starter rocket came together easily at the kitchen table. The pre-made plastic tail assembly spared us from messing with glue and triangulating all three fins in their proper locations.

"Watch out for those o-rings," Mother said, referring to Challenger's fatal flaw.

For our launch area, we picked a field behind Raytown, Missouri's Robinson Elementary, home to a baseball diamond, a couple of soccer fields, and now, three amateur rocketeers. October Sky it wasn't. Neither was it the Fourth of July. These were no bottle rockets, which tend to explode on the pad just seconds after they're lit. Our launch devices each consisted of a guide rod on a tripod base wired to a battery-powered ignition button several feet away. A key-activated lamp signaled all systems were go. All we had to do was push and play.

Model rocket igniters are not up to NASA standards. You insert the engine into the rocket's tail, and then you carefully insert the igniter, which is connected with a pair of alligator clips. If all goes well, we have liftoff. But many times that igniter burns in half and it's back to the pad for troubleshooting. Still, it beats using a lighter and a punk.

We had success from the get-go: at least two successful launches after at least a couple of misfires. Then came recovery. Model rocket engines include an ejection charge in the top which pushes out a parachute (or sometimes just a plastic ribbon), and the challenge is to get under the spacecraft before it gets snagged in the trees.

I made my second launch of the day using a basic engine -- low altitude, no frills. It shot up high enough to satisfy my expectations, but then the wind caught hold of it. That first rocket drifted into the tree line and never dropped through it.

Dad observed the disaster. "I'll get you another one," he said without hesitation.

I went on to build at least two more rockets, even getting to launch one of them in Physical Science class during my freshman year at Raytown South High School. I earned some easy extra credit points for providing my own launcher. Thanks, Dad!

Model rockets, by the way, are very cheap to build. Ten bucks will get you something you can launch over and over. Forty dollars will set you up with a complete kit. That's about what a family spends for a movie night out, including refreshments and gas.

We never returned to the grassy fields of Robinson, and I never built another rocket after 9th Grade, but the legend, as people say, lives on.

And if you have a red-and-white model rocket you found by the ball field near Robinson School, may I have it back, please?

No comments: