Sunday, February 04, 2007

Start Your Own Aerospace Project

Back when I was a kid, I built one model rocket one time at summer camp. I think I was nine or ten at the time. This weekend, I built three more and launched them with my son. We both had a blast.

If you haven't tried model rocketry before, I'd definitely recommend giving it a go. There are other kinds of models you can build but it's really exciting to push that launch button and watch the model you spent an hour or more building blast off, with your fingers crossed hoping that the 'chute will deploy correctly and you'll get it back in a reusable condition.

The good news is that if you've followed the instructions and chosen a good place to launch, you probably will.

Model rocketry isn't expensive to try out. I bought a 2 rocket starter set for about $20 (US) at Hobby Lobby. This kit comes with the "Black Diamond" and "Astron Outlaw" rockets and everything you need to launch them. Because I tend to over-do everything, I also bought the "Baby Bertha" rocket and extra engines and supplies, which brought my total expenditure to about $40.

The Outlaw on the launch pad.

The Outlaw comes with its parts pre-painted, so you only need plastic glue and an exacto knife to fully assemble it, which took me about 40 minutes. This easy-to-build rocket was my favorite of the three for a couple of reasons. The first is its size. At nearly two feet long, the Outlaw looks more impressive on the launch pad. Secondly, its size, chrome-plated nose and tail, and 12" parachute combine to make it the easiest of the three to recover.

The Black Diamond on the launch pad.

The Black Diamond took a bit more work and required painting. The smallest and lightest of the three, this one went the highest and thus the farthest. Its small size and black color made this one rather hard to find. I was about to give up looking for it when I finally caught sight of it's little orange "parachute" ribbon. I'd recommend going against its name and painting this little sucker neon orange.

Baby Bertha on the launch pad.

Baby Bertha took the most work. This was my second favorite and it seems to be a good introduction to building the engine mounts used in many of Estes' other models.

Launch Day

Be Prepared. This isn't the STS you're launching but you're going to want to bring everything you used to build your rocket(s) with you as well as fresh & spare batteries for your electronic ignition system. Just like launching real rockets, Murphy's law will probably try to bite you. Be prepared and bite back.

I came prepared and was still able to fly The Outlaw when I discovered a problem with the launch lug, which I fixed on the spot.

Pick a good place to launch. The area should be reasonably flat and free of trees and other obstructions for a good 500 feet in every direction. Here I didn't do so well. I went out to one of my employer's locations which is out in the desert and reasonably flat and open. What I didn't remember was that after last year's monsoon season, huge 6 foot tall "desert levees" had been built on either side of the access road for a good 1/4 mile leading up to the main gate. This wasn't an insurmountable problem, but they had to be climbed whenever the rockets landed on the wrong side of them. Next time, I'm going to try launching somewhere else.

5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Blast Off!

Each time we had a rocket ready, my son and I would get together at the launch control and start counting down. At two I would press the arming key and after one my son would push the launch button. Then he would start literally jumping with joy as our rocket shot up into the sky. I, however, would only jump for joy figuratively.

Now there is a brief waiting period while you wait to see if the parachute deployed. Today, it did every time. Then, the little game of hide-and-seek begins; trying to find the thing in the middle of the desert. Even with my poorly chosen location, this wasn't so bad most of the time.

We launched a total of five times. All of the rockets came back totally usable. I've already re-packed their parachutes so they are ready to fly, needing only engines. The Outlaw went up three times and the other two each went up twice.

At the end of the day, I think I've probably been bitten by the model rocketry bug. I'm dreaming of trying some of the larger, more elaborate rockets I saw while in the store.


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