Well that’s good, because model rocketry is one of those hobbies that is much enjoyed by parent/child. It is easier to do than ever, is lots of fun, and actually quite safe!
Times were that it was not always so. In the past the major builder of rockets, Estes, was a bit troublesome to deal with. The company had been formed in 1958 when they developed a machine that mass-produced model rocket engines. This revolutionized the hobby since in the past rocketeers had to either make their own rocket engines or buy expensive, unreliable produced ones. Soon Estes were building and selling parts for models rockets and dominated the market. Rocket kits soon followed along with lots of other accessories.
But while this made the hobby much easier, it didn’t exactly make it accessible to the everyday man. Kits were still very complicated and making a rocket to launch was a very tricky process that actually involved a dent amount of investment:
1) Buy model rocket kit
2) Buy rocket launch stand
3) Buy rocket engines
4)Buy Launch Controller & batteries
5) Buy model paint
6) Assemble rocket – glue rocket find, find some way to brace them while the glue dries, cry when it settles at a wrong angle, try to re-attach fin over the tear where the glue pulled out the cardboard of the tube. Repeat for the remaining fins. Insert rocket holder system at bottom. Don’t forget to glue the guide tubes to the body as well – they are needed for the launch pad’s rod to hold up the rocket.
7) Paint rocket. Make suer you have all the colors you need. Go back to the store to get more if you don’t. Wonder why it doesn’t look like the picture
8) Apply decals. This process involves water where you slip the decal into the water, then when it loosens from its backing slide it onto the rocket using tweezers. Unless you were experienced with building model cars, planes & tanks you would probably make a mess of this part.
9) Wait for everything to dry.
10) Insert parachute into the rocket body and insert nose-cone at top of rocket.
This is what you would need to do just to get your rocket ready to fly. Now Estes did sell some -ready-to-fly kits, but it was obvious that they had disdain for anyone who didn’t want to go through steps 1-10 to prepare a rocket – so these were tiny little rockets and not too much fun to launch.
However, a couple of years ago Estes-Cox was purchased by Hobbico, and their attitude did quite a turnaround.
First of all, the number of ‘cardboard tube & nose cone in a bag’ kits was reduced dramatically. In its place, Estes produced a series of kits that did not demand that the customer assemble, paint, and buy lots of parts to launch. Instead, Launch Sets were produced that included everything a young rocketeer would need except for the model rocket engines (there was a reason for that – shipping issues).
These kits included either a pre-assembled or easy-assemble rocket. They would also include a launch pad, launch controller, & parachute. Instructions were made clear and easy to follow. All you needed to launch was some rocket engines.
So with one of these kits you can be ready to launch within minutes.
So now what? Well, let’s talk about where to launch:
First of all, make certain that rocketry is legal in your state – it almost certainly is, but some states do have some restrictions. At least one state requires you to notify the local fire marshal that you want to launch. You local township may have rules more specific about where you can and cannot launch. Some may simply restrict the more powerful engines that serious hobbyists may use. Most state parks may have restrictions about it. Its best to check with a local fire marshal.
As for the location of launching itself – keep away from trees, power lines, and other tall obstructions. A general rule of thumb is to have open space about 1/4 of how high the rocket is expected to fly. So if your rocket will go 1,000 feet you want at least 250 feet of no obstructions in any direction. Also make certain nothing flammable is around such as dry grass, litter, and anything else that might burn.
Picking a Rocket Engine
There is a strong impulse when making your first rocket launch to buy and use the most powerful model rocket engine that your rocket can hold.
Hold on there tiger.
First of all, using the most powerful engine can lead to a lost rocket. Here’s why: When you launch a rocket, you might not always get a sense of how the wind is moving some 100+ feet above your head. It might be calm, but it might also be going much faster up there. When your rocket goes into this wind it will drift a bit from high winds, but once the parachute deploys the wind will kick in and you’ll get a nice lesson in vector physics. There is a very good chance your rocket will blow far away from your launch area.
This is why you should probably do a test launch with a less powerful rocket engine – preferably the lowest power rocket engine that will get your rocket airborne. Chek the instructions or box for engines that will work with your particular rocket. But we should add a few details.
About Rocket Engines
You might notice that rocket engines have a rather odd code to them; A8-3, B6-0, C4-6, etc. Let’s clear up what this means:
The first letter, A, B, C etc will tell you how much impulse seconds the rocket engine will produce. Each subsequent letter will produce twice the power as the previous. So ‘B” is twice the power of ‘A’, ‘C’ is twice the power of ‘B’ and 4x the power of ‘A’, and so on. The largest production engine is an ‘E’ and any engine from ‘G’ upward is considered a different class of model rocketry. Mostly you will be dealing with A to C engines.
The first # on the engine is the average force in Newtons that the engine will produce.
The second (and last) number is the number of seconds delay between the end of the engine burn and when it ignites the ejection charge. This charge is what deploys the parachute that makes your rocket come back to Earth gently, rather than as rocket powered lawn dart. The ignition charge is also used to ignite booster engines in larger and more fancily designed rockets. Usually such initial launch engines have a last number of 0 since you want the booster charge to go right after the initial rocket engine is used up.
Actually Launching your Rocket
So you are ready to launch! First you will need to open your package of rocket engines and insert one of them into the model rocket. Then you will need to use one of the igniters to actually fire the engine. This igniter will be held in place with a plug that should also come with the rocket engines.
Note the wires being splayed apart on the far right picture. You are going to hook the wires from the launch controller and YOU DO NOT WANT THESE POINTS TO TOUCH. If you have them touch they will short circuit and may prematurely launch the rocket, but more likely the short circuit will just mean the igniter won’t ignite.
Now once everything is set up you move back as far as as the launch controller wires will let you. Then insert the safety key into the controller’s lock (you did put batteries in it, yes?), and have yourself a nice countdown. 5,4,3,2,1 and press that button!
Your rocket should launch if you did everything properly. As you watch your rocket go skyward, you might notice there is a bit of a smell. That’s the black powder of the rocket. It smells a bit like rotten eggs. It is to be expected and can be a bit unpleasant if you are not used to it.
Now comes the fun part! Getting your rocket back! If all went well the parachute deployed properly and your rocket should float back to Earth. Otherwise you may need to get a new rocket. There will be some drift with the parachute even in light winds, so don’t expect the rocket to land right back on the pad. The more powerful rocket engine you used, the more you are going to have to chase your rocket.
There is a chance that your rocket will get tangled in tree or power line. If it is a power line, just let it be. Don’t go after it. Seriously. If it is in a tree, use your judgment as to whether it is worthwhile to go after it. Just remember a replacement rocket is $15-20, a busted noggin will be much more expensive.
So be safe and have fun! Also, consider that rocketry with some research can make a great school science project!
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