October 20, 2003

Model Rocket Q & A for Beginners

Several years ago I put together a web site devoted strictly to model rocketry. One of the most popular pages was an introduction set up in question and answer format. Looking back on it, I can see that we've come a long way since those early days. I've copied that page into the extended entry, and added links where I could.

Q: Why do you think rockets are such a great thing to do with your kids?
If I sit down to play video games with the kids, or we watch sports together, or read in the same room, we might be spending time together, but it's not necessarily 'together' time. Model Rocketry is more interactive for us, there is a give and take, and an exchange of ideas. It's not just spending time together, it's spending time with each other.
My kids have picked up some very good habits from rocketry; setting goals, planning, following directions, working together, teamwork, and keeping records.
They've also felt satisfaction. Imagine the look on 9 year old Rachaels' face as her U.S.A., designed, built, and launched all on her own, roared off the pad for a perfect flight. As it drifted down on its pink streamers, everyone was cheering and congratulating her. I don't know who was more proud at that moment, her or me.
And they've learned how to deal with the minor tragedies of life. The lost rockets, and the ones dinged when the parachute didn't deploy (because Dad forgot the baby powder).
Flying rockets teaches about science too. You'll see practical demonstrations of aerodynamics, physics, chemistry, and more. The kids become engineers, meteorologists, photographers, and journalists, without any pain, and possibly without even realizing it.
One thing we've discovered about rocketry is that the only way to get bored with it is to quit dreaming. We've yet to launch anything bigger than a 'C' motor, but that's ok. We've still got clustered rockets to try, and staged rockets, and 'gap' staging. We haven't done near enough glider or helicopter recovery. How about night launches, how can we make these smaller rockets visible in the dark?
My kids have a million ideas, to go along with my one or two.
I probably should also mention that model rockets are fun.

Q: Isn't model rocketry like launching fireworks?
There are some basic differences between rocketry and fireworks.
To start with, model rockets are never launched by lighting a fuse. The ignition is electrical, with the power supplied by batteries. This lets you stand back a ways from the rocket when it is launched. Much safer.
A second difference is that model rockets are designed to be recovered. This means that you can reuse a rocket over and over. There are various ways of recovering a rocket, such as parachutes, streamers, gliding, and more (there's more about recovery later).
Another difference is the use of a launch rod. This is simply a guide for the rocket to follow for it's first few feet of flight, keeping it straight up until it's going fast enough to be stable on its own. Once again, it's a safety thing.

Q: Is this really safe enough for kids?
Model rocketry is an amazingly safe hobby, provided you follow the Safety Code. When you read it over, you'll find most of it is just common sense. Over the years, there have been literally millions of rocket engines fired safely.
As for kids doing rockets, if you insist on following the safety code, and have adult supervision, it's almost impossible to get hurt. Explain that each and every one of them is responsible for safety when launching rockets.
I have normal kids, they get into their share of mischief. But when we launch, they know what is expected of them, because it's been that way since day one. A brief example that really happened:

My youngest, Rachael, was doing the countdown. When she got to '3', her brother TJ yelled 'STOP' from where he was standing (about 100 feet away). Rachael immediately pulled the safety key and put the launch controller down. Then we saw a mom chasing a toddler, who was running full steam towards the rocket.
After mom corraled her child (he never even got within 20' of the rocket), we made sure the area was clear again, and started the countdown over. It was a perfect launch.

Some rules we use:

The countdown is LOUD.
ANYONE can stop a countdown at any time, for any reason.
When someone yells 'stop', that's it. No exceptions.
The only time the safety key is in the launch controller is during a countdown.
We don't resume a countdown from where it stopped. We start over.
Before a countdown starts, everyone has to give an 'OK', meaning they're in position, ready, and the area is clear.

We have never had anyone hurt, or been even remotely close to having an accident. It's not luck, it's designed to be that way. And by the way, that mom and child stayed and watched us for about an hour that day, and still stop by occasionally when we are launching a few.

Q: What's the easiest way to get started?
I'd suggest an Estes Starter Set. They start around $15.00 [~$20.00 in 2003], and you can get them at stores like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Toys-R-Us, hobby shops, and even some craft stores like Michaels or MJDesigns. The starter set includes almost everything you need, except batteries and glue. There are even some 'Ready To Fly' starter sets out now, where the rocket is pre-built for you. Other sets have a variety of rockets (1 or 2) that you have to build yourself. Rockets like the Alpha 3 and Sabre goes together quick and easy. Other sets have 1 simple rocket, plus another that takes a bit more skill to assemble. Another company, Quest, also makes starter sets, but I've never seen one. I hear they're pretty much the same.

Q: Launch controller, recovery wadding... What's all this stuff really do?
I'm going to assume that you are looking at a starter set, and I'll just run down the assembled parts.

* Launch pad - Usually has 3 or 4 legs, with a blast deflector and launch rod sticking up from it.
The launch pad holds the launch rod and blast deflector. The wide legs keep it from tipping over in a breeze, and you can adjust the pad to tip the rod a few degrees for launching into the wind. The launch rod is what guides the rocket until it's moving fast enough for the fins to keep it stable. In the starter sets, the launch rod is usually sectional, always use both pieces. The blast deflector keeps the engine exhaust from hitting the pad and ground. Safety again. There is also a rod cap included. Put it over the tip of the upright launch rod, and it helps prevent injuries where someone leans over the top of the rod while preparing a rocket for launch. Make sure you remove the rod cap just before the countdown, and replace it immediately after.

* Launch controller - This is where the batteries go, usually 4 AA size. It has a continuity light or buzzer that tells you when the rocket is set up properly for launch and the safety key is inserted. The safety key must be inserted before pushing the 'fire' button has any effect. In other words, keep the safety key with you when you work around the rocket, and no one can accidently launch it when someone could get hurt. Coming out of the launch controller is a long wire (about 15 feet) that ends in two small microclips. These clips connect to the ignitor, explained below. When you launch, the length of the wire makes it easy to stand back at a safe distance.

* Rocket - A simple rocket is 3 or 4 fins and a nose cone. These are connected to each other by the body tube. On the side of the body tube is the launch lug, a small tube or loop which is slipped over the launch rod prior to igniting the engine. Connecting the nosecone to the body tube is the shock cord. This keeps the pieces of the rocket together as it comes down. Inside the rocket is the recovery system, often a parachute (there is a whole section on recovery later on). The recovery wadding protects the parachute from the ejection charge, which is what deploys the recovery system. Finally, at the bottom of the rocket is the motor mount. This is the place where the engine goes, and it transfers the thrust of the engine to the rocket itself.

* Engine - The 'whoosh generator', also called a motor. This small cardboard cylinder is actually quite complex in design and function. That doesn't mean it's complicated to use. First turn the engine upright so the small hole is facing up. That's the nozzle, the business end of the engine. The ignitor is a small U or V shaped piece of wire. Drop the point of the ignitor into the nozzle, and gently make sure it goes in as deep as possible. There will be two wires sticking out of the nozzle quite a bit. Next take an ignitor plug (color coded, check the directions in the set), and gently push it into the nozzle. This holds the ignitor where it needs to be to fire the engine. Insert the engine into the rocket motor mount and you're almost ready to go!
When ready to launch, connect the controller clips to the ignitor. After everyone is away from the rocket, insert the safety key, and the light should light (or buzzer buzz, depending on your controller). This means that the rocket will be launched when you push the button.

Q: What do the motor numbers and letters mean?
This is an easy code to provide complex information. Here's the bare minimum needed to start with.

A sample engine code might be: B6-4

The 'power' range of an engine is indicated by the letter, in this case a 'B'. The codes start with 'A' and keep right on going up the alphabet. So B is twice as powerful as A, C is twice as powerful as B (and 4 times more powerful than A), and so on. This is overly simplified, but you'll absorb the details as you gain experience.
Bigger engines (higher letters) achieve higher altitudes, or lift heavier rockets.

The '6' is the average thrust of the engine. It's measured in 'newtons', but don't worry about it for now. Just keep in mind that a '6' has a higher average thrust than a '4'.

The '-4' is the delay, measured in seconds. This means that 4 seconds (more or less) after the propellant burnout, the ejection charge fires. That deploys your recovery system.

There are '-0' engines. These are booster engines designed for multi-staged rockets. As soon as burnout occurs, the ejection charge fires to ignite the next engine. Don't use these on a single stage rocket. '-P' engines are plugged, and have no ejection charge. They're made for gliders.
Some Estes engines have a 'T' listed after the delay time. This means it's a mini-motor, and has a smaller diameter casing.

Q: Where can I launch a rocket?
We launch at the local middle school (Jr. high) field. This is a football field, a baseball diamond, and 2 soccer fields, all bent around an L shape. The bigger the field, the better your chances of recovering the rocket. We've had a few rockets drift away on the wind into, or over the trees. Be aware that it can be calm on the ground, and fairly windy a couple hundred feet up! Because of the L-shape of our regular launch field, we limit ourselves to A and B engines on most rockets. We've got a few heavier birds that fly normally on C's, and on one spectacularly calm day, we launched our little rockets on C's. Straight up well over 1000', and recovered on a parachute less than 30 yards away. For more information, read about rocket clubs below.

Q: How do the recovery systems work?
You spend time to get your rocket looking good, and to fly well. You hate to lose them! Recovery is one thing that keeps this hobby from being glorified fireworks (I'm not knocking fireworks hobbyists). There are many ways to recover a rocket. Here's the most common:

Featherweight - for the lightest rockets. The have such a high surface area compared to weight that they 'float' to the ground, like the name says.

Tumble - for very light rockets that are too stable for featherweight recovery. Usually the nose cone is ejected (it's all connected by the shock cord, remember), and the whole thing comes down. If something wasn't done to ruin the stability, it might come down like a dart. At best, hitting the ground like that could damage or destroy the rocket. At worst, it could hit and hurt someone. There are terms for rockets that accidently come down hard, they're called Prangs or Lawn-Darts. No fun, and very hard on the rocket.

Streamer - this is a long, thin piece of plastic or crepe paper. It creates enough drag to bring the rocket down gently. These are good for days when the wind causes too much drift in a parachute.

Parachute - these range in size from 8" up to 24" for model rockets. To minimize drift, you can cut a spill hole in the center of the canopy. This will help the rocket come down faster, but it hits harder when it reaches the ground. If you cut a spill hole, cut it large because too small a hole can actually increase the lift the parachute generates as it descends. Estes parachutes have a spill hole marked with dotted lines, just cut it out if needed. Another technique to minimize time in the air is to 'reef' the shroud lines. Take a piece of masking tape and wrap it around all the parachute lines about halfway between the rocket and the canopy. This prevents the chute from opening fully.

Glider - It goes up like a rocket, and comes down like a glider airplane. Really cool.

Helicopter - Ever see a maple seed fall? Spinning on one wing is one method of helicopter recovery. Another is to have rotors deploy at ejection, causing the whole rocket to rotate.

Q: What about rocket clubs?
The National Association of Rocketry (NAR) is America's model rocket organization. Their site can be reached from my links page, and from there you can find a local chapter near you. Flying with a club is a great way to learn from others' experience. The NAR also offers insurance for rocketry activities. Sometimes the deciding factor on whether you can fly in some areas (a public park, for instance) is whether or not you have this insurance. On top of that, you receive the NAR rocketry magazine, full of useful tips, plans, and articles. NAR also offers it's Technical Services division, called NARTS. This is where you can get anything from rocket designs to wind tunnel plans to baseball caps. Check out their site, it's worth it!
Another organization devoted strictly to high power rocketry (HPR) is the Tripoli Rocket Association (TRA). Since this is Q&A for beginners, I'll mention that they're there, and not go into HPR. You can find a link to TRA from Rocketry Online.
A new organization is just starting out, the Independent Association of Rocketry (IAR). They are very new, and not yet completely organized. They're worth checking into. [years later, I take this back. they've gone nowhere.]

Q: Can you recommend a book or something to learn more?
Some very good books:

The Handbook of Model Rocketry by G. Harry Stine.
Model Rocket Design and Construction by Tim Van Milligan.
The Art of Scale Rocketry by Peter Alway. [out of print]

At least the first two can be found in your local library, NARTS also offers these books and more for sale. See my links page for Saturn Press, they have the entire collection of Peter Always' rocket books. There's also a link to Apogee Components, where you can find Tim Van Milligan's books. Apogee has a complete line of educational rocketry publications, including 69 Science Fair Projects with Model Rockets: Aeronautics.
The Rocketry Online webpage has all kinds of links to good sites on the web related to rocketry. See my links page for a link to them.
The Rec.Models.Rockets (RMR) newsgroup is a vast source of experience. I've always found the folks there to be willing to answer questions without talking down at you. A great group of people.
The RMR FAQ (frequently asked questions) file will answer many questions you may have. I keep a copy of this handy by my workbench, because it's that useful.

Q: Couldn't I save money by making my own rocket engines?
No. When you factor in the cost of the chemicals, equipment you'd need, and materials, the store bought motors are actually a pretty good deal. Also consider that a home-made motor is more likely to malfunction, which could destroy your rocket or, worse yet, hurt someone. The commercial motors are reliable and consistant performers, and you'd have to make literally hundreds of motors yourself to even come close to that kind of reliability.
Now let's talk about safety. It's dangerous to deal with some of these chemicals unless you know what you are doing. Even among experienced rocketeers, there is a surprising amount of 'lore' and common knowledge that is just plain wrong. It's not safe to try to make your own motors, please don't do it.
If you absolutely have to make homemade motors, check out the RMR FAQ (links page) where there is information about a course in making rocket motors. The Rec.Pyrotechnics newsgroup has folks that can help too.
Simply put, Model Rocketry means using commercially available motors. To save money on these, you can mail order them (or order from companies on the internet), or buy them in bulk packs at your local store.

Q: I remember these cool rockets I saw as a kid. Are the old companies still around?
Estes is still with us. They absorbed Centuri a while back, and once in a while release an old Centuri design. There are many small companies producing quality rocket kits today, check the Rocketry Online website for links.

Q: I can't believe that white glue is strong enough for rockets. Shouldn't I use model glue or epoxy?
For gluing plastic to plastic, model airplane glue is best. There are some times and places where epoxy is handy. But for Estes kits, white or yellow glue is king (yellow is superior). A bond you make between the cardboard body and the balsa or cardstock fin will be so strong that the tube itself will tear before the glue joint breaks. Two secrets to getting even stronger joints; lightly sand the body tube to remove the glasine coating (the glossy stuff), and use the double glue method. The way to double glue is to apply a small amount to the pieces to be joined and press them together. Pull them back apart, and let the glue dry for a few minutes. Apply a little more glue, then join like normal. This technique results in super strong bonds that will easily handle A-D engines. I've heard of rockets built with just yellow glue that fly on G motors. [I've flown H motors this way.]

Q: It goes up, it comes down. What's next?
If you look at rocketry webpages out there, you will find a hundred people experiencing rocketry in a hundred ways. I mentioned in passing cluster rockets, staging, scratchbuilding, high power rocketry, scale modeling, gliders, and more. I didn't mention payloads, or contests, or arial photography, or altitude records, or... The list just goes on and on, and you can decide what suits you best.

Do it safely, and have fun!

Posted by Ted at October 20, 2003 05:18 AM
Category: Rocketry Rocketry Resources

Great Q&A. I advise the Space Exploration Merit Badge for our Boy Scout troop and it is indeed a wee bit more fun than playing video games. As it turns out we've never had a game system in our house, nor have we ever had cable. Every time the subject comes up, we return to the question "What are we doing now that we want to give up so we have more time to sit in front of the TV?" No one can put much on their list, so we muddle through without 'em.

Chris, father of two teenage boys

Posted by: chris hall at October 20, 2003 09:44 AM

I'm trying to get started in model rocketry and i found your Q&A awesome. I was just wondering how many amps is recessary to light an ignitor (would you know why the voltage matters to light an igniter, i thought it was just the amout of current(amps) not volts). I searched all over the web by i was unable to find info on how to wire a cluster rocket. I would really appriciate it if you could email me at matteusz@gmail.com or post some info on your site. Thanks

Posted by: Matt at April 8, 2005 06:33 PM

My boys and I participated in our first launch with our Cub Scout Pack this past weekend (June 12, 2005). It was a fantastic experience. We almost missed the launch because we didn't get started on the kits until too late. I ran out the morning of the launch to grab some supplies and I came across Estes Launchable rocket packs at a local K-Mart. They were assembly-only rockets (no sanding or painting), and I assembled them with the help of my my boys in about an hour apiece. The cost was very reasonable--under $9--and one of the kits included two rockets that are around 15"-16" tall. I even found a ready to fly kit with a much larger rocket, launch pad, and electronic ignitor for $18. After adding a few packs of engines, I was out less than $50 for a full day of fun with three of my sons. We launched our four rockets repeatedly, and only lost a nose cone. It was a great first experience. This is something everyone should try. Between now and our next flight, I am rigging the rockets to hang in the boys' rooms using fishing line. They love those rockets!

Posted by: Andrew James Riemer at June 14, 2005 10:06 PM
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