First launch

I live in the Seattle area. The Pacific Northwest is beautiful, with water and mountains and pine trees in every direction. This is great for scenic views, but it’s terrible for launching rockets. It’s more difficult than I anticipated to find an open, clear area that isn’t full of people and isn’t right next to some 150 foot tall pine trees.

I did eventually find a spot, though, and I brought out both of my model rockets for a first launch. I took a few pictures, but there’s more in a video on the way.

Crossfire rocket on launch pad
Crossfire rocket: ready to launch
Rocket on launch pad with trees in background
Ominous trees in the distance

First impression: overall, it was very cool. I only did a couple of launches, but I learned a lot in a very short span of time, even after just a single launch. It’s one thing to read about launching even a very small model rocket, but it’s another when you actually press that red launch button. Smoke and fire bursts out from the bottom, and the rocket shoots almost instantaneously into the sky. The single biggest surprise for me was just how quickly it accelerates and takes off from the launch pad. In retrospect, I don’t know why I thought it would have happened any other way, but I didn’t anticipate the extreme acceleration.

I also didn’t realize that once the rocket reaches its peak height (approximately) and starts to fall back down, and the parachute deploys, even a slight wind can carry it very far horizontally. Very, very far… more to come on that!

Assembly: Amazon rocket

The second rocket that came in the kit is the Amazon. It’s about twice as big as the first rocket, roughly 30 inches and entirely black except for the decals. Having some bright colors or decals can help spot the rocket so you don’t completely lose track of it after launch.

Amazon black rocket pre-assembly
Amazon rocket pre-assembly
Amazon rocket post-assembly
Amazon rocket post-assembly
Amazon vs. crossfire size
Amazon vs. crossfire

Thoughts on assembly of the Amazon: Honestly, it was even more straightforward than the smaller Crossfire, so simple that there weren’t really any steps to document in photos. The fins are plastic and don’t require any sanding or painting like the balsa wood fins of the smaller Crossfire; these black plastic fins just slide into slots and require a bit of glue (plastic cement). The body tube and nose cone are also black plastic and simply fit together, again with some minimal adhesive to secure everything. The only non-visible part in the finished product is, as before, the parachute and shock cord, which are glued and fit inside the body tube.

For a size comparison, I included a photo of both rockets together. As I mentioned previously, the smaller Crossfire can actually go about twice as high as the larger Amazon. This was a bit counterintuitive to me at first – I assumed the larger rocket would be more powerful and go higher. But larger rockets weigh more, which is a big disadvantage – you need a larger, more powerful motor just to achieve the same maximum height as with a smaller rocket. Both of these rockets can be launched with class A, B, or C motors. Same motor in a heavier/larger rocket means it won’t go as high. This might be a good time for a quick detour to provide an overview of motor sizes, since this is pretty important to all my future rocket-related endeavors.

Class A, B, and C are some of the smallest motors; the only smaller are basically the 1/2 A or the 1/4 A. Each letter that you go up represents an approximate doubling from the preceding letter in total impulse, which is measured in newton-seconds (N-s). So the average total impulse of a class A motor is between 1.26 and 2.50 N-s; a class B motor has approximately twice the total impulse at 2.51-5.00 N-s, and a class C has twice the B at 5.01-10.0 N-s. Since they increase in total impulse exponentially, it doesn’t take long before the rocket motors start getting extremely powerful. A lot of beginner small model rocket kits (like the ones I’m using) can launch with class A, B, or C motors. Larger model rockets can use class D or E (though E and below are still considered low power motors), and the largest that are still considered “model” rockets use class F or G. The latter are considered mid-power.

Once you cross that threshold into class H or I, you’re dealing with high-powered rocketry, and this requires certification from the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) or Tripoli. Anyone can buy the smaller motors up through class G, but sales of class H and larger motors are actually restricted to individuals who have a certification from the NAR. Level 1 certification is required to purchase and fly class H or I motors; level 2 certification is required for class J, K, or L motors; and level 3 is required for class M, N, or O motors. There are motor classes beyond O, but these require FAA permits and meeting a variety of legal and regulatory requirements.

I’ll work my way up eventually. But back to the smaller model rockets for now: in my next post, I’ll document the first launch!

Assembly: Crossfire rocket

So I gathered all the right tools and supplies, and I started putting the model rocket together. Below are a few pictures from the assembly process.

Motor mount
Engine/ motor mount
Body tube and fins: before assembly
Body tube and fins: before assembly
Body tube and fins: after assembly
Body tube and fins: after assembly
Finished and painted rocket
Finished and painted: ready for flight

My initial thoughts: it took a few hours, but it wasn’t difficult. I expected it to be more complicated but the kit made everything very simple and straightforward. There aren’t that many parts; you can see everything in the final picture above, except for the recovery system (a small parachute and shock cord attaching it to the rocket) which is inside the body tube or airframe. The end result looks pretty cool and I’m looking forward to flying it! But I also have the Amazon rocket, which is twice as big, and my next post will cover the assembly of that.

Beginning assembly

In this post, I’ll cover the unboxing and getting the right tools for assembly.

The kit basically contains all the parts needed to build a model rocket (minus the engine), a launch pad and launch controller (the red parts below).

Unassembled rocket kit and launch pad

The bottom half of the picture are mostly the rocket parts. In general, all rockets have the following parts:

  1. Body tube/ airframe. A hollow, lightweight plastic or paper tube, which is the main structural part of the rocket.
  2. Nose cone. A hollow plastic or wooden cone that fits on the front of the rocket body.
  3. Rocket motor. A small, one-time use only (non-reusable) motor, which looks kind of like a roll of quarters and is packed with solid propellant.
  4. Launch lug. A small tube, like a straw, attached to the outside of the body tube. It slips over the launch rod on the launch pad to hold the rocket upright before launch.
  5. Recovery device. A thin plastic parachute or streamer, which is packed inside the body tube and deployed only once the rocket hits maximum height.
  6. Recovery wadding. Similar to thin tissue paper but fireproof, wadding is crumpled inside the body tube to protect the recovery device from the motor.
  7. Electric igniter. Starts the rocket motor.

I also bought a few supplies, for assembling this and other rockets in the future.

Supplies: sandpaper, glue, hobby knife and spray paint

The main supplies here are wood glue and plastic cement/ epoxy; a modeling or hobby knife; some sandpaper for shaping and smoothing wooden parts; and a few cans of spray paint, as well as primer.

In my next post, I’ll walk through the assembly of my first model rocket!

Getting up to speed

So I bought my first kit and started putting together my first rocket. It’s from Estes, which seems like a logical place to start – Estes Industries is the most popular manufacturer of model rocket kits and engines. It was the first company to mass produce model rocket engines, and it’s been around since about 1960. Many of the best selling model rocket kits sold today are from Estes. (I’m learning as I go.)

This particular kit has two small rockets: the Crossfire ISX, which is about 15 inches tall and can go up to 1,150 feet into the air, and the E2X Amazon, which is more than twice as big at about 3 feet tall, and can go approximately 600 feet. The kit also has a reusable launch pad and launch controller (more on this later). I started assembling the Crossfire first. It seems fairly straightforward and shouldn’t take long to complete. Here’s the kit, along with some rocket motors and recovery wadding.

Rocket kit with engines and wadding

In the meantime, I’ve also been reading up on model rockets. I feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount recently, which is easy when you begin knowing nothing. As a starting point, here’s a basic list of what you need for each launch:

  1. The model rocket (seems obvious)
  2. The rocket motor
  3. Electric igniter for each motor
  4. Recovery wadding (similar to tissue paper, but fireproof, and stuffed inside the rocket)
  5. Launch pad (and launch rod, to hold and aim the rocket vertically), and
  6. Electric launch controller, including a safety key and batteries

This is more or less everything needed (at a minimum) for a successful launch. Most of this stuff comes in the kit, and the rest can be bought separately. These kits have been around for decades now and they make everything pretty simple for beginners like me – at least for these smaller model rockets – so I think I’m off to a good start. I mean, it’s for ages 10 and up, so what could go wrong?

[to be followed by another post where something has gone catastrophically wrong]

The Journey Begins

“Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light.” – Tom Stoppard, playwright and screenwriter

I figured I should start this blog with an inspirational rocket-themed quote, something a bit poetic. Although it’s probably more literal than poetic. In fact, I’m pretty sure I see some fallen and irretrievably damaged rockets in my future.

I haven’t figured any of this out yet, but I’m going to dive right in anyway and get started. I’ve never even flown a small model rocket. I’ll start small, but eventually my goal is to build and launch a larger, high-powered rocket. For now, my first steps involve buying a few small model rockets for some practice, along with the other necessary parts (like motors). I’ll post pictures and updates as I unbox everything and assemble it.

Stay tuned. And thanks for joining me in this unlikely and improbable venture!