Rocket launch: Athena

They say trees love to eat rockets. It’s true. I learned my lesson as soon as I got into the rocket-launching game, with my first two models – the Crossfire and the Amazon. I figured the rockets were very small, and they couldn’t possibly go that high or land far away. Boy, was I wrong.

What I wasn’t counting on during that first launch was the wind, and the intensity with which that wind would catch a successfully deployed parachute. And carry it very far away, very quickly.

Mother Nature is a cruel mistress.

Anyway, that just meant finding a bigger field for my next launch. Luckily, I’d heard about a place called 60 Acres Park in Redmond, WA, roughly a 30 minute drive from where I live. I decided to check it out last weekend, and it was the perfect spot to launch a rocket. It was also the perfect weather – a beautiful sunny, crisp, clear day. And it was extremely calm, with no winds, which was ideal.

60 Acres Field
60 Acres Field

The field was totally empty except for one or two others flying small drones at the opposite end of the field. For a brief moment, I wondered whether they might hover their drones directly over my rocket, to call my bluff in a battle of wills. But they moved on.

The field was huge, leaving me plenty of margin for error. Given my experience last time, I needed as much room for error as I could get. More than a room; a whole duplex.

I did a couple successful launches with the very small “Athena,” and then a couple with the much larger “Mean Machine.” Below I’ll just mention the smaller rocket and then follow up shortly with another post for the bigger one.

Small rocket, large rocket
Small rocket, large rocket

After every launch, the parachute inside the Athena popped out but never fully deployed or opened up. This was a consistent problem, although not a big one. The rocket is so small and lightweight that it can fall back to the ground without sustaining any damage.

Athena (small rocket) on the launch pad
Athena on the launch pad

The only time I was in danger of losing it was when it veered slightly toward the sun, and I totally lost sight of where it was as I was momentarily blinded by the light. It’s surprisingly easy to lose these things. But I revved up like a deuce and eventually recovered it.

More than anything else, I think the biggest thing I learned from this was how big of a difference a change in weather conditions and launch location can make. And these have all been relatively small rockets, so the difference will only be multiplied many times over once the rockets get more powerful.

Speaking of which, next up: the Mean Machine.

High power rocketry

This is where things get really fun.

I went into detail in a previous post about rocket motors and their power. In short, each letter (representing a motor class) is twice as powerful as the one before it, so a B motor is twice as powerful as an A, and a C is twice as powerful as a B, or four times as powerful as an A. The basic categories are:

Low power: A, B, C, D, E

Mid power: F, G

High power: H or higher

If you’re doing the math, an H motor is approximately 128 times as powerful as an A motor. These are averages, as performance among motors in the same class can vary according to a range, but it’s in that ballpark.

To purchase a high power rocket motor and fly these types of rockets, you have to be certified by the National Association of Rocketry (“NAR”). The NAR offers a three-tier certification program for high power rockets: level 1, level 2, and level 3. You can buy a single high power motor specifically for purposes of obtaining your certification.

To be certified at level 1 (L1), you need to basically build your own high power rocket and fly it successfully, with one or more other NAR members present (who are also certified) to witness the launch and recovery. If all goes well, they can then officially certify you. You have to be certified as an L1 before you can move on to attempt L2 certification, and so on.

So far, I’ve been building and launching small, low power rockets, and it’s been good practice. But my longer term goal is to build and launch high power rockets. I just ordered my first high power rocket kit. More on that in my next post.

Here goes nothing!

Assembly: Athena and the Mean Machine

I put together the two new rockets I bought – the Athena and the Mean Machine, both kits from Estes. The Athena is small (about 12 inches high) and uses A, B, or C motors; it should go about 1100 feet using a C motor. The Mean Machine is significantly larger and heavier. At 79 inches in height, it’s taller than I am.

I primarily bought the Athena just to have a small model rocket for fun, replacing the two that I built and promptly lost. I took a few pictures of it, but there wasn’t much to assemble. It’s as straightforward as a model rocket can be, with plastic fins and nose cone, and a cardboard tube body.

Athena - small rocket
Athena – small but mighty rocket

The Mean Machine wasn’t complicated to assemble, either, but it had a few more steps. Its body tube is extremely long, and it was designed to be able to come apart at the middle for easy transport. To reconnect the two halves, you just push them together and twist. The fins are balsa wood, and the whole rocket required painting. Below are a few pictures during the assembly.

Pre-assembly Mean Machine parts
Pre-assembly Mean Machine parts
During assembly - body tube, fins, motor mount and glue
During assembly – body tube, fins, motor mount, and glue
Spraying primer and paint
Spraying primer and paint
Paint completed
Paint completed

I’m definitely looking forward to flying both of these. As I mentioned above, the largest motor that the Athena can handle is a C. The Mean Machine, however, takes a D or E motor, and so I bought a few of each. It won’t reach quite the same maximum height as the smaller rocket because it weighs so much more – but it should look awesome and mildly terrifying when it blasts off!

Local rocketry club

It’s one thing to build and launch small, low-power model rockets a couple hundred feet into the air. It’s another to build and launch a massive high-power rocket with a much bigger motor. The high-power rocket takes more time, generally has more parts (including more room for optional cool gadgets), and is more complicated to build, even from a kit. I know that I can only go so far on my own, and I’d benefit significantly by joining some rocketry organizations, whether national or local. I can learn from fellow rocket enthusiasts (“rocketeers”) who have much more experience building and flying these things than I do.

With this in mind, I recently joined the National Association of Rocketry (“NAR”). This is a well known organization to anyone involved in rocketry, with thousands of members across the country. NAR has a model safety code that ensures launches are done in a way that minimizes all possible risks, and it also has liability insurance coverage for all members, just in case of any property damage. Side note: launching model rockets, or sport rocketry, is statistically extremely safe. Nobody has ever been killed, only a handful of insurance claims for property damage have ever been filed (and for relatively low amounts), and generally the only way something can go wrong is by deliberately misusing a rocket or ignoring the NAR safety code.

The NAR also has many local sections, spread across the country. I joined the Seattle section, which is called the Washington Aerospace Club (“WAC”). The club meets once a month, and I just attended my first meeting. It’s great to be part of a group of people who are so enthusiastic about rockets, even just as a hobby. In addition to meeting people and learning from their wealth of experience, one of the other benefits of joining a local club is that it regularly schedules group launches, and in particular, it secures a suitable location for high power rocket launches.

Panoramic view while hiking at Mt. Rainier
Hiking near Mt. Rainier

Securing a good launch spot is more difficult than it seems, no matter where you live. I’m in Washington state, which is stunningly beautiful – but also very mountainous and green, which is less than ideal for launches. (I took the above photo when recently hiking near Mt. Rainier.)

For high power rockets, you need a really big area for launch and recovery, hundreds or even potentially thousands of acres of land. The land needs to be flat, not too dry (or else it’s a fire hazard), not too wet and muddy, mostly clear of tall grasses and brush (otherwise it’s extremely difficult to find where a rocket has landed), and the location can’t be in a windy area (they build massive wind turbines out in many otherwise suitable areas precisely because of the high winds). In addition, clearance is needed from the FAA to launch above a certain height. The advantage of joining a club is that the club secures all of this and provides the launch site and dates.

Generally speaking, the good launch sites are not around Seattle or anywhere west of the mountains, where it’s wet and rainy and more heavily populated. Rather, the best launch and recovery sites – large, dry, flat, empty, open desert-like tracts of land – are on the eastern side of the mountains (see below picture as an example). It’s not quite as photogenic, but for our purposes, it’s much closer to what we need.

Flat, empty field in central Washington
Central Washington – a conspicuous absence of large pine trees

Our local club had a great location like this on the eastern side of the mountains. It had permission from the owners of the land to use it, but for various reasons, it’s no longer available. As a consequence, the club doesn’t have any place from which to conduct launches of high power rockets. I didn’t realize how big of an issue this was until attending this local club meeting. Of course, there were a lot of other discussions as well, about rocket construction techniques and what can go wrong (short answer: a lot). But I’m giving the issue some thought, and maybe I can do something to contribute and help the club secure a launch site.

More to come on this soon!