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!

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