Before I jump into the riveting details of rail buttons, I’ll take a step back and explain what this is, and why it matters.
Every rocket has a “center of pressure” and a “center of gravity” (or center of mass). I won’t go into detail about these concepts here, but basically, the relationship between these two things is important for a rocket to remain stable in the air. When it’s moving at a fast speed, the fins help keep it going in a straight line (i.e., up) because of the way the air pushes on them. I’m oversimplifying these concepts, but this is the point:
When the rocket is sitting on the launch pad and first lifts off, it is not moving quickly enough to be stable. If you tried launching a rocket from a pad without any kind of support, there would be a pretty good chance that it would not ascend perfectly vertically. It’s entirely possible it would not ascend at all, as it might tip over and fly horizontally (perhaps into a crowd of spectators). This is not ideal for your rocket, or for the spectators.
The solution to this is to provide just enough support for the rocket to keep going vertically as soon as it launches and just begins to (quickly) gain speed. With small model rockets, a thin metal pole is all you need, just a couple of feet high. The rocket will have a small launch lug (basically like a plastic straw) attached to its side, which slides down over the metal pole, ensuring the rocket takes off using the pole as a guide.
For larger rockets, it’s the same concept but with slightly fancier hardware. Instead of a thin pole, the launch pad will have a much bigger rail standing vertically for support. And instead of a plastic straw glued to the rocket, it will have rail buttons, made from plastic and secured by drilling a hole in the rocket body and attaching with metal screws.
The concept is extremely simple, and installation is fairly simple as well. It just requires measuring where you want the two rail buttons to be located, marking the spots, and drilling to insert the hardware. In general, you want the rail buttons exactly halfway between two fins, with one very close to the bottom (aft) end of the rocket, and another some distance up the side.
Often one or both is drilled and screwed directly into a centering ring. Whether that’s possible or not on your particular rocket, it also helps to add a small amount of epoxy just to make sure it’s secured in place. Here, you can see where I attached the rail buttons on this fiberglass rocket.
And that’s it! Rail buttons installed, and the rocket can be flown from a standard launch rail.
The next step will require slightly more work: attaching the fins, which are of critical importance in achieving that fashionable “rocket” appearance.