Rocket Boy

By Rich Lynch: I saw on the mid-day news today that on this very evening (May 11th) there will be a rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility that could be briefly observable from where I live.  To say the least I’m skeptical.  Wallops Island is a bit more than 100 miles southwest of here as the crow flies. so it seems doubtful to me that whatever there is to see will get high enough off the horizon where it will be visible at all.

The launch isn’t going to be much by Cape Canaveral standards – it’s only a relatively small sub?orbital ‘sounding rocket’ whose onboard experiment, according to NASA, will “study a very fundamental problem in space plasmas, namely, how are energy and momentum transported between different regions of space that are magnetically connected”.  What makes it a noteworthy news event is that as part of the experiment, the rocket will release barium vapor which will form two green-violet clouds that, again according to NASA, “may be visible for about 30 seconds”.  We shall see.  Maybe.

If it does turn out that there’s something to see this evening, it’ll be the first time in 55 years that I’ve in?person witnessed the launch of a rocket.  The previous time was in the summer of 1966, and I’d been the one doing the launching.  A couple of years prior to that, I had discovered (probably from an ad in a comic book) that the Estes Company of Penrose, Colorado was selling model rocket kits and components.  I remember that I’d become supercharged by that revelation, so much so that I had scoured the neighborhood for odd job opportunities that in the end provided me enough money to send in an order.

The very first rocket that I built and launched was pretty puny, even by Estes standards.  It was at most 7-inches tall but nevertheless I had used one of one of the most powerful single-use rocket engines that Estes sold.  In hindsight, the results were predictable – the thing took off when a loud and impressive *whoosh*, and after that…where the heck did it go??  The engine cut off after just a few seconds, but by then Sky Bird 1, as I’d named it, was moving so fast and had ascended so high that I lost sight of it.  There was a small parachute that was supposed to deploy, but if it did I never noticed.  It was gone, probably coming down somewhere way back into the wilderness of undeveloped land behind my parents’ house, and I never did find it.

Even though it hadn’t exactly been an auspicious start, the thrill of witnessing that fast and impressive take-off was enough to make me want to try again.  So a few weeks later, after the next package from Estes had arrived in the mail, it was time for Sky Bird 2 to make its maiden voyage.  I had stayed up all night building and painting it, and more had gone into it than just the materials of construction.  I’d learned a lot from that unfortunate first attempt, starting with the lesson that it was probably a good idea to use a MUCH less powerful engine until I really knew what I was doing.  So I used the least-powerful one that Estes offered, and as a result the rocket might have made it up as high as a couple hundred feet in altitude.  But the parachute deployed exactly as planned and Sky Bird 2 floated gently and safely down to the ground.  Success!

There were more Sky Birds after that, each one more and more ambitiously designed in terms of size and shape, and it eventually got to the point where I stopped naming them.  By the late summer of 1966, I knew that my days as a Rocket Boy were coming to an end because my parents were selling the house and we were moving into a rental home down by the bay for my Senior year in high school.  It was kind of a signal that it was time to move on.  For my very last launch I had built a two-stage rocket – not so impressive in size and fairly conventional in terms of its shape, but it was still something I’d never tried before.  And I had an observer!  My mother’s oldest brother was visiting her that day and, from what I saw, his enthusiasm was even greater than mine – he volunteered to be my recovery crew and even gave me a countdown for the launch.

The model took off and rose straight up for maybe 100 feet or so before the second stage kicked in, but then there was trouble.  Instead of continuing its upward flight, the thing veered to the right and zoomed away horizontally, slightly descending all the while.  It went directly over a house across the street and continued on, neatly bisecting the span between two tall trees behind the house.  And then it was gone from sight.  I remember that my uncle gave me a quizzical look and asked, “Was it supposed to do that?”

I don’t know what happened to my model rockets and their paraphernalia after we moved.  They didn’t come with me, so I can only surmise they were given to a community yard sale.  Some of them probably weren’t in very good shape so I don’t doubt that they’d just been gotten rid of.  After that, my interest in rocketry was limited to what I saw on television, as the Space Race was capturing everyone’s imagination back then.  And since then I’ve never, ever, been in the right place at the right time to personally witness another launch.

And you know what?  Doesn’t look like it’s going to happen tonight, either – the clouds have been moving in all afternoon and the sky is now completely overcast.  But, really, that’s okay.  If I ever do get to see a big rocket leap into the sky, I want it to be much more up close and personal than from 100 miles away.  Until then I’ll be content to think back about my time, so long ago, as a Rocket Boy.  They’re good memories.

2 thoughts on “Rocket Boy

  1. In the old days–mid ’70s–when I was a forecaster at Cape Canaveral, I could arrange for visitors to launch weather rockets from a pad at the tip of the Cape. These rockets were launched three times a week (more often before major launches) and consisted of a solid-fuel motor about 6 ft long and 4 inches in diameter, surmounted by a dart about 3 ft long and an inch and a half in diameter, containing a temperature sensor–a radiosonde–attached to a parachute , by which it was tracked. The person launching the rocket sat in a block-cottage (not big enough to be called a blockhouse) a perhaps 200 ft from the launch pad, and got a real countdown, (“Five-four-three-two-one-zero”), and a real switch to throw. The rocket would take off with a whoosh! and burn for about 5 seconds, by which time it was 5000+ ft up, going very fast. The dart would come off the nose of the rocket and continue up to 100,000 to 200,000 ft–20 to 40 miles–at which time the dart would come apart and the radiosonde would come down under the parachute. As the radiosonde descended, its signals would be tracked by radio direction finding, so that the altitude, wind, and upper-air temperature could be calculated, The rocket motor, the parts of the dart, and the instrument and parachute would end up in the ocean off the Cape–though I know of at least one case where the motor casing fell on land a few hundred yards from the block-cottage. The data from the radiosonde would be encoded and put on weather teletype; and a copy of the data and messages would be given to the person who launched the rocket for his or her edification and amusement, along with an “I Launched a Rocket from the Cape” certificate . Folks I got to launch a weather rocket include Gordy Dickson, Pete Weston, Bob Tucker, and Carl Sagan, among others. (I tried to arrange a launch for Arthur C Clarke before one major launch, but his schedule didn’t allow him to.) You’d think Big Name Pros like Gordy, who had been sending spaceships across the galaxy for decades, would be blasé about launching a mere weather rocket from the Cape, but no…they LOVED it! Gordy’s grin when he flipped the switch went all the way to the back of his neck. They–NASA, ultimately–still launch rocketsondes at the Cape, but as far as I know, they no longer let “civilians” launch them. Pity.

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