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Although a self-assembled model rocket couldn't transport John Glenn or other astronauts to the moon, a well-assembled model rocket can give you a sense of pride and accomplishment. You can watch it jet far into the clear blue sky, roaring and leaving a black billowy smoky trail.

Those that assemble model rockets either buy a starter's kit from a hobby store or fashion a rocket from scratch.

"The rockets themselves are usually made from cardboard and balsa wood," says Shelly Hattan of Texas. "The larger the engine you use, the more you will have to beef up your rocket."

The other essential parts of the rocket are the fins, the nose cone (to which a plastic parachute and shock chord are attached) and the motor. For safety reasons and quality control, however, engine assembly is best left to the experts -- the manufacturers.

There are two types of amateur rocketry: model and high power. The designation is based on motor sizes, says high-power rocketeer Hattan.

Model rockets can be flown anywhere without any type of certification. But high-power rocket launchers must obtain permission prior to launching from the Federal Aviation Administration.

This is to ensure that no planes fly near the launching site as these high-power rockets reach the far depths of the blue sky. Plus, to fly high-power engines, you must be at least 18 and certified at the correct level. That means you have to prove you can build a rocket and fly it. Higher levels require a written test.

Hattan says there is also a technical side to this hobby. "Most high-power rockets have altimeters onboard....An igniter is put inside the motor and is set off at a very safe distance from the rocket," says Hattan.

Rocketry also demonstrates the laws of our universe. "Rocketry is the best example of Newton's third law of motion that you can imagine," says Bob Fortune. "For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. We hear that a lot, but nothing really demonstrates that fact so cleanly or graphically as a rocket."

Assembly can take anywhere from 20 minutes to weeks, but averages around five hours (not including drying time). Then rocketeers launch their rockets, either alone or with a club. Fortune, for example, launched his model rocket from his backyard with his son.

The benefits of joining a club, however, cannot be understated, says Fortune. For example, for each rocket flight you make, says Fortune, you get to watch 20 other flights. That's a great way to learn from others' successes and mistakes.

"Flying alone one might see one or two of these [mistakes or successes] and not understand why they happened or how to avoid them in the future. Flying with a club provides instant feedback from the other flyers most times," explains Fortune.

After launching, the rocket comes back down to Earth and you reclaim it. You just need to replace the motor to re-launch and fix anything that went wrong.

Yves Lacombe estimates that there are about 500 people involved in model rocketry on a regular basis in Canada, and tens of thousands that dabble in the hobby. The U.S. probably has 10 times as many people involved, he says.

There are many clubs that gather for launches, including the Dallas Area Rocket Society, to which Hattan belongs.

People originally became involved in the hobby when rockets and space began making the news in the late 1960s and in the 1970s.

Lacombe says interest in model rocketry is declining. Kids today, he says, have other distractions, such as video games, and TV.

Getting Started

Model rocketry is a very affordable hobby. In the U.S., starter kits will run anywhere from $15 to $30. The motors are approximately $15 for a pack of three motors, says Hattan.

On the other hand, she says high-power rockets equal high dollars. For example, Hattan paid $192.50 for a M1000 motor casing and $241 for the solid fuel.

Model rocketry is safe, say the rocketeers. There are regulations that make the hobby safer than it used to be in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, rocketeers made their own engines, says Lacombe, and therefore worked with explosives.

"A lot of kids lost fingers, hands, and sometimes their lives when they were trying to make their own rocket motors," he says. "The hobby of rocketry appeared when a few companies decided to mass-produce motors safely, making it possible for us to enjoy the hobby without risking life and limb."

Many get hurt when trying to retrieve their rockets from high places, says Lacombe, such as rooftops and tree limbs. People should maintain a safe distance from a rocket during launching. That helps avoid injuries by giving people time to react if something goes wrong. The bottom line, says Lacombe, is to use common sense and follow the rules. Then you won't ever get a scratch.

In David Newill's case, model rocketry forced him to use geometry. "I therefore began to really like what math could do," says Newill.

"Calculating altitudes, speeds and design pressures to find out how high, how fast and if I could improve a design led me to an appointment at the Air Force Academy, then to pilot training, and into a career as an air force pilot. That was followed later by a career in jet engine design, manufacturing, and now marketing and business planning for Rolls-Royce."

As Newill has shown, there is much that can be made of this hobby, besides rockets.

Fortune agrees. "The people that become engrossed early on often do take jobs in the aerospace industry. It allows them to pursue their passion all the time."

Fortune says there are at least four universities around the U.S. with excellent rocket programs. R.J. Talley, a high school teacher, says, "Rocketry is frequently the gateway into engineering or aviation [careers]."

Model rocketry kits are designed for all ages and all levels of challenge, and can be purchased in almost every hobby shop and toy store. There are no special physical requirements.

On the other hand, high-power rocket engines cannot be purchased over the counter. They must be mail-ordered by rocketeers who are qualified to use them.

All model rocketeers agree that the best way to learn about the hobby is to go to a launch. You can find out where and when by consulting the associations listed below. If you are interested after seeing a launch, join a club, the experts say. "Listen to folks who have flown for a while. Learn from the mistakes of others," says Hattan.

"Training to become a model rocketeer is simply going through the steps to acquire the parts to build a model and fly it," says Fortune. He recommends people interested in model rocketry read books and use the Internet to get more information.


National Association of Rocketry

Tripoli Rocketry Association, Inc.


Handbook of Model Rocketry,
by  Harry Stine
The Art of Scale Model Rocketry,
by  Peter Alway


NAR Model Rocket Safety Code
The safety code all model rocketeers must follow

Rocketry Basics
Comprehensive Web site on rocketry

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