Title: Model Rockets

Date Occurred: Around 1973

Date Written: March 18, 2003

Written by: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) 2003 by Joel T. Kant


With Apollo rockets taking men to the moon repeatedly, I was a kid at the right time to be fascinated by model rockets. However, I was not that interested in them. Dad loved model rockets, though.

I think it was my friend Bill, my own age, who had a traditional model rocket that he got for his birthday or some other reason like that. It was made of a cardboard tube about five inches long. It used a single chemical rocket canister. The canister was about half an inch in diameter and about three inches long. It inserted into the base of the small rocket. The model amounted to little more than a nose, fins, and cardboard tube stuck onto the rocket canister.

Bill, many of our friends, and I went to the baseball field at the Biron Grade School. I think Bill used a fuse that one lit with a match. We ran back and waited. The rocket motor ignited. Belching flame and smoke, the tiny rocket shot up in the air in an instant. It went high. What it most reminded me of was fireworks during the Fourth of July, but without an explosion.

At the top of the trajectory, the model then had the nose cone pop off. I do not think it had a parachute, but just a rubber strap between the nose and the base. The rocket itself was so small and lightweight that once popped apart so no longer having the aerodynamics of a lawn dart, it would come down slowly enough to land without harm.

It was fun, but Bill only had four rocket canisters. After four launches, that was the end of the fun. He could do no more launches until he bought more. As I recall, those canisters were not cheap compared to other childhood expenses like squirt guns, candy, model cars, and the like. I decided based on what I had seen with Bill's rocket that model rocketry was outside of my budget.

A small model rocket

Figure 1: A small model rocket using only one canister

[Photograph by Joel T. Kant]

I did have one model rocket that I liked very much but it was not a chemical rocket. It was a semi-transparent red plastic rocket perhaps eight inches long. It was hollow inside. To use it, one filled it about one-thirds full of water. One then attached a small hand pump while the rocket was still inverted. The pump had a locking attachment. When locked, the rocket would then be flipped upright again without water pouring out.

One then pumped on the hand pump. This pressurized the air at the top of the rocket above the water. It took many pumps if you wanted the rocket to go high. Then, one pulled back the locking mechanism. With a blast of highly pressurized water that tended to spray the person doing the launching, the rocket surged into the air. It would go about twice as high as our two-story house in the Village of Biron. While it only went about a third the height of Bill's rocket, even Bill was impressed by what could be done with just water and air as propellants.

A water rocket

Figure 2: A water rocket with hand pump

[Photograph by Joel T. Kant]

For me, the best part of this toy rocket was the cost of using it was zero since it only took tap water. I was never going to run out of water like Bill had run out of rocket canisters.

Dad was fascinated by all the Apollo missions to the moon. Many had gone up there already by the time Dad decided to build his model rocket. In this, I mean his model that would fly. Prior to this, Dad had built an extremely detailed and realistic model of the Apollo rocket that would never fly and was never intended to. On that, the nose cone would come off. The lunar lander could be taken out and its legs unfolded. This model looked like something that would make an excellent museum exhibit. Dad tried using it to teach me, but I was a poor student back then.

When Dad was engrossed in building that non-flying model, I had pestered my Grandmother enough so that she bought me a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise, the spaceship from the Star Trek television show. This model was about twelve inches long. It was one of my favorite toys. I liked it even better than my various toy airplanes.

Repeatedly, Dad would try to get me interested in the Apollo rocket. I told him that chemical rockets like that were old fashioned. My science fiction books and the Star Trek television show said so. The future was for antimatter-powered engines that could make the ship go faster than light by bending the fabric of space.

Dad had little regard for fiction. He told me that one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind, flying to the moon, was going on. Yet, all I cared about was a make-believe television show filled with scientific nonsense.

While Dad remained fascinated by the moon missions, many others had grown bored of them by then. The first landing was unique and exciting. By the fifth or sixth landing, which was well after the excitement of the aborted landing of Apollo 13 that would have been the third landing faded, the moon missions seemed old hat. I felt that way too back then. I find myself much more interested in the moon missions now then I was back when they were still going on. The best excuse I can give for my lack of interest at the time is that I really was just a young boy. I was only nine when the last moon mission occurred.

As a kid, I ran a string across my bedroom up near the ceiling. I had the U.S.S. Enterprise spaceship and various toy airplanes hanging from it. The planes were realistic models, but the solitary spaceship was certainly not like any real spaceship.

Dad decided to build a model of the Apollo rocket that would fly. He spent much time and effort on this, with no input and little interest from me. It was almost as detailed as his non-flying model.

The flying model seemed huge to me. It was about three feet tall, so it really was big. While my buddy Bill had a rocket that took just one rocket canister, Dadís model needed about eight just for a single flight. That seemed such an extravagance to me.

After many weeks, Dad finished his model. Even the painting on the outside of it was accurate. Dad had used photographs of the real Apollo rocket as reference.

The non-flying model of the Apollo rocket came apart in many sections, just like the real Apollo rocket did. The flying model had only two sections. The bottom section was fat and squat. In the bottom, it contained the eight rocket canisters. On the other end was a folded parachute. The top section was really only for show or perhaps some aerodynamics. It contained no rocket motors, but only its own parachute. This was not like the real Apollo rocket that was really a stack of rockets on top of rockets. Only the base module really had rockets in this flying model.

Still, the flying model was large and gorgeous. I wondered if it would it really fly, because it seemed so large.

The many rocket canisters had to ignite at the same time. Rather than using a fuse, these rocket canisters would be ignited electrically.

The rocket stood on a large yellow plastic base. That base contained many lantern batteries. These batteries are about four inches by four inches by four inches. This is far larger than a typical D-cell in a flashlight.

Dad gathered the entire family together. We rode in his blue van out to a vacant lot. Dad actually owned this vacant lot in the town of Kellner at the time. Prior to moving to the Village of Biron, we had lived in a house in Kellner. Dad had sold that house, but kept some land next to it for some years. He eventually sold the land. I do not know the details of that. At any rate, the lot that he still owned back then seemed a good place to launch the rocket.

Mom, my siblings, and I stood watching as Dad set up his rocket. Dad got everything set up just right. He then came well back from the rocket. He had wires strung to the plastic base. He had a special switch in his hand. Announcing to us when he was ready, he pushed the switch.

Nothing happened.

He pushed it again. Still nothing.

He carefully went over all the wiring, the switch, and the batteries. He made many more attempts. The rocket canisters never ignited.

We climbed back in the van and went back home to Biron.

Some days later, Dad piled us all back in the van. Rather than going out to the vacant lot in Kellner, we went to Robinson Park in the city of Wisconsin Rapids. Dad parked the van in the blacktop-paved parking lot. I think Dad had some friends there watching this launch, but I am not sure.

We then went out to a field in the center of the park. Dad set up his rocket again. There was one very notable difference. Dad had an old car battery along this time to replace the lantern batteries! I suppose most people would not have a spare car battery lying around, but Dad did. Taking after him now, I have a spare one too. I have it to run the electric trolling motor on my canoe. For whatever reason, Dad did not have to buy the extra car battery because he already had it.

Once again, we stood and watched as Dad got ready with the switch. Dad counted down backwards, just like on television. At the end of the count, he pushed the switch. With the juice of that car battery, all the motors ignited this time.

Unlike Bill's little rocket that went up in an instant, this massive model did not take off quite that fast. However, once it got going, it really went. With all the flames and smoke pouring out, it felt like watching a real launch on television.

Even after the rocket engines stopped accelerating it, the model kept on going upward for a time. It went much higher than I had expected. As I squinted up at it, it came into two sections. This was just as it was designed to do.

What happened next was not by design. It seems the parachute folded into the lower section, which was the section with the rocket engines, was crammed in too tightly. The parachute on the lower section did not come out. The section was unlike Billís dainty lightweight rocket. Instead, this large lower section came down like a brick!

The flight had caused some movement horizontally. The lower section did not come down on top of us, but instead at the paved parking lot as though drawn there by a magnet. The speed of the impact against the unyielding pavement made it seem the rocket was made of brittle glass rather than plastic as it shattered into thousands of tiny pieces! I immediately knew the destruction was so complete that it could never be rebuilt.

Very fortunately, no parked cars were hit. I imagine it could be awkward to explain this to an insurance company if one had been.

I then looked back up at the other half of the rocket. The parachute had ballooned out. It dropped so slowly that it seemed to be hovering rather than falling. The winds at that altitude seemed considerably stronger then down on the ground where I was. The section drifted away quickly. It moved laterally more like a glider than an object on a parachute. The field where Dad had launched it had seemed so large before, but now it seemed small. The top section of the model sailed right on past the field and toward some trees. It snagged up near the top of an extremely tall tree. It was up where the branches are so thin that it would not hold the weight of a man or a child. It was so high that I could not even throw a rock high enough to hit it. That area of Wisconsin has some very tall trees.

Dad quickly concluded that he could not retrieve the top section. He swept up pieces of the broken section from the pavement. I think he used cardboard as a makeshift dustpan and had a small broom for the cleanup. The small broom was for sweeping out the van. He was not saving the pieces, but putting them in a trashcan. He was only cleaning up after himself. I am sure he would have got the top section out of the tree if he could have thought of a safe way to do that, just to dispose properly of it. Instead, the top section remained there.

At some later date, I was in the park and noticed the upper section was gone. It must have blown down eventually.

This was roughly the year after Apollo 17 flew with Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt, which was in 1972. Dad would have no reason to pester me any more to pay attention to the landings of men on the moon. From then through now, there have been no more. Likewise, Dad has built no more model rockets.


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