With loud hissing and crackling the rocket leaps off the pad and streaks up into the blue. My friends and I crane our necks back so far we nearly fall over backward. If it wasn’t for the smoke we wouldn’t even know where it went.
There’s a distant popping sound, and impossibly far above us blossoms a tiny white and orange parachute. My friends and I shout and whoop with excitement, then go chasing after it. We were young teenage boys and we’d just discovered a new thrill.
Because this toy was labeled as “science” and my parents liked the idea of me becoming a scientist, my mom was more than willing to bankroll the project. At the time model rockets were still illegal in California as they were considered fireworks, so I couldn’t ride my bike down to the local hobby store and buy them. I had to get them via mail order.
I would gaze through the catalogs of the strange and exiting rockets, pick the ones that fell within the budget set by my mom, and fill out the order form. Mom supplied the handwritten check and the stamp. Half the money was spent on new rocket kits, the other half on engines. Then there would be two weeks of agony waiting for my rockets to arrive.
They came in long, rectangular boxes of white cardboard. The joy at seeing the mailman bringing one of these boxes up to my front door was equal to that of firing them off. The launching was not just something to do, it was an event. I would call all my friends. We would set a date and time. We would pray for good weather.
Sometimes I would experiment with the engines themselves. About the size of a big firecracker, they were high quality little cylinders of ceramic and dense, treated paper. Big hole on one side, little hole on the other. The little hole was the nozzle where the fire would come out. The solid rocket fuel would burn inside the cylinder and force high pressure gas out with a lot of noise and smoke, burning its way up the inside of the cylinder. When the propellant was spent, it would slowly burn a delay charge which released smoke and helped us see the rocket while it was coasting upwards. When the delay charge finished burning, the fire would hit a little packet of explosive called the ejection charge, which would blow the ceramic cap off the other end and push the top of the rocket off, and also (hopefully) push the parachute out.
If used as directed it was completely safe. However…
I found I could wrap paper around the engine, gluing it in place, and form my own homemade body tubes. I could also fill this body tube with something other than a parachute. Oh, say, possibly firecrackers, which would be ignited by the ejection charge. I’d make my own paper nose cones and fins too, making the rocket expendable.
The model rocket manufacturers had spent a great deal of time and money making these little engines as safe as possible, and there I was circumventing all their efforts. This went against everything that model rocketry stood for – a safe, exiting, fun hobby for kids and their families. It just goes to show, you could put just about anything in the wrong hands and have it turn to evil.
Not that my friends and I were evil.
Well, okay, maybe we were a little evil.
I had one set up and ready to launch in my front yard, and my friend Larry — who lived down a few houses and across the street — just happened to be coming out his front door and heading my way. I yelled, “Hey Larry, watch this!” and shot the rocket off.
My paper fins, folded over in a v-shape and theoretically sturdy enough, weren’t quite sturdy enough. The rocket shot straight up about twenty feet and then veered over, hurtling like a missile right at Larry. There was an instant of time where I saw the rocket heading right at him, and saw him standing there staring at it, eyes wide, and then at the last second it veered upward again and exploded about 30 feet above his head, showering him with bits of hot paper.
After a few moments of shocked silence he yelled, “What are you trying to do, kill me?”
“It wasn’t supposed to do that!” I yelled.
“That was cool!” he yelled back. He ran over to see the other ones I had made.
At night time we would shoot these into the air and couldn’t believe how beautiful the colors were just coming from the rocket engines. They would explode about 1000 feet up and the firecrackers would come crackling down. For a few years our 4th of July celebrations were especially fun. Our highly illegal rockets rivaled the efforts of the professionals.
We also continued traditional, safe model rocketry, launching them out in a field beside the railroad tracks. I had ones that would fly up as a rocket but come down as a glider, and ones that had three stages and flew so high we never found them again. We also had ones that would carry things up inside, such as small lizards and tiny tree frogs, and I’m happy to report they all survived.
There was this one day we were shooting so many off that it had become boring. When a train came by I had a sudden idea. “Hey,” I said, “lets shoot one at the train!”
I chose an older rocket that was beat up and on the verge of falling apart, and aimed it at the railroad cars as they lumbered past. It shot like the missile it was, and to our delight it went right inside the open door of a boxcar. My friends all laughed and one said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if a hobo was in there?” Just as he said that, a hobo poked his head out the open door and shook his fist at us, and we all fell over laughing.
Toward the end of my teenage rocketry career, I was in Arizona visiting my brother Hank and had brought all my rockets with me. We went out one afternoon and shot them off, which my older brother thought was amusing, and when the engines were all gone we went back to his house and found, to my complete amazement, a model rocket in his back yard. It wasn’t one of mine, either. It was some other kid’s rocket, and they had shot it off and it went too far up, and the wind carried it away, and it just happened to land in my brother’s back yard right after we had been out doing the same thing.
Years later, after I’d grown up and gotten that horrible, bad, dangerousness out of me, I took my kids out shooting rockets at a big club in Dallas, Texas. Some of these guys were shooting off huge rockets with really powerful motors, and they weren’t made out of cardboard and plastic, either. They were metal and hard PVC, and had sophisticated electronics aboard. These guys were very professional about the whole thing, and were highly safety conscious. I thought this was a good, safe way to introduce model rocketry to my kids.
One big, white rocket went up with a terrific crackling roar. I was video taping it, and heard everyone start yelling. It had gotten to the top end of its flight, which is called the apogee, and it turned around and started coming back down. The trouble was that the parachute had not come out, and now it was a deadly missile coming straight down. I turned the camera off and took a few steps back, because it looked like it was coming right at me.
The rocket hit the ground and exploded not more than ten feet away, showering me with stinging little pieces of PVC shrapnel, and to my horror I realized it had hit the curb right in front of my van, right next to a little kiddy table, right exactly where my younger daughter had been sitting not 30 seconds before. She had just happened to get up and wander away…
In all my years of abusing model rocketry, I had never come as close to disaster as these safe and sane rocketeers had.