High hopes turn everyday dad into a rocket scientist


November 06, 1993|By ROB KASPER

We shot a rocket into the air, almost. The kids and I ended up scrubbing the mission last weekend because of strong winds, freezing weather and family discord. Too many bosses, not enough willing workers.

It was one of our unsuccessful launches, which now almost equal our successful missions. We keep at it because sending a rocket streaking into the sky is thrilling. The kids are impressed with the display of might.

I groove on the power, too, but the rocket-launching enterprise also has a lot in common with the kid-raising business. The rocket is restless to leave, and before you know it, it has disappeared from sight. Then if the parachute works, it comes floating back to you and the cycle of meticulous preparation followed by a sudden departure begins again. Sometimes the parachute doesn't work and your once-soaring star falls at your feet in a heap.

Launching a rocket is much more fun than putting the thing together. It took me the better part of a Saturday afternoon to glue our rocket, a beginning Estes Airwalker model, together. The kids helped, since the rocket nominally belongs to the 8-year-old. But mostly the 8-year-old and his 12-year-old brother watched televised wrestling matches, as I attempted to glue the right rocket parts to the right places.

The instruction booklet that came with the rocket kit was about the size of an owner's manual for a car. It had plenty of illustrations showing how parts fit together, and plenty of warnings. The warnings said, in effect, "Don't be stupid. Don't just look at these drawings. Read the directions, all of them."

So I did read the directions and virtually everything made sense. Except how to fold the parachute and how to get the rocket to stand up straight on the launching pad.

The posture problems were linked to the launch lugs. These were small pieces of plastic that looked like little doughnuts and were supposed to be glued to the side of the rocket. Once the doughnuts were in place, the rocket could be slipped over the tall, thin metal rod that held the rocket upright on the launching pad.

Somehow the instruction booklet ne-glected to explain this. Eventually I solved the mystery of the launch lugs, and glued them on the side of the rocket. After the kids and I folded the parachute as best we could, we were ready for our first launch.

We hauled the rocket, its stand, its long, metal rod, and its battery-operated launching box, out to a baseball field. Baseball fields or football fields are good launching places. In the rocket-launching business you want to avoid trees, power lines, and neighbors. Moreover, you have to avoid giving the rocket any chance to land in a pain-in-the-neck spot, like a forest or a muddy swamp. Rockets are attracted to these spots. But wading through a tick-infested bog to retrieve a rocket tends to make you feel more like a fool and less like a brilliant rocket scientist.

Our rocket was powered by a solid fuel cartridge, which was to be set off by "igniters," which in turn were supposed to be given a jolt of electricity by pushing the launch button on the battery-operated launching box.

Tension mounted as we began the countdown: 5-4-3-2-1. The 8-year-old hit the launch button. Nothing moved. He hit it again. And again. Then I hit the button. Still no liftoff. The batteries in the launch box were not up to the task. So the launch went on "hold," as I drove to a store, coughed up some cash and bought batteries.

With fresh batteries, we had a fresh countdown. This time the rocket whooshed into the sky, almost vanishing from view. Then the parachute opened, and the rocket came drifting back to the baseball field, like a gift dropped by the gods.

The kids jumped for joy. Later, I discovered the mission was not a total success. There had been casualties. Instead of staying glued to the side of the rocket, some of the launch lugs had shot into the sky. They were "lost in space."

So, in the subsequent liftoffs, the rocket slumped at the launching pad, like a drunk leaning on a bar. I had to prop the rocket up, scamper to safety and order liftoff before the rocket went into a lean.

Now that we have new launch lugs, we're ready to try again. I have also bought a new rod that the launch lugs slip over, and am in the market for a new parachute. It seems that to get a rocket to hurtle into space, you first have to feed it cash. I think the guys at NASA figured that out some time ago.

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