Over-the-top launch of model rocket gives family a high

SATURDAY'S HERO

August 27, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Wallops Island, Va. --- Shooting a model rocket toward the heavens is exciting, especially if you don't have a firm idea where the thing is going to land. I say this having recently completed, along with my 9-year-old son and a handful of visiting cousins, an intense period of rocket building, rocket launching, and rocket losing.

Rather than saying that our rockets probably got stuck in the trees, I prefer to say that our launches exceeded our expectations, by several hundred feet.

Our way was not the recommended way to launch model rockets. The correct techniques are demonstrated on periodic Saturday afternoons at NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility next to Chincoteague, Va., on the Eastern Shore. At 1 p.m. on the first Saturday of the month staffers from the Wallops NASA works fire off, weather permitting, about 20 model rockets. Most of the model rockets have been built by the NASA workers in their spare time. Some audience members bring their own model rockets which the NASA staffers launch.

My son and I were thinking of carrying our rocket to a recent Wallops firing, but we had a little pre-launch anxiety. We were not sure how well the rocket would perform. So we found an empty ball field in Chincoteague, the small seaside community where we were spending our vacation, and had a test flight. The last time we had fired off the rocket, an Estes Airwalker, was back in November. Some parts had fallen off in the last flight. Instead of standing up straight on the launching pad, it leaned. We loaded the cartridge of rocket fuel into the rocket's belly, and hooked up igniting wires to a battery-powered launching device. My son let a visiting cousin from Kansas City help him shoot the rocket off.

We had ignition. We had liftoff. Then we had panic. The rocket flew so high that we temporarily lost sight of it. We saw it again when its parachute opened. But a crosswind caught the 'chute, and sent the whole apparatus speeding southward, beyond the field, over the trees, and somewhere toward the town dump.

I ordered the kids to get in the "chase vehicle," the family station wagon, and set out after the runaway rocket. We drove down narrow streets, we questioned passers-by. We searched the nearby dump, sorta. The rocket could not be found. The kids were elated. Never before had they wielded such power. I felt pumped up as well.

Since our rocket was missing in action, my son and I had to be content with merely watching the Wallops model rocket shoot. A variety of rocket styles, including a model of the space shuttle, was hurled into the afternoon sky, most landing within a few hundred feet of the launching site.

The demonstration convinced my son and me that our rockets had the right stuff. They could stand on the pad with the ones launched by the NASA crew. After the shoot-off, my son and I bought a new rocket. This rocket, the Alpha III, was smaller and supposedly less powerful than our original rocket.

By now a new set of visiting relatives from Kansas City had arrived in Chincoteague. One of them had a video camera and proceeded to film the scene of our family attempting to assemble the new model rocket. I had this vision of myself as the gentle leader of the rocket assembly team. A father who spoke in quiet, encouraging tones. Instead the video portrayed me as a despot, a crank who ordered his kids to read him the parachute assembly instructions once again, "And this time read so they make sense."

The camera also caught the first flight of Alpha III. The rocket went about 100 feet in the air, then drifted to earth. It was efficient. But compared to the drama of previous launches, pretty ho-hum.

My son and I retrieved the rocket, folded up the parachute, loaded up a fresh fuel cell and prepared to try again.

We had ignition. We had liftoff. Then we had disappearance. I lost sight of the Alpha III as it was streaking toward a cloud. Younger members of the launch recovery team spotted Alpha III drifting over the trees and toward parts unknown.

Once again we got in the launch-recovery station wagon and tried to find the rogue rocket. Once again we failed.

This experience has caused us to alter the flight plan for our next launch. We will build a third model rocket, one that is supposed to travel even higher than its two predecessors. But we will not, repeat not, shoot it off anywhere except at NASA's Saturday supervised launching zone.

2& At least for the inaugural flight.

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