Apr 20, 2012

R is for ... Rockets & the 4th Grade Space Program

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my dad wanted to turn his homemade gunpowder into model rocket engines. That idea never came to fruition, but not because we didn't love model rockets. The first one dad got was a tiny thing. He put it together, we launched it and everything was awesome except... the rocket was too small. We needed a bigger rocket fix.

Next, he used learning from the kit to build his own, bypassing bigger, more expensive kits. This one used the tube from a roll of paper towels, balsa wood fins, and the nosecone was an old pill bottle hotglued to one of those plastic bubbles you get gum in for a quarter from the tiny machines in front of stores. Parachute from a plastic bag and thread! All he had to buy were the engines and igniters.

We loved that one so much that I made a replica for the fourth grade science fair. We saved the last bit of nosecone assembly to catch a grasshopper and seal him into his capsule. The hope was that it would come down where we could retrieve him, and ask what he was going to do now that he was the first grasshopper in space... But wind caught the parachute as it drifted down and blew him far away on the hills behind the school. A tragic blow for the fourth-grade space program.

After this, Dad was always on the lookout for bigger, sturdier cardboard tubes. He came home with one that was five foot tall and six inches in diameter. But we knew we couldn't get it off the ground with our current model rocket technology, so it was stored for 2 years while we built and launched increasingly bigger rockets with separate stages of ignition. Stage #1 gets it so high, ignites stage #2 and #1 pops off as #2 fires... Then we added a stage #3 and #4...

They went high enough that no one could see them anymore, but the parachutes were colored with markers by this point, so when they drifted far enough down that binoculars could see them, the chase began to retrieve the rocket.

Except for the times that we had rocket engine failure. Turns out, it's really hard to time the ignition on the separate stages. Sometimes... the next stage of engines wouldn't fire until the rocket had already turned and was no longer pointing up. Sometimes they fell and didn't kick on until they were more or less at ground level and could chase people--so you couldn't come watch our launches unless you were ready to run.

Finally, the learning curve progressed to the point we felt confident enough to attempt the five foot rocket. It launched beautifully. I think it had five stages... We lost it in the sky before all the stages ignited. But we caught sight of it again when it was speeding down without the parachute. One of the stages delayed igniting until the sucker was pointed at the ground... It rocketed into the middle of the road and the top 12-18 inches smashed down like an accordion. Luckily, no one was in the road at the time.  That was the best launch ever. Height. Speed. Drama. Destruction. Perfection!

I highly recommend building model rockets with your kids :)  Just maybe ... don't Wile E. Coyote it...

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