The Rocketeers

By Phil Plait | June 13, 2012 7:00 am

When I was a kid, I loved shooting off model rockets. I don’t know how many I wound up building and launching with friends.

I kinda wish I had stuck with it. Maybe then I’d be doing this now:

[You may need to refresh the page to get the video to load.]

That segment was done for QUEST, a multimedia series out of the PBS station KQED in northern California. I think rocketry is a great hobby, but the part about using it to teach the high schools students was inspiring. Like that teacher said, they may not go on to become rocket scientists, but they’ll have a unique experience of teamwork, learning, and being a part of something that is just, simply, really freaking cool.

MORE ABOUT: rocketry

Comments (31)

Links to this Post

  1. Stolen Rocket « Old Things R New | August 22, 2012
  1. Steve

    Wow! I got goosebumps watching the kids watch their creation finally launch. Must have been such a good feeling.

  2. Jim

    I’ll second Steve’s comment! The look on the girl’s face was priceless!

  3. timmy

    Let’s all go out and buy a Red Max this weekend!!

  4. Chris

    Unfortunately I live near an airport and launching rockets is kind of frowned upon.

  5. Wzrd1

    I remember our science class project of designing, building, launching and recovering our rockets.
    As fun as having a successful launch and recovery was, the failures were highly educational.
    We’d learn about shearing force from stabilizers ripping loose. We’d learn about friction losses when the recovery system failed.
    Of course, we also worked with real chemicals in chemistry class in those days, today, they use M&M’s to do labs… :(

    @Chris, I also live near an airport. True, launching rockets near the airport is highly frowned upon, however, one CAN drive a half hour away to a good launching point for rockets that is well away from any glide path. Considering that I’m a half mile from Philadelphia International Airport, it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to find a place to launch rockets from as well. Check for local clubs in your area.

  6. Larry Tubbs

    Awesome video, thanks for sharing. It just goes to show you, students will learn so much more when you give them something that will produce meaningful results. Teachers can learn a lot from the program they have put together here.

  7. Yasen

    Wow… this is amazing.

  8. Stan9fromouterspace

    Best documentary I’ve seen yet on amateur/educational rocketry. Rockets & mohawks – what’s not to love?

  9. Kevin

    Of all of my childhood hobbies, model rocketry was easily the most awesome. I learned an awful lot about physics and engineering in the process, too. I’ve got a box full of tubes, fins, parachutes, streamers, and engine mounts waiting for my future children. Oh, and I also have one of those awesome launch controllers with the safety switches, LEDs, and a cover you have to flip open to press the launch button. That’s the best part!

  10. Bob P.

    @Chris, this is not necessarily an obstacle … depends on how busy the airport is. A club in the SF Bay Area flies monthly, on the grounds of a former Naval Air Station that’s now a Federal airport. But good for you for wanting to be responsible.

    Under FAA regs, most small model rockets (up to G impulse, less than 1.5 kg launch weight) need not concern themselves with airspace requirements … just be sure to always fly where you can see them, in light winds, and never fly if you can see air traffic coming.

    (Fire precautions at your launch and recovery sites should probably be bigger concerns. ūüėÄ )

  11. josie

    I can’t watch the video at work…did they have a passenger? When I was kid the rocket always had a passenger ūüėÄ

  12. Don Gisselbeck

    When I was in the Peace Corps (1980), I managed to get a lucky shot of a model rocket launch with my science class.

  13. Larry

    Bob P : A club in the SF Bay Area flies monthly, on the grounds of a former Naval Air Station

    Are you referring to Moffet Field or Alameda? Do you allow visitors to attend? Do you have any club contact info? I’m in San Jose and I’d love to check this out.

  14. CR

    Learning? TEAMWORK?! What are these alien concepts? Doesn’t sound American to me. Sheesh…

    Seriously, though, this is cool. I remember doing ‘hands on’ team-related science stuff when I was in high school about a decade before the Internet came about, as part of an extracirricular ‘Science Olympiad,’ during which my school placed first in Stae Finals and got to go to Nationals twice. Had a blast at all events (that’s not to say our rocketry stuff exploded, by the way… though our rocket DID get stuck in a large tree one time.), met many great people from around the state and around the country (some of whom I corresponded with for several months afterward), and learned that learning could be fun, especially when applied in the field.

    I can only hope that such things become a growing trend, rather than a distant memory.

  15. CR

    Forgot to add that our rockets were nothing like those shown in the video, by the way… we just made MUCH smaller ones using off-the-shelf Estes motors with our own custom rocket bodies, and did not have a nice, open desert from which to launch. We also didn’t have cameras aboard ours. Still, it was a lot of fun. (Another ‘by the way’… “Stae” = State.)

  16. shunt1

    I invite you to and learn how to create your own high powered rocket that can be launched in Northern Colorado.

  17. shunt1

    My “little” rocket is only good to 20,000 ft and 1.7 Mach, but it does have a GPS and live telemetry back to my laptop base station. When you are flying that high, the rocket may land miles away and the ability to receive location information during the decent is almost required.

    Phil, if interested, I would love to invite you to our next launch at the northern site on the weekend of July 7 and 8th. Prepare for a very long drive, since all air traffic must be prohibited from a 10 mile radius.

  18. Paul

    I loved building rockets growing up. It wasn’t the launching of them so much as the careful crafting out of cardboard tubes and balsa wood. Once you launched a rocket you didn’t always get it back due to winds and forests.

  19. I fly model rockets (plain ole’ Estes black powder engines, mostly B-E) with my kids (7 and 11 right now) pretty regularly in the summer, in an adequately spacious park just down the road. They both always have a blast (if you’ll pardon the expression). More than that: we always draw a crowd: other kids in the park who want to push the button…

    Proudest moment: showing up with our box o’ engines and launchers and bag o’ rockets and there’s already someone there, launching their own. Someone had been watching us the previous week, and decided: yeah, let’s try that.

  20. shunt1

    Anything can fly, if you have a large enough motor.

    The challenge has always been to safely deploy the explosive charges for the parachutes and the ability to locate where your rocket has landed.

    That is where your on-board computer with altimeter becomes very important. At maximum altitude, you want to deploy a small parachute to keep the decent under 100 mph. When you are at about 1,000 feet above the ground, then the rocket needs to deploy it’s big parachute to make a safe landing without causing damage to the rocket.

    Because of air traffic control restrictions, we are only allowed to launch on specific dates that are coordinated months in advance. You never know what the winds will be on the day that you launch, so it may land miles away.

    Phil: I do invite you to our launch next month. It will be something that you will never forget.

  21. Matt B.

    Does the Estes Company really pronounce their name /es-teez/? I always thought it was /es-tes/, like Estes Park, Colorado, and Estes Kefauver.

    What was the sparky propellant on that last launch?

  22. shunt1


    I am not sure what sparky propellant you were talking about, because we no longer allow the high spark motors produced by CTI or Aerotech because of the fire danger. However, every rocket motor will make some flames or sparks, or they would not work.

    Or perhaps what you saw is not what I would consider as a sparky motor such as this:

    BTW, both CTI and Aerotech motors use the exact same fuel as used on the solid fuel booters of the space shuttle. The differences are in the metals used in the fuel for performace or visual effects.

    Most of us still enjoy flying Estes model rockets. Heck, I have been working on micro-rockets that use 1/8 A motors that are about as powerful as a “fart”, but still reach over 1,000 feet in altitude. Can you picture a life size crayon with a rocket motor?

    Actually, those tiny rockets have been the hardest that I have ever attempted to build.

  23. shunt1

    “Does the Estes Company really pronounce their name /es-teez/?”

    Well, those of us living in Colorado had learned to pronounce that name as you heard in the video. LOL

    Don’t even start asking me how to prounounce the name of this river by my home:

    The Cache la Poudre River i/ňĆk√¶ É l…ôňąpuňźd…ôr/ (sometimes called the Poudre River or the Poudre) is in the state of Colorado in the United States.

    To me, it sounds like computer with a lisp…

  24. shunt1 wrote:

    Or perhaps what you saw is not what I would consider as a sparky motor such as this: link above

    After reading your posts, I knew that was going to be cool.

    I got into rockets as a kid back in the early 70s for a while(1st was the Little John, but I dreamed of building a Saturn 5), but then I found fossils and microscopy.

  25. shunt1


    I just told Joe (the person in the video) that I posted to y’all about and how much I hoped that you will explore the science of high powered rocketry in the future.

    For those of us who grew up in the “space age” during the Apollo years, this is something that you simply had to learn. As we grew older, other priorities became more important, but we never forgot our basic roots of what made science so exciting to us.

    Thanks for the kind words….

    BTW, living in Colorado, exploring fossils with my microscope has become almost an obsession!

  26. I’m president of the Tripoli Rocketry Association, one of the organizations that certifies high-power rocketeers. For anyone who might be interested in high-power rocketry, check our website at, under Membership/Prefectures/Clubs. Find the nearest prefecture and find out when their next launch will be held. Take off that weekend and check it out.

    This year’s LDRS (the BIIIG launch!) will be held in the Finger Lakes region in New York. The Science channel will be there, along with rocket folks from the US, Canada, Australia, England, etc., etc., and all sorts of large and interesting projects!

    See you there!
    Dr. Terry McCreary
    Professor of Chemistry and Certified Rocket Nut

  27. shunt1

    “President of the Tripoli Rocketry Association”

    I am honored to see your reply and hope that I have represented your organization properly!

  28. shunt1

    BTW Dr. Terry McCreary;

    I know that Adrian has been working on a new nosecone using basalt fibers that are transparent to radio frequencies. Carbon fibers are required above 2.3 Mach since that will melt fiberglass. However, with carbon fibers, that requires an external antenna for proper tracking and does introduce drag.

    Flier: Adrian Adamson
    Class: Single Stage L
    Date: 10/17/2011
    Location: Pawnee National Grasslands, CO
    Altitude: 32,030′
    Motors: CTI L1115
    Flight Data: GPS Data (KML); Altimeter Data (FIPa)

    Personally, I talk to Adrian before I do anything with my new rockets, because he is the “expert” in our local club for minimum diameter altitude attempts.

  29. Randy Griffin

    Another program for middle and high school students in the Midwest:

    There have been 60+ student teams some years. Great program!


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