Thursday, December 5, 2013

Remembering Rockets

I am fortunate to live in a small town which still has a quality local newspaper.  Even more fortunate to have it be a historically important one, The Emporia Gazette.  Readers can enjoy local writers such as Cheryl Unruh who regularly posts articles which make very enjoyable and fascinating reading.
Tonight, I read a piece Cheryl wrote about her childhood memories, one of her favorite topics (mine too).  She mentioned one of her brother's books about making rockets.  In 1957 I organized a rocket club which was active through 1961.  In those days it was much harder for a kid to find helpful information about making rockets so when I found a paperback copy of Rocket Manual for Amateurs by Bertrand R Brinley it seemed like finding buried treasure.  All my studies pointed me to a solid fuel propellant design.  Liquid systems seemed well beyond my limited budget.

With that book and a few other resources I made and launched, with the help of several friends, eight rockets.  As I recollected those experiments, I realized it was my first venture into the world of metal working.  I learned about seamless pipe.  I contracted with an engineering company to mill an exhaust orifice and blind tap the mounting screws.  I enlisted my uncle to make stainless steel fins and obtain the thin sheets of brass shim stock from which I cut blast diaphragms.  No forging was involved, but I still will claim this as my earliest entry to the world of metal working.

When the movie October Sky came out in 1999 I loved it.  There were many differences in the movie story and my own story but there were many nostalgic similarities.  It was a growing up adventure.  

I was very naive about how dangerous our activities were.  None of us had a strong background in chemistry and had no sophisticated knowledge about the fine line between propellant and explosive.  One experiment ended in a dramatic explosion which left a hole in the ground the size of a five gallon bucket and we never recovered a shred of my fuel test chamber.  The blast was really loud.  We failed to capture it on video.  Curious people converged on the site within minutes.  I had detonated it electrically from a 100 feet away so no one was hurt.  In the end, I was banned from executing any more experiments in the neighborhood.

After rethinking the program and making some changes to favor safety we moved the test site to a friends farm a mile north of the city.  Every rocket launch occurred there.  I’d say two of eight were successful, as they performed just as anticipated.  Six were flawed in one way or another, similar to the early days of the US space program.

The most spectacular failure was on the first launch.  The rocket was essentially all propellant.  It went straight up at a very high velocity and disappeared.  There were some anxious moments as we realized we had no idea where it would eventually land.  We never found it.  Lesson learned, add more mass next time.

The story could be a long one about parachutes and two-stage designs and more  but that is really not my point.  I completed all my planned launches and closed out the program.  None of us involved would go on to become rocket scientists.  We were all leaving high school and scattering to colleges and jobs so it was a natural time to disband.  Truly, it was a “once in a lifetime” thing.  I’m glad we all came through those years with a lot of memories and no injuries.

I kept all the records from the rocket experiments and every few years I look them over

October Sky.

My well worn rocket manual.

A rocket ready for launch.

Return to earth.

Last minute inspection and instructions.

The crew after the final launch.

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