Another sacrifice in the interest of science

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

I was thinking along those lines on Saturday afternoon as I stood in one of the large, open areas of property surrounding our church. The occasion wasn’t nearly as melodramatic as the quote: my turns-seven-too-soon son, my wife and myself were getting ready to launch some model rockets.

The last ride of the Alpha II.

Something similar is an early lesson every model rocketeer learns. If you’ve never lost a rocket, you’ve never launched a rocket. Shoot one of those little suckers up several hundred feet — where the wind may be doing God-only-knows — and hope the parachute doesn’t carry it into a tree 200 yards away.

I remember many wild rocket chases in my distant and misspent youth. And quite a few lost rockets. A couple of mine succumbed to the rooftops of the elementary school across the street from where I grew up in Clermont. Another disappeared into the high school complex next door to it. I recall another which descended almost to within arm’s reach, only to be snatched by a gust of wind and spirited into an orange grove, never to be seen again.

The most spectacular loss wasn’t mine. One of my friends built a two-stage rocket that we launched from a field behind the old middle school. It topped out at about 1500 feet. We chased it for a mile and a half, across US 27 and into the groves — before finally giving up. That same day, a glider-recovery rocket I built caught fire at engine burnout and descended to the ground in a slow, flaming spiral, trailing smoke like a stricken warbird. Not exactly lost, but the charred remains never flew again.

There was a little breeze Saturday, but nothing too stout. We launched an Alpha II with an A8-3 engine as a sort of “sounding rocket” and it floated down maybe 30 yards away. The bigger Chrome Dome rode a B6-4 engine to several hundred feet and also came down near by.

I thought about putting a B engine in our newest rocket, an Estes Ricochet, but it’s sleek lines and light weight dissuaded me. With another A8-3, it hit maybe 400 feet. Nice. Another flight of the Alpha II followed, also an easy recovery.

Then my son decided he wanted to see what the Alpha could do with a “really big engine.” I told him that we might never see the little rocket again if we loaded it up with a C engine, but he was not to be denied. So onto the launch pad it went, armed with a C6-3 rocket motor.

That was one impressive launch.

I tried to aim the launcher a bit into the slight wind, in hopes the rocket would come down in the big drainage retention area about 50 yards down wind from us. My aim was off a bit, I guess, or the winds higher up weren’t cooperating.

The little rocket smoked out at around 1000 feet, I think, high above the other side of the church’s property. Then it just sort of set sail on its little red parachute.

It only missed the drainage retention area by about 200 yards. Errr… I watched it come down slowly, veering off to the south as it went and drifting quickly toward the line of houses bordering the church property. I lost sight of the red parachute when it vanished behind a huge oak tree about 100 yards away. Crap.

After a lengthy search involving our pastor — who had come out to watch — and a couple of neighbors, we finally found the Alpha II. It was hanging in the skeletal branches of one of the neighborhood’s rare deciduous trees, still at least 100 feet off the ground. I don’t think it’s coming down anytime soon.

Not exactly a Neil Armstrong level accomplishment, but still impressive. A brave little orange flag, planted to the glory of science.

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