Ad astra per bozo

The boys at NASA may be struggling a bit to figure out where their little space program is going next, but the boys here in the Swamp have no such problem. As I may have mentioned before,  my kid (who just turned 5 in March) is a “rocket guy” in a serious way.

Stomp rockets were an unsuccessful delaying tactic.

Stomp rockets were an unsuccessful delaying tactic.

Our experiments with stomp rockets (which arrived Christmas day) went well. But foamy flying rockets that could reach a lofty altitude around 150 feet only served to fuel Juan Carlos’ desire to shoot some ‘real’ rockets even higher into the sky. That meant sooner or later some flying model rockets would have to put in an appearance.

My original plan was to hold off on an introduction to model rocketry for a couple more years. I was around 7 or 8 when my Dad and I flew our first model rockets — and I managed to have a lot of fun without blowing myself up. So that seemed like a good age for a start.

But kids these days have to get a head start on just about everything, don’t they? I came home from work one day last month to find Juan Carlos out on the back deck building what he called a “bottle rocket”. He was taking pieces of his various toy rocket rigs and duct-taping them to plastic water bottles.  While I was gratified to see that he’s absorbed the appropriate manly duct-taping skill, I knew his plan to ‘light the rocket fuel’ would lead to nothing but disappointment.

So I explained to him that water by itself won’t work as a rocket fuel. He countered that was OK: He would just drain off the water, put some matches in the bottle and then light them.

Holy crap. I’m raising a pyromaniac.

Well, maybe not a pyromaniac — but he can be very stubborn when he gets something in his head. I realized right then and there that it was time to improvise, adapt and overcome. I would either have to roll out a flying model rocket, or lock down everything flammable in the house and keep a constant watch on my inventive young man for the next six weeks.

The starter kit - some assembly required.

The starter kit - some assembly required.

So. Our swamp Bunker gets the addition of a spaceport a couple years ahead of schedule. Haven’t I written somewhere before that I’m really not in charge of planning around here?

The one thing that concerned me was that Juan Carlos had put his personal space program on something of a ‘rush’ timeline. He wanted to send a rocket into the swamposphere by the weekend, which gave me about 4 more days to get it going.

Now, I remember my first model rocket. My Dad was a science teacher so it wasn’t one of those dead-simple starter rockets from Estes like the Alpha. Nooooo.  We had to build a Saturn V. It was the ‘small’ Saturn V from Estes — maybe a foot tall? — and not the gigantic three-stage monster that they produced. Still, complicated enough.

It took maybe a week or 10 days to get it built and then, just for that special esthetic, Dad spray-painted it flourescent orange before putting on the ‘scale’ finishing touches. I guess he REALLY didn’t want to lose it.

Fortunately, in these modern times some of the ‘beginner’ rockets can be bought pre-assembled. So the next day I popped into Hobby Lobby and bought a starter kit (which includes the launch rig), a pre-built ‘Puma’ model rocket and a package of the small-sized 1/2-A engines the Puma uses.

In one of my finer moments of impersonating a rocket scientist I decided it would be OK for us to launch the Puma from the road in front of the Bunker. The rocket uses a streamer for recovery (which reduces drift), the wind seemed predictable and the little information card in the package informed me that the 1/2-A3-2T engines would only shoot the Puma about 150 feet high. At least that’s what I think I read. I could need reading glasses. Maybe. Anyway, I figured with the launcher in the right spot, I could make sure the little sucker would land on the driveway.

After all, I recalled, Dad and I had launched our first rocket from the driveway of our house in Shelbyville without a problem. Of course, it didn’t quite occur to me that our house there bordered on the Shelby County fairgrounds and on a big field around some old farmer’s tobacco barn.

Well, the streamer DID reduce drift. At least I got something right. The rocket sailed about 450 feet up. When it blasted off with an unexpectedly loud “SWISH!” I figured my plan was in trouble. I was counting on something more like a rocket-fart and a little lob up to tree-top height. Instead, I got half a friggin’ moonshot. I thought a 1/2-A motor was supposed to produce something like 1.5 Newtons of thrust? Crap.

Oh, and the wind was not entirely predictable.

The Puma survived to fly again.

The Puma survived to fly again.

My wife did not particularly enjoy going up on the roof of the Swamp Bunker to retrieve the thing. I chivalrously offered to climb up there myself, but she balked at the idea of my 230-pound butt clomping around on top of the house. Especially considering that the last time I was crawling around up in the attic I skillfully managed to poke a very nice hole through the sheet rock in our garage ceiling. I think she imagined a similar fate for the roof. I am not the Amazing Spider-Man.

Of course, the launch itself was one of the most exciting events EVER (at least on that particular Saturday) for Junior Rocket Boy. The whooshing, smoking, flaming rocket stuff was a very big hit indeed. The Puma survived, by the way, and will fly again someday soon.

But I think we’ll find a bigger field for the next launch. One roof hit is enough.