Monday, June 11, 2007

You can make a man out of a boy...

I got a lot of plaques when I was growing up. And not just the ones on my teeth, either.

I have some from when I raced R/C cars with my dad, I have a few from science fairs, and have a whole slew of them from the Western Allegany Kiwanis club.

See, the guy from the Kiwanis club knew the guy who worked with my mom and, Ed, the guy who worked with my mom started a rocket club. I was a charter member. Like, seriously. You had to have a minimum number of a participants to start a local chapter of NAR, the National Association of Rocketry. I don't remember what that minimum was, but it seems to me that you had to have at least one adult to lead it and two or three kids to be members. I was a member. Paul Comfort was a member. I don't really remember anyone else from that very beginning, so maybe that was it. But it grew quickly.

We would meet one Saturday morning a month at the community room at the mall. We'd pretty much use the time to build rockets but Ed showed us all kinds of better ways to make rockets. Not just ways to make them look better, but ways to make them lighter, sturdier, more predictable, and capable of fucking crazy heights.

Those heights were reached on a different Saturday of the month at a big-ass field near where I grew up. The field had a baseball diamond at one end and the rest was just open. No crops, no trees, no fences for probably 3/4 of a mile in any direction and even then it was all open past the fences. And rockets did still go past the fences. Especially the ones with the big parachutes.

It was in the rocket club that I learned about the various levels of rocketry competition. One rainy day when a launch was cancelled, Ed took us (just Paul Comfort and myself, that day) down into his basement and showed us how to make what he called a "Model A."

A Model A was a tube just big enough to stick a rocket engine in. It was about 8 inches long. Add a balsa nose cone and (the top secret ingredient) plywood fins and you had the heart of a paraachute duration rocket. In parachute duration you do just that - launch a rocket and which ever one hangs in the air the longest before touching down (and which is recovered - since many of the longest duration flights caught a thermal and floated miles and miles away but were thereby disqualified) was declared the winner.

Other things you could go for were things like altitude, glider duration and spot landing, but parachute duration seemed to grab me better than the rest.

I took my Model A home and applied some finishing details. And then I raided my mom's closet. I uncased something she had in a dry-cleaning bag. I slit the bag along the top and one side seam and laid it flat on my living room floor. Then I calculated the largest circle I could cut out of the thing and did just that. I attached some shroud lines and tied it all to my rocket. Then I started on the most difficult task of all -- fitting a parachute, which if draped over my head would come down around my waist, into a 1/2" diameter tube.

I sprinkled talcum powder all over it to make sure it wouldn't stick to itself. And then I folded and packed it up tight and it fit. Just barely.

Other rockets I had used C and D engines to go to incredible heights. The Model A was designed for "A Parachute Duration" which meant the trick was to squeeze the longest flight out of a tiny A engine.

And the Model A performed. On an A engine, it flew so high you couldn't even see it anymore. It flew so high that the tracking smoke was hard to see. And then the ejection charge blew and kicked out the parachute.

My dry cleaning bag unfurled and the sun glinted on its shiny plastic surface. And it just hung there. For many long minutes. And as far as I remember, I always got it back.

It won parachute duration at both Kiwanis sponsored competitions. At the second one I also got plaques for Best-In-Show (for my X-Wing, which had crashed and burned and therefor been disqualified the year before), spot landing (with the parachute duration rocket since something about the wind told me it was blowing just right...) and hell, I dunno. But I was in the paper. A lot. With my dirty hair and my denim jacket with the Motley Crue patches all over it.

But somehow, not too long after that, I forgot about the rockets. I do recall going to one more launch a few years later - probably during college. I was happy to see that the club was still going and they had much fancier launch equipment, but the thrill of it just didn't grab me like it had my first two years of high school.

I suppose that early fascination was helped by my trip to Space Camp (actually Space Academy, which was for older kids) the summer before 9th grade.

But something a few weeks ago grabbed my eye. A book called, "Lost in Space" or some such title about the three astronauts stranded on the International Space Station after the Columbia tragedy. I picked it up and couldn't put it down. And then it was over. So I scoured my shelf for something else I'd picked up years ago knowing in my heart it was right up my alley. It had sat untouched for years, but it was right where I remembered it. And now I'm most of the way through The Right Stuff and it's lit a fire in me.

And I lit another fire, as well. I launched rockets this weekend. My wife was skeptical about the whole thing. But after the first one she lit up and was suddenly fascinated with the whole thing. I built one of them just like the Model A (tho with cardboard fins and a streamer instead of a parachute.) My construction was still top-notch. It flew higher than the other rocket I built -- a larger one wiith a shiny silver nose - and which had 4 times the thrust.

Photo by LiquidPorkGun

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