September 13, 2021

FTV: The Rocket’s Red Glare


     Model Rocketry became our hobby when my brother and I witnessed one of our Norway Avenue neighbors launch a Centuri brand model rocket in the field across from our house.  We dove in feet first and spent five years poking holes in the sky before Ron graduated from college and left for a year to teach downstate.  He ended up getting drafted into the Army in the summer of 1971 (he received his induction notice while home for Christmas break!) so we were both kind of busy with other things to continue.  We never did pick rocketry up again when he came back to town as Ron was working on his Masters Degree in Biology and I was wrapping up my undergraduate studies.  Between band gigs and leaving to work at the Huron Mountain Club for three years and then a summer at NMU’s Field Station, we were in different places during the prime rocket launching months.  During my first four years teaching in Ontonagon, Ron was working for the DNR in Lansing.  After being laid off from Ontonagon and spending the 1979-80 school year finishing my own MA in Geography, I returned to my Junior High teaching duties in Ontonagon.  It was in the fall of 1980 that my dormant model rocketry hobby was revived after a decade in mothballs.  This revival happened thanks to a student asking a simple question:  “Mr. Raisanen, have you ever launched a model rocket?”

     “Well, I have, but it has been a few years,” was my reply.  He showed me an Estes Model Rocketry catalog and inquired if there was any way he could build a rocket for his Astronomy Unit project.  It so happened this was the first year I began teaching the eighth grade Geography/Earth Science class so any ideas relative to buffing up the Astronomy part of my curriculum were welcomed.  The plan was to study Astronomy in the early fall so it would coincide with a field trip we planned to take to Marquette’s Shiras Planetarium in October.  After borrowing the Estes catalog and showing it to the other GES 8 class sections, a dozen or more students said they were interested in building rockets.  Thus was formed a loose ‘club’ that we dubbed The Ontonagon Rocket Group, or ORG for short.  Not having a large budget to play with, my job was to gather the student’s money and orders together.  Sending them in all at once allowed us to get a ‘school discount’ that knocked a couple of bucks off each item ordered.  I would have preferred ordering from my old company, Centuri, but they were out of business by the time this old rocketeer’s ‘rocketry gene’ was reactivated.

     There were stipulations students had to agree to if they built a rocket as a class project.  First, they would need to submit an illustrated explanation of the principles of rocketry.  Secondly, the ORG would hold a group launch before the first snow and all creations would be put to the ultimate test.  The projects (including support materials) were due before the group launch so no one would be in danger of failing if their rocket augered in.  The football field adjacent to the Elementary/Jr High building on the Greenland Road served as our first rocketry field of dreams from the fall of 1980 to the spring of 1983.  

     After the junior high students were moved to the current OASD building on Parker Avenue, we decided it would be nice to have a little more room to launch and retrieve the rockets.  The ORG now had enough interested participants to begin doing two launches a year.  In the fall, we would bus the rocketeers to the Ontonagon County Airport for a half day outing.  When I called the Airport Manager at the time, he sounded a bit puzzled:  “What would you do if an airplane had to take off or land during your rocket launch?”  I  promised him that we would hold our fire in the event of a take off or landing.  We found the tarmac area between the hangers and the airstrip suited our needs very well for the dozen or so years we launched there (and yes, we did have one airplane land during a launch, but it was a one time occurance.  The pilot parked his plane and immediately came over to see what we were doing.  He said it was,  “A cool thing to do,” and commented he never got to do fun things like that when he was in school).

     The spring launch was held a little closer to the school.  We would trot down Parker Avenue to the golf club when most of the snow was gone but it was still too wet for the course to be open.  If the wind was from the north or northwest, we would set up on the edge of the golf course near the Airport Road – Michigan intersection (near the Number 5 tee box).  If it was more of a south wind, our launch pad would be set up adjacent to the club house.  The golf course made a wonderfully large open area to recover the rockets from once they touched down.  With that said, there were also enough trees nearby to make rocket landings dicey if the flight didn’t go quite according to Hoyle.  For reference, find a picture of Charlie Brown landing his kite in a tree – now substitute a rocket for the kite – you get the idea.

     When first approached about using model rockets in class, I had to confront one fact;  I was never very good at building models.  My meticulous older brother had the patience for building wooden model airplanes (the kind with balsa wood framed body and wing spars, dope treated paper covering and so forth).  He applied the same amount of detail to our first rockets right down to the tapered fin edges and the choice of paint (metal flake gloss).  Before proceeding with the class project, I needed to buff up my model building skills in order to be of any help to my students.  In the later half of the 1980s, the Intermediate School District in Bergland asked me to facilitate state funded workshops to promote a more hands-on approach to teaching science.  I must have been a little ahead of the curve when I inquired about running a model rocketry workshop for teachers in 1980.  The ISD agreed to set a date and supply the budget to pick up the appropriate models, engines, and launch equipment.  I had the whole summer to prepare for the workshop so I made the most of my time.  It made sense for me to buy a variety of models to illustrate the types of rockets that could be built as a classroom science project.  

     I started with the most basic single stage model before progressing through two-stage, three- stage, and rockets that returned like a glider.  Some were scale models of real rockets like the Mercury Redstone and the Titan used by NASA.  Military rockets like the Bull Pup D air to air missile and even some high tech aircraft like the X-15 and the SR71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane were assembled for the display.  The crowning glory of all these was the three foot long scale model of the Saturn V rocket used to send men to the Moon.  In some ways I felt like Dr. Frankenstein tinkering away in my basement workshop, but I learned a lot.  With a baker’s dozen of  rockets built,  I was ready for the first workshop in the fall.  

     We held the rocket workshop in the Bergland ISD building and one of the teachers in attendance was from the Bergland school and as luck would have it, he was a seasoned rocket builder.  We did a Starlab training workshop at the Berland school a few years later and Rudy finally got to show me the dozens of rockets he had suspended from his classroom ceiling.  During the first ISD rocket workshop, he acted as a great resource and a second set of hands helping the novice rocket builders in attendance.  To keep it simple, we all built the same model with the demonstration rockets I had built on hand for comparison.

     Sometime in the 1990s, Estes began offering bulk packs for some of their models.  Bulk packs were sold without all the packaging the individual models came with.  By boxing parts for a dozen rockets (and bulk packs of engines as well), the lowered cost made it more affordable to purchase classroom quantities of rockets.  Previously, only students who wanted to spend their own money on models made rockets for their projects.  When the bulk orders became available, I decided it was time to have all of my students make rockets as the introductory part of our Astronomy studies.  The hard core rocketeers got a double dose if they also made their own rocket projects.

     Needing a way to introduce the basic concepts of rocketry, I stumbled upon a video produced by NERDS.  Nebraska Educators Really Doing Science was the self named group formed by a high school science teacher and a University of Nebraska professor  hailing from Lincoln.  They invented an inexpensive launch pad that allowed them to pump air into inverted two liter pop bottles.  These pressurized bottles acted as the motor to propel the rockets constructed on and around the bottles themselves.  After demonstrating the end over end flight of a bottle launched with nothing added to it (picture a football kicked off a tee), I would challenge my students to find a way to make them fly more efficiently (in other words, ‘straight’).  The only information provided by me were the construction rules:  1) anything attached to the bottle had to be made from paper or cardboard and 2) things could only be attached to the bottles using duct tape or with a hot glue gun.  From there it was strictly trial and error.  I also informed them they would need to learn what worked (and similarly what didn’t work) by observing how all the water powered rockets created in class performed.  The carrot at the end of the stick was, “Your group’s grade will depend on how well your SECOND rocket flies.  The first one is to test your ideas, the second one will be a more refined model IF you make careful observations during the first round of launches.”  

     After the first models were launched, we would discuss why some things worked and why some things didn’t.  If one model flew better than the others, we listed the characteristics that may have made it so.  If none of them  performed very well, the discussion would be about how ‘real rockets’ were engineered.  Once the students were given a few hints (like ‘rockets with ridged fins and a longer nose cone flew better because the center of gravity was moved as far forward as possible’), we would manage to get at least a couple of better flights.  A stable rocket would fly higher and take longer to get to the ground, so we used ‘time of flight’ as our evaluation tool.  If the rebuilt rockets also flew poorly, I let it be known that ‘improving’ their flight wasn’t the final grading criteria.  Explaining how they thought their modifications would improve the flight of their rockets was the key to a passing lab grade.  Examining failures is a better learning tool than one may think.  Even if the majority of the rockets created failed to perform, at least one or two groups would find the right combination of wings and nose cone to make an impressive, stable flight.  Either way, it was mission accomplished in terms of introducing the basics of rocket science.

     As soon as the Water Rocket lab reports were completed, each group would get the instructions for the Estes Viking rockets we would build next.  A water rocket was like a wiffle ball used to practice a golf stroke.  Wiffle golf balls will not travel far, but any flaw in one’s swing will show up as a big, banana curve in the ball’s flight.  Similarly, a water rocket won’t fly more than 100 to 150 feet up, but any design flaws will certainly show up in how it flies.  I explained that the Viking rockets would be propelled by a solid fuel engine, not air pressure.  Instead of reaching 200 feet, these rockets could, if well assembled, reach 2,000 feet.  With that said, students were required to read through the instructions and identify how the design would meet the ‘stabile flight’ characteristics they had explored with the water rockets.

     One last word of warning was given before they were allowed to touch the actual rocket parts:  “The three skills that will help you the most will be 1) reading – as in ‘read the directions’, 2) asking – as in ‘if you don’t understand something, ask me a question’, and 3) patience.  I will NOT build this for you and the only help will come in answer to your questions.”  Building a model at home isn’t difficult if one has a work area where things can be left from one session to the next.  Building a model during 55 minute class periods spread out over many days is a little more challenging.  In the end, it is a miniature example of what happened during the race to get humans into Earth orbit and ultimately to the Moon:  solve one problem at a time until you have a working rocket.  Some students loved the project and an equal number became frustrated by the model assembly process, but all of them learned something.  It was always a pleasure to see some who thought they had no model making skills assemble models that beat the pants off some of those who just assumed they could do it with their eyes shut.

     We tried to launch the rockets sometime before Halloween but as the rocket units got longer, the window for launching them in good weather got shorter and shorter.  The last fall launch we conducted was during one of those early snowdrops.  It was cool to see them flying through the gigantic flakes, but hard to track them once they got a little higher.  The next year, we just held on to the models and did the launch on a nice spring day close to the end of the school year.  It was always fun to set up on the football field and watch the kids on the playground for recess and the voc ed students in welding stop what they were doing to watch us poke holes in the sky.  The Ontonagon Rocket Group gradually disappeared because having all of my student’s build rockets left little room for building another one as a project.  Having amassed a stock of more expensive models over the years, I began giving those out as rewards for those whose rockets performed exceptionally well.  

     We had one year when the budget was trimmed to the point where we had to all cut back on our orders.  It dawned on me that I had two boxes of rockets students had never taken home at the end of the school year.  My budget saving solution was to hand out the rockets from previous years.  Each group was given one old rocket to ‘autopsy’ and a set of building directions so they could identify all the working parts.  Once they completed this act of purposeful destruction, they were given a second model to rehab into a functioning rocket.  It worked fine for that year and cleared two boxes of old rockets off my storeroom shelves, but I was happy to get back to business as usual the next year when our funding stabilized.  Now that I have some time on my hands, I think I will look into building a new rocket just to see if my model building skills have survived. 

If some brave soul wants to involve their students in a terrific hands on science lesson that includes building rockets, they know where to find me.

Top Piece Video:  Wayne Kramer and the MC50 line up he formed to celebrate 50 years of the MC 5 – so of course, we had to include this KEXP performance of Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama a Lama Fa Fa Fa)