Monday, May 5, 2014

The Fleet That Never Was

A comparison of launch vehicles from the early 1960's.
Image courtesy NASA
Today is the anniversary of Alan Shepard's suborbital flight, which signaled the official start of our accepting the Soviet "challenge". With this anniversary, I find myself reminiscing about my dreams of spaceflight.
Sometime in early 1968, my parents skimped and saved and bought a set of World Book Encyclopedia. For the next few years, I would wear this set out, namely volumes "A" and "S". "S" especially; that was where "space travel" lived.
I could barely read when we received it, but I certainly enjoyed the pictures. There was one page in particular, one that compared all the US launch vehicles, and elsewhere was a page that showed the different manned spacecraft, complete with the Vostok in its aerodynamic shell. I didn't need to read, though, I knew these spacecraft by heart.
For the first few years of our having this godsend, I accepted that not only was Apollo operational, but that somewhere the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft were still being saved for other missions, just in case. 
And why not?
By second grade, I was checking out space books a plenty from the school library. Most of these books were already seriously dated by 1970-71, and showed things like space stations serviced by Gemini spacecraft, or Mercury spacecraft with all manner of protrusions. Apollo was clearly being saved for the important lunar and deep space missions. 
All of this made sense to my young brain. You have a variety of spacecraft for a variety of missions.
Again, why not?
When I first heard about the "space shuttle", around 1971, it didn't quite sink in that it was to replace the Apollo and all manned spacecraft. It was about the same time that I learned the painful truth.
There were no other "spaceships" being kept in reserve. 
In fact, there would be only a few more missions to the Moon.
This bothered me a great deal.
It seemed to me that we had gone through all this effort to build an infrastructure to allow us access to space, and were letting it go. At least we had the shuttle that was to come, and was set to provide regular access to space. 
As I grew, I discovered more and more just how the space program was really viewed. By the time I became a teenager, I was bullied mercilessly for a number of reasons, among them the fact that I was a "space freak". It was also apparent that the "adults" cared little for space as well. 
Political points were made, we proved we could beat the Soviets, game, set, match, the end. 
When the shuttle finally flew in 1981, more than two years behind schedule, space started being cool again, thanks to movies like the "Star Wars" saga and other science fiction flicks. Those dreams that the child I once had were replaced by a reality that was a lot less interesting, but still promising. 
I suspect that the child I was would be crushed to know that a little more than a decade into the 21st century we'd have gone no further than low Earth orbit.
But these are good times, there is potential, we can stir the pot again, and maybe, just maybe, keep those dreams going. 
At least that's what Robert Ray Little, age seven, would want. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Building the Pitsco "Model A"

Pitsco is a great science education company. Just a visit to their website can provide science crazy kids with great ideas. One thing they do nicely is rocketry. Currently, they carry many Estes products, as well as water rockets and various other aerospace education products.
They have a design of their own that they simply call a "solid fuel rocket". I prefer to call it the "Pitsco Model A"; their product ID is W13230. My first taste of this kit was when I was asked to build and evaluate one for the South Florida Science Museum back in late 2001. I also ordered one for myself, and it has remained untouched since that time. 

The Pitsco Rocket, ca. 2000
Since I've begun thinking about rockets in education again, I felt it was time to re-examine this kit. Even though it has been more than a decade, the people at Pitsco have apparently not changed the kit (though at some point they did produce one with a ready made body tube. More on that in a bit). So, I decided to build the model, and look at areas for improvement. We'll follow the instructions to a point, but there will be some changes along the way. We will also be adding a glue stick to our materials.

Package contents.
This hasn't changed at all since this model was purchased.
Body Tube - 
Before we commence, you will want to make sure that your working surface is flat and as smooth as possible. In the instructions, they recommend using a regular sheet of printer paper, rolling an 11 inch (275 mm) tube around the clear plastic (the form). Once you have it wrapped, you then glue the remaining edge down. This is our first area of modification. Wrap the sheet around a couple of times to help "train" it. Use an end of the clear tube as a guide. Then, go back to the innermost edge and use the glue stick to fasten that inner edge. 

Be careful here, as the trick is to make sure that you do not inadvertently glue the paper to the form. Make sure that this is down fairly tight. Once you've done this, use the glue stick to "draw" a tight zig-zig pattern heading towards the outer edge, but not completely to it; leave about 1" (25 mm). Also add glue along the top and bottom of the sheet. Once you've done this, start rolling the tube. When you reach the remaining edge, use a thin bead of white glue at the wrapped section and roll the rest of the sheet, pressing down to move the glue along. Once you have the inner tube formed, use the white glue to secure the edge down completely. It is best to let this dry completely before moving on to the gummed tape. 

The first layer of the red gummed tape is per the instructions, though I found it was better to use the exposed edge of the first layer as a guide. By the way, this 3" (76 mm) wide strip will not completely wrap around the tube, so expect a gap.

Make sure the first gummed layer is cut to 11" (276 mm).

And there's the gap.
The next layer of the gummed tape calls for it to be cut at a 45° angle. This is pretty easy to do (cut back at an angle to a point equal to the width of the tape), but they are vague when it comes to attaching it to the tube. What I found was that it is easiest if you start with the angled edge first, and start rolling from there. As with the first layer, we will use the edge of the plastic tube form as a starting point, making sure that the newly cut edge wraps around once the tape has been moistened. Also, this remaining layer is supposed to use the remaining tape, supposedly 18" (about 46 cm). The strip I had was longer, so I cut the piece to the specified length. 

It is this spiral wrap that is trickiest, so be patient. Make sure that the tape is adequately moistened, but not overly so. You need it to be wet enough to allow for repositioning, but not terribly so. Once the tape has been moistened, it will flatten out easier, but even more so than the first layer, we need to move judiciously. Wrap the tape carefully and evenly. There will be about a 1/4" (6 mm) overlap. When you reach the end of the tape, you may need to slide the form so that it is flush with the two previous layers. This is to prevent this third layer from adhering to the form. Once we've reached the end, and all of the remaining tape, set the tube aside to dry. 

Engine Mount - 
Now we're going to jump ahead to the engine mount. One thing I do like about the instructions on this kit is that they want you to insert the engine mount after the rocket has been built and painted. That's actually the way I prefer, but for this build, we're going to build the engine mount ahead of time, and insert it before completion to make the rocket sturdier. We're also going to modify the engine mount.
As specified in the instructions, the engine lock is held into place by the spacer rings. This is okay, but not terribly strong. After a few launches, the lock will be prone to shifting. Remember that every time an engine ignites, it basically kicks the rocket off the pad. 

Note the engine tube.
This is a glimpse of what will need to be done.
My suggestion is to move the lock further down the tube. We will make a slit 1/4" (6 mm) down from the top of the tube. 

Once we have done that, slip one end of the engine lock into place. 

We will attach the top ring first, and as per instructions, it will be 1/8" (3 mm) from the top of the tube, covering the top of the clip. As for the second ring. The instructions call for it to be mounted so that the bottom of the ring is at 1" (25 mm). In our version, we will slide it up so that only the top is at that point. 

The engine lock is not quite positioned straight here, but otherwise
the mount is finished.
There is a problem that seems to show up on some of these kits, and this one was no exception. The mounting rings are too small for the inside of the body tube. My solution was to cut a 1 5/8" (about 42 mm) by 7" (177 mm) and wrap this around both rings. I found that the glue stick was the best solution for getting this started, but you will want to use white glue on the rings themselves. Use the glue stick for the rest of the wrap. 

Final Body Tube Assembly - 
Back to the body tube. There will be some trimming needed to clean it up. My suggestion is the use a strip of paper about 2" (50 mm) wide. This paper needs to have a straight edge, and wrapped around the tube so that this edge is aligned, and then taped. Mark the tube at 11" (275 mm) from the "bottom", and slide our paper wrap to that point. Use a pen to draw a line around the tube along the edge of the wrap. 

Once satisfied with the line (which should line up with the inner layers), use small scissors to remove the excess. Also trim the bottom of the body tube as needed, being sure to move the form as necessary. At this point, the tube is complete. 

Make the marks for the positioning of the fins and launch lug as needed, per the instructions. Before they are attached, we will insert the completed engine mount. You will want to slide it in until the engine tube is flush with the bottom of the body tube. Use white glue for this, and make sure that you are fairly quick and steady as you insert the mount.

Fins & Patterns - 
Before we move on to the fins, another recommendation. Rather than cutting the patterns out from the instruction booklet, I recommend photocopying that page, especially as the shock cord mount is on there as well. This allows the instruction booklet to be kept intact for reference later.

My all-in-one does color copies by default.
It might look like the fin material (which appears to be a thick fiber or Bristol board) is insufficient for the three fins, but it is all really a matter of positioning the pattern. 

Once the patterns were transferred, I cut the fins out with a razor knife. They can be cut with scissors, but be warned, this is some very tough material, and again I urge patience. 
With the fins cut, construction proceeds as usual. To attach my fins, I used Aileen's Tacky Glue. First, I applied a thin bead of glue to the fin roots (where the notches are located). Then, I pressed the fin to their marked positions on the body tube, but removed them. Allow this glue to dry. This pre-glueing will ensure a stronger joint. Once the glue has finished setting, apply another bead of glue, this time not as thin, to the fin root again, and attach each unit again, making sure they are properly aligned and positioned. 
Once the fins are attached, allow them to set. This is best done slowly. You might be able to insert the plastic tube again to hold the rocket while the fins set. When they have set, apply a bead of white glue to each side of the roots; these fillets not only help to reinforce the fin attachment point, they also help to streamline the rocket. 

Finishing the Rocket; My Approach (Optional) - 
Now, you can finish the rocket, following the rest of the instructions. Can the rocket be flown unpainted? Certainly. Since we inserted the engine mount prior to painting, we will paint the rocket using a different technique. Instead of using the plastic tube, I use rolled up newspaper to hold the rocket, though that is just a choice (I plan on reusing the tube). For my rocket, I applied a primer coat to allow for smoothing of the body tube. 

Once that set, I smoothed it down with the back of a piece of fine sandpaper, basically polishing up the body (the fins were fine). Once I was satisfied with that, I applied a coat of gloss white. 

This was allowed to set, and a final coat of high gloss dark red ("Robert's rockets are red") was applied, and my usual test pattern red/white checker board vinyl decal material used to decorate the rocket. 

The final product is over 14" (350 mm) in length, and fairly light. On an A8-3, it performs very well, climbing easily to a couple hundred feet (around 60 meters). I imagine on a C class engine, it should put on quite a show. 

Conclusion & The Pitsco "Model B"  -
Hopefully, these little changes to this design should make this little rocket that much more durable. The hardest part of this kit is that body tube, and as I mentioned, we're going to discuss it. At some point, Pitsco made a version of this kit with a regular model rocket body tube. The finished body tube appears to be just about BT-52 in size. This version, one that I have dubbed the Pitsco Model B, no longer appears to be available. Certainly, it might just be as easy to buy a ready made BT-52 tube and go that route, and maybe in some situations that would be preferable. But for the price (currently just $5.95 USD), it's hard to compete against the Pitsco Model A. It may be challenging, but it has plenty of potential. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dirty Birds, Starlings & Educational Rockets

Way back in 2002, I wanted to find a way to manufacture some inexpensive model rockets for teaching purposes. After having a couple of students make what could only be described "death machines" (and which I would not allow to fly), I felt the need to design something a bit more stable, inherently. 
Plastic fin sets were the logical choice, but the rockets that were available at the time that had these, the venerable Estes Alpha III, their smaller Gnome, or a couple of the Quest kits, were not cheap enough, not when compared to the Estes Vikings we had used.
Which was really a pity. The Viking started off as a Centuri rocket meant for the Boy Scouts of America. It has five fiberboard fins that can be arranged in a number of ways, allowing for full customization of each rocket. There are problems with this approach, though.
The first, and perhaps greatest, is student patience. They rush the construction, and this leads to other problems. 
These other problems are unevenly spaced fins, fins too far up the rocket (playing deadly games with CG/CP), weakly and poorly attached fins. Other problems had to do with the manner in which the rockets were built. Good old white glue, like Elmer's Glue All, is sufficient, but sometimes you find, especially in classroom situations, that someone has refilled the student bottles with Elmer's School Glue, a thinner, weaker variant. 
All of these problems came home to roost in the summer of 2002, when I had to tell a couple of students that their rockets couldn't fly.
I wanted to avoid that.
So, I set out to find an inexpensive alternative.

This quest to find the perfect educational model rocket actually began in 2001 while I was at the South Florida Science Museum. A year or so before I arrived, they received some kits from Pitsco. These rockets are unique in that they require that the student roll their own body tube. I was asked to evaluate one. I found that with my years of experience rolling the tube really wasn't that hard, but I wondered how easy it would be for a student, especially younger ones. From that point on, I concentrated on using the kits from Estes and Quest. Still problems persisted, as I previously mentioned.
About the same time, I was looking into the history of model rocketry and perusing some online scans of old model rocket newsletters. One of these, "Model Rocketry News", volume 2, number 1, February 1962, contained a plan by the one and only G. Harry Stine, one of the originators of the hobby and for many years its most prolific advocate. This rocket was the "Dirty Bird III". It utilized plastic components that Estes sold at the time, components that clearly showed their firework roots. The model was built around the BT-40 body tube, an old size that also has its origins in fireworks. 

I wanted to build my own copy of this model, and asked around online to the various model rocket groups I belonged to. Someone suggested that I check Firefox Enterprises, as they carried fin sets, tubes, and nose cones that matched the ones used on the Dirty Bird III.
Wanting to be sure, I contacted the company to check on the shape of the fin unit, and sent them a rudimentary GIF drawing. The salesperson replied that yes, those were the fins. The body tubes were shorter, however. She also mentioned that the cones were just that, cones, though she didn't know what I meant when I asked about how they fit on the tubes. 
Feeling confident, I ordered the components. I went one step further, however. These rockets were ordered for my rocketry class at the Talcott Mountain Science Center. If the Dirty Bird III was really made from similar components, these would be equally easy. 
What arrived, though, was not quite what I was expecting.
The fin units did not quite match those found on the original Dirty Bird III. 

Not only that, the opening in the bottom was around 9/16" (14 mm) in diameter, perfect for mini-engines, not standard 18 mm engines that we had in abundance. The nose cones were not quite what I was expecting, but not really surprising either; they were the standard "sky rocket" type that fit over the tube. The tubes were also a little rough, but at least they were colored.

Undaunted, I pressed on. I'd make do.
Thus was born the "Starling", my own little "Dirty Bird" (if you know birds, you will understand the reason for that name). 
I had to produce thirty kits. The first thing I did was to open up the fin cans to allow 18 mm engines.

To retain the engine, I made engine hooks from coat hangers. This entailed cutting and shaping thirty of them. The rockets would use crepe paper streamers; I've been using this for years, as it is flame retardant and very inexpensive, as well as light. Thirty were made, each 18" (450 mm) long. Each kit contained an elastic shock cord, also 18". Rounding out each kit was a launch lug, made from yellow hard plastic tubing used for mylar balloons. These were cut to 2" (50 mm).
There were some quirks that I didn't like. My original method for mounting the shock cord to the nose cone didn't work, so we went to making a small hole in the side of the cone, running the cord through, and knotting it. The engine hooks were made from soft coat hanger wire, which bent easily, and had to be mounted externally, slightly marring the rockets appearance. 
But even with these quirks, the rockets flew fine, and in fact were pretty tough. Every one of them flew. Every student was happy, though I heard from parents that the rockets did look like fireworks. They usually found it humorous. 
In 2005, I made a second batch for EcoEd in Jacksonville, "Starling-A". These had one modification; the nose cones now had the shock cord attached to the inside of the nose by means of a wooden bead, that I threaded the cord through and epoxied in place before hand. I also picked up a new batch of white tubing for the launch lugs that was supposed to be the same size as the previous yellow lugs. What happened, though, was that these little tubes were not consistent. Some were less than the advertised 3.5 mm internal diameter, and ended up jamming on the launch rods. I was horribly embarrassed. 
I gave up on the design. Until recently.
Once more, my mind has turned to the problem of the best educational rocket, and again I wonder if these components can be used to produce something truly useful. To that end, a test rocket has been assembled, the first "Starling Mk. II", Little Aerospace Model R-2. I am awaiting the arrival of more components. This is to be a small field bird, and a low altitude one at that.
With any luck, the STA (Starling Test Article, designated R-2X) will reveal any short comings in the design. That's my hope, at any rate.

We'll find out soon enough.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Meet The R-3

This is the final product of my little scratch built rocket experiment, "Robert's Red Rocket", or R-3 for short. Considering how rough the tube was initially, it came out pretty nice. Fins could probably be a little smoother (I used two coats of Testor's flat olive green as a primer), but the glossy red paint job looks sharp. Need to install a streamer, but otherwise, it is ready to go.
And I am happy with it. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Behold the Scratch Built Rocket

It has been almost twenty years since I built a model rocket like this one. There are no commercial model rocket parts in its creation. In fact, you can call this a "craft store rocket". 
Really, it isn't much to look at. It's downright homely. The body tube, rolled from poster board and using a technique derived from the work of James Yawn  is just 5.5" (140 mm)long, 3/4" (18 mm) internal diameter, and just a shade under 1" (24 mm) outside diameter. It is not perfectly circular; instead of using spray adhesive, I used thinned wood glue, which was not spread as smoothly as it could have been. On the inside is an engine block, made from a strip of 1/8" (3 mm) poster board that was wrapped around the nearest thing I could find that was close to 1/2" (12.7 mm) in diameter; a AA battery. This was wrapped around until it matched the internal diameter of the body tube, and then glued about 2 3/8" (60 mm) from the bottom of the body tube. 
The nose cone is built from a core that used one of those 2 3/8" (60 mm) wooden peg men or game pieces. I built a washer that brought it up to the same diameter as the outside of the body tube, and used a card stock shroud to give it that nice conical shape up to the "head". 
Still need to smooth that part out.
The three fins are perhaps a bit too thin, using 1/16" (1.6 mm) balsa I had on hand. Their design is as old as model rocketry itself, reminiscent of the fins found on such classic birds as the Estes Big Bertha, or perhaps more appropriately, the Model Missiles Inc. Rock-A-Chute Mark II, the first true commercial model rocket. Their design is almost fool proof. Its sweep and area insures that most of the center of pressure is a bit further back on the model, but on this rocket, with that very heavy nose, this probably was not necessary. 
For a launch lug, I used a bright green Post-It note I had on hand, wrapped around a 1/8" (3 mm) dowel. 
There's still work to be done. Obviously, it needs to be finished. I have the screw eyes to attach the recovery system, but I am still not sure what to use (leaning towards streamer). 
The finished rocket stands around 9" (225 mm) tall. 
It is, however, 100% mine.
My first attempt at scratch building a rocket goes all the way back to kindergarten, but that wasn't a flyer. My fellow students and I were each given one green, one yellow, and one red piece of construction paper, and then we a pattern to make the nose. The rest was much simpler. I figured out the cone very quickly. My rocket had a green tube, yellow nose, and red fins. 
It was my first "model rocket".
It was in the spring of 1975 that I made my first scratch built model rocket for flying, and it was horrible. None of the rockets I owned at that time were usable, and some of the neighborhood kids were launching at Brookview Field, just behind our house. I had an engine, an Estes 1/2A6-2 (which were leftover from a pack I bought to launch my friend Craig's Estes Astron X-Ray; by the way, that is the absolute wrong choice for that rocket). I decided to throw together a rocket from what was on hand, and that meant a toilet paper tube, some cardboard, and a makeshift streamer from crepe paper. 
It went together in about thirty minutes. 
And never flew. 
By the time I got out there, they were packing their things away. 
The groups de facto leader, though, decided to humor this strange little twelve year old broke out his launch pad. I had my the rocket ready to go, with my one igniter. 
A word about those old igniters.
Before the newer low current igniters ("Solar Igniters", now known, inexplicably, as "Starters"), there were older designs that were nothing more than nichrome wire with a length of flammable material painted on them near their centers. These igniters required a lot of current to work, at a minimum 6V supplied in the form of six D sized batteries.
His was a motorcycle battery.
As luck would have it, his battery was exhausted. 
When we tried to launch my rocket, the igniter failed.
So, I thanked him for the effort, removed the engine, tossed the rocket in a waste barrel next to the baseball diamond, and headed home.
This still unnamed rocket is the spiritual heir of that rocket. Like that one, it has been thrown together with material that was either on hand or easy to get. And like that rocket it was thrown together because I am suffering from a colossal case of "rocket fever". 
Years have taught me, though.
In a few days, it will be finished, receive a paint job, hopefully taste the air at speed.
Well, that's the plan at any rate.

Monday, March 17, 2014

On The Wings of Apollo, Really

The 1960's were a heady time for space exploration. Many of the designs that were being churned out by the various agencies and companies were marvelous, sometimes odd, always interesting. There were also dozens of proposed variants of most  of the actual crewed spacecraft. 
The Apollo program had numerous such proposals. The Apollo Applications Program was a way to look beyond the 1960's, well into the 70's and beyond, for uses of Apollo derived hardware. Only one of those larger proposals would ever see the light of day, the Skylab space station. Many of these post-lunar mission proposals would be written about extensively. Sometimes, however, projects seem to fly just below the general public's radar, and many contractor studies seem to have never been published in detail. 
One such study dates back to the mid-1960's, before the Apollo even flew its first mission. In the U.S. Patent Office archive you can find design 213,146. This was filed in November of 1967 by three engineers at North American Rockwell; Burton Barnett, Frederick Raymes, and Thomas A. Sackinger. They were proposing a vastly different Apollo spacecraft. 
Their version had wings.

This early version would continue to be refined, and in April of 1971, the USPO would issue it patent number 3,576,298. 


Their design had many features that made it better than lifting bodies (in their opinion), and included a small cargo bay. It would be able to do on orbit work, deploy, maybe even repair, satellites, and possibly be used to support space stations. In their final patent design, they proposed using the Saturn V to launch it; I suspect that it could have been lofted by an enhanced Saturn IB as well, which would have been a far cheaper alternative. 

By the time the patent was awarded, however, the space shuttle was being developed. As luck would have it, their employer, Rockwell, would win the contract. 
In short, the winged Apollo was an in-house study that went no further, but it was still one that they felt had enough merit to patent. 
I wonder if it could be developed. I look at its shape and question its ability to re-enter. Those swing wings could have proven troublesome, and the original ablative material might not have been sufficient. If, and this is a great big if, it had been developed, I have little doubt that changes that made it into the shuttle would have found their way here. In my interpretation, I have stuck with most of the major features, such as the jettisonable engine bell and how the landing gear would extend. The changes I chose to make are to the ablative material, here using a tile and blanket system similar to the one found on the shuttle. In my drawing, it is coming for a landing at the skid strip at Canaveral Air Force Station. 
Aside from the patent information, I have been unable to find any more information about this design. Sadly, as it looked to be such an interesting, if somewhat wild, idea. 

If you are interested in viewing the original patents, here are their links via Google Patent Search.

Friday, March 14, 2014

When The Rockets Were Real

The cover to the 1972 Estes Model Rocket Catalog.
Image courtesy and Estes
I discovered model rockets in late 1969, when one launched from the school yard next to my grandparent's house landed in the street. Somehow, I missed the rocket coming down, but didn't miss the teenager running through the yard (much to my grandfather's chagrin), into the street, grabbing the rocket, and running, once more, through my grandparent's yard (chagrin level unchanged). I wanted to watch them, but someone told me they were just fireworks, and they were illegal. Not wanting to upset an adult, I chose to return to the house. 
A few weeks later, my first grade class had our first real field trip of the year, and one of the places we visited was Rowlab in downtown Jacksonville, a science supply and hobbyist store. We saw many demonstrations by Mr. Rowland himself (something of a local celebrity at the time), and as we were leaving, we were allowed to look around. This was when I discovered his model rocket section. There were dozens of kits. 
I was a poor kid from the Brookview area of the recently consolidated Jacksonville, and didn't have the money. But the idea was planted firmly in my mind.
It would be almost four years later before I would finally get to buy my first kits. It started when my family made a trip to Montgomery Wards in the old Philips Mall off of US-1 (Philips Highway). They had an entire section in their toy and hobby center dedicated to model rockets. This time, my ten year old mind absorbed what it could. While I didn't have the money then, I knew that soon I would. In August of that year, my grandmother took me to Art's Hobby Shop, where I bought my first three model rocket kits; an Astron Streak, a Mini-Brute Hornet, and the Mercury capsule payload/nose cone, all by Estes. None of these would see the end of summer, being damaged when we moved.
As luck would have it, we moved almost directly next door to Art's Hobby Shop. 
It was September of 1973, and I ventured over there one day to gaze longingly at the wall of rockets. I didn't have much, but I did leave there with something. For 25¢, I came home with the 1972 Estes Catalog.
Yes, he had the newer catalogs (the 1974 was just about to come out, in fact), but I liked how the 1972 copy looked. It looked futuristic, like some of the books I had seen with illustrations by Robert McCall. Beginning on page 32, though, was the most important section to me.
The "Model Rocketry Technical Manual", by William Simon of Estes. 
Image courtesy Estes.
This was more important to me then just any old rocket. This technical manual proved to my ten year old mind that model rocketry wasn't just some toys. It was a science. Rocket science. We took that science very seriously then. It was still fun, make no mistake.
There were many other technical reports by Estes and the other model rocket companies at the time. For instance, if you bought the Centuri X-24 Bug lifting body, you had a technical report included that covered the basics of wingless flight, as well as ideas for experiments involving the X-24 kit itself. The manufacturers were doing their best to educate their customers. It had been this way since the then fairly young hobby had started in the late 1950's. 
These weren't just toys. These were real. Model rocketry was real rocketry, just smaller. 
What I failed to grasp was that just as I was  getting into model rocketry, the hobby was on a slight decline. This was pretty much the case with too many things that were space related during that period. Estes and the other companies would produce some astounding kits over the coming years, but sales appeared to be going flat. By the 1980's, Estes would acquire Centuri, while other companies simply faded. The "Model Rocketry Technical Manual" would only appear in a few catalogs, and by 1974 would be gone as well. The seriousness of this hobby seemed to be vanishing. 
That downward arch would seem to continue.
Some years back, I noted how most model rocket kits looked so incredibly toylike. Quest Aerospace, founded by the son of the great G. Harry Stine, Bill, had been acquired by ToyBiz, and shipped all their tooling to Asia, where some of it would be permanently altered, and not in a good way. Estes was doing no better. In the late 1990's, they would produce a series of "Star Wars" kits that were some of the worse flyers I had ever seen. These new kits from both Estes and Quest were heavy beasts, and while stable, seemed to lack an appetite for altitude. Sure, mid and high power rocketry was booming along, but entry level seemed to be... lacking. 
There does seem to be some change.
Over the past few years, Estes has started to overhaul its image and line. Bill Stine reacquired Quest. There seems to be some movement to keep the hobby going, and even headed back towards its roots.
But I wonder if it will ever be like it was when I was so very young, when the catalogs were more than just a place to look at the product line. It was a place to learn about the hobby as well. Maybe the seriousness is returning. 
It is rocket science, after all. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Going Up By Getting Small

A rough idea of scale; a Microlauncher on the left,
the Vanguard rocket on the right. Image by Robert Little
Back in 1989, I was given a task by my friend Dr. Mike Reynolds to build some models of the various launch vehicles, and as is typical with me, I decided to take it to the next level and build a few more. Two additional models I built were the Japanese Lambda 4S and the American Vanguard booster. Both were in 1/96, and what struck me the most were how small they really were. 
This fascination with small satellite boosters led to wondering if it would be possible for a small group of people, or maybe even just an individual, to build and launch their own satellite atop their own booster. The template for me was the Lambda 4S. It was slightly smaller than the Vanguard, and far simpler. A little imaginative planning on my part produced Project LAREDO.
While I no longer remember what LAREDO stood for (it was an acronym), much of it I do recall. It would have been a three stage solid fuel rocket that stood 35 feet (10.7 meters), and around 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter at the first stage. There would have been three solid boosters on the first stage, between each of the fins. Like the L-4S, the second stage would have also had a set of fins, and also relied upon a combination of ballistic and aerodynamics to guide its way into orbit.
Once I began work on how it was to be built, I started discovering how difficult it was going to be. While solid fuel rockets are far simpler to operate, their manufacturing isn't. The machinery required can become very pricey in a hurry. 
Liquid fuel rockets, while more complicated to operate, are much easier to build. There are also many other pluses to the design, such engines that can be throttled more effectively and shut down if needed. The complicated machinery needed to build large solid fuel rockets is negated. 
In the early 1990's, there were several groups on the West Coast that were experimenting with building liquid fuel rockets with the ultimate goal of putting an amateur satellite into orbit. Notable amongst them was the Pacific Rocket Society. During the first part of the 1990's, they were headed up by Charles Pooley, and they had that lofty goal of placing a very small payload into orbit. They managed a few tests during that time, demonstrating proof of concept. Charles Pooley is now working on what he calls "MicroLaunchers", and the goal of simply placing something in orbit can be seen as a stepping stone towards ventures even further afield. I caught up with Mr. Pooley on March 4th, 2014, with a few questions, as well expressing a few concerns of my own where CubeSats and other small satellite designs are concerned. 

Robert Little (RL) - It seems to me that many of the micro and CubeSat builders and enthusiasts haven't really given a lot of though on how to get their creations aloft (this isn't always necessarily the case, but seems perhaps a little too common). Certainly, there are the normal means, such as piggybacking on larger payloads, but then you are relying on that payload going into a similar orbit.
Charles Pooley (CP) - No, they don't give it any thought whatsoever. They assume that being a secondary payload is the only way to do it, and it is not. For one thing, it's not very cheap. The price ranges from $80,000 to $125,000 for a 1U launch, and nothing bigger than that.
(Note - 1U is the size of a standard CubeSat, 100mm square)
But the Microlauncher concept is far more that just CubeSats or small satellites. Long term plan is for true escape velocity for smaller payloads. Satellites by themselves aren't really useful. They don't help advance the exploration of space in anyway any more.
From the beginning, the premise was based on somewhat smaller escape velocity payloads. When I first worked this out in 1995, it was about 1 lbs (454 gram) payload, but since I have reduced it down to about 200 grams (7 oz). Liftoff weight including propellant will almost certainly be less than 200 kg (440 lbs), around 150 kg (330 lbs).
RL - So when you are saying "Microlauncher", you are truly meaning "micro launcher". Let's take a moment to talk about the launcher itself, since that's really my main area of interest here. Just how big (or small) would a typical Microlauncher be?
CP - Presently, we're looking at up to 10 inches (250 mm) in diameter and about 13 feet (4 meters) in length. 

Those dimensions are amazing. In this case, we're talking about a launch vehicle that is not much larger than some high power amateur rockets. To date, the smallest ground based satellite launcher has been the Lambda 4S, at around 54 feet (16.45 m). 

RL - So far, the smallest launch vehicles I've written about were the Japanese Lambda 4-S series. 
CP - They are mentioned in the book, that and the Vanguard. This isn't counting the thing carried by the F-15, the ASAT. It hasn't even been determined if one of those went into orbit. 
RL - I know that during the late 1950's and early 1960's the US Navy was conducting Project PILOT, which were air launched attempts utilizing F4D Skyrays and later F-4 Phantoms. They were small, but they never struck me as particularly practical, as not everyone has access to supersonic aircraft.
CP - Correct, and it hasn't even been considered that air launch is more expensive than ground launch. The costs of having additional propellant and rising from the ground is less than having and operating an airplane, I think. About the only thing that is practical with air launch is the ability to launch wherever you need to. 

For a long time, it seemed to me that an air launched rocket might offer some advantages. But after reading up on Project Pilot and the several attempts that were made, it seemed more of a pipe dream. The most successful air launch vehicle to date is Orbital Science's Pegasus, and it is truly a different class of launch vehicle. 

RL - As far as stability and guidance, what methods are you considering? Are we looking at gimballing, fins?
CP - For the upper stages, I'm thinking the method that (Robert H.) Goddard used to use, paddles in the exhaust. That method ought to work well in a vacuum, where the exhaust expands. The first stage will probably use a steerable engine. 

So while the Microlauncher concept may be small, it is in reality far from simple. It is hoped that this very small class of launchers could truly open up not just low Earth orbit, but delving deeper into space, with a variety of missions, including but not limited to lunar and deep space. As mentioned, the resulting probes would have to be very small, but as they say, once you're in orbit, you're halfway to anywhere. 
If you want to find out more about the Microlauncher concept, I recommend checking out his website, Microlaunchers. He has also co-authored a book on the subject with Ed LeBouthillier, "Microlaunchers: Technology for a New Space Age
Perhaps one day there will be tiny little armadas of miniature space probes cruising the Solar System. If so, we might have Charles Pooley and Microlaunchers to thank.  

Friday, February 28, 2014

Saturday, March 1st, 1980

The original plans for the Renger Sky Slash II
Courtesy Estes & Jim Z's Rocket Plans
Saturday, March 1st, 1980 dawned crisp and clear. The temperatures outside were nice, typical late winter in northeast Florida. For me, it was an extremely important day.
My Catholic Youth Organization chapter was having a "kite day" in the field next to the Sandalwood neighborhood. I wouldn't be flying kites that day, however. My model rocket club, the United Star Fleet (USF) would be putting on a demonstration launch. We had launched from this field dozens of times, and during all seasons. This would also be the first competition we would have. 
We weren't an officially sanctioned NAR (National Association of Rocketry) chapter. Instead, we were a group of friends who loved rocketry and space travel. There were six of us initially that day including myself. My friends Alan Hastings, Joe Massal, the Horne brothers, Lance and Steve, and their father Gene, were there that morning. Shortly after arriving, though, the elder Mr. Horne had to leave, so in the end it was just the five of us. I was the club "president", as well as its founder. There were no formal rules. We built, and we flew.
This time, though, there would be that competition, with an emphasis on gliding time aloft. Four of the members had built Renger Sky Slashes II's. This design was one of the first successful boost gliders. The design, by Larry Renger, dated to May of 1963. One of my neighbors had been into model rocketry early on, but was now in college, so he gave me quite a bit of material from those early days. This plan was in one of those early publications, and was quickly passed around and copied by the members of the USF. I didn't have the time to build my Sky Slash II, but I did look on in envy at the slick looking gliders that Joe, Alan, and the Horne boys had built. Joe's was the most distinctive. It was overall gloss red with black trim and German Iron Crosses. The other gliders were more workman like in appearance, variously painted yellow, white and blue. Steve's was the only one that looked almost as daring as Joe's, being primarily golden yellow with dark blue trim, Sandalwood Jr. & Sr. High's colors. 
The Sky Slash II flying surface patterns.
Courtesy Estes  & Jim Z's Rocket Plans
By 11 A.M. that morning, we had our three launch pads lined up. A steady wind came from southeast, not strong but still brisk enough. This made us set up in the field behind an old two story boarding house on the southeastern corner of the field at Mindanao and Bahia Drives. We weren't allowed to use their parking lot, so we went further into the field. Lance and Alan had cars. For Lance, it was an old compact station wagon. Alan, on the other hand, showed up in a real classic, a Studebaker President, that belonged to his father. Joe and I arrived on bikes. For me, it really wasn't that much of a ride, since I only lived a few blocks away.
The field at the edge of the Sandalwood neighborhood,
the way it looked on March 1st, 1980.
The dot is where we launched
The first rocket to go up was going to be Joe's "Red Baron" Sky Slash. I don't remember why it was chosen, but believe it had to do with a coin toss. He took little time to prep the rocket, and soon it was sitting on one of our Estes Port-a-Pads. 
Joe was the thriftiest amongst us, as well as the most daring. A short time before, he had purchased, in bulk, a box load of older Estes and Centuri model rocket engines from Art's Hobby Shop (our local hangout). Many of these engines dated back to the 1960's, and were prone to misfires and the occasional CATO (Catastrophe At Take Off). This didn't faze Joe, and for this, the first flight of his Red Baron, he had chosen an ancient Estes B series engine. 
Once the glider was ready to go, we all participated in the standard five second countdown, and once zero was reached, Joe pressed the ignition button, and the red rocket glider shot skyward in a slightly backwards arching flight, with a very sparky engine providing the thrust. At about two hundred feet, the ejection charge kicked the engine out of the rocket glider, moving its center of gravity back to the wings and looping the glider. It then assumed a level, circling glide, and began following the wind deep into the field.
With Joe, Alan, Lance and Steve now involved with the recovery of the Red Baron in the waist tall golden meadow grass, I started back towards the launch pads. 
As I approached, I noticed something. 
There was a black disk in the grass that seemed to be radiating away from the Port-a-Pad. It was growing.
The grass was on fire.
It hadn't rained since mid-January. We had gone six weeks with barely any precipitation, and the grass in the field was extremely dry. By the time I spotted this expanding black disk, it was already over five feet in diameter. This burning disk was expanding with the wind, and moving towards the tall grass.
"We have a fire at the pads!" I shouted as loud as I could. Every head looked back in my direction, and soon the search for Joe's Red Baron was abandoned as everyone ran back to the launching area. 
Next to the boarding house, two kids were playing. I shouted at them if we could use their water hose. Instead, they just stood up and watched. Alan and Steve took off their jackets and were batting the fire, which within a few minutes had scorched an area over fifty feet across. 
It was heading towards the tall grass.
"We can't stop it!" someone yelled. 
With that, it hit the tall meadow grass, and the field seemed to explode into an inferno.
Within minutes, two fire companies arrived and began laying down a parameter. They were more interested in keeping it from reaching the Pic-n-Save and the other strip mall at the corner of St. John's Bluff Road and Atlantic Boulevard. Nearby Craig Field diverted air traffic for a time, due to smoke drifting over the airport. Twenty minutes in, an Army National Guard UH-1D with a bucket appeared, out of nowhere, and dumped water on the western end of the field. 
One of the saddest sights were the rabbits. Hundreds of them were running from the field, and it was breaking my heart. We had known that there was a warren in there for sometime, and I felt helpless as the scared animals ran from their homes and into the streets. 
As a third company arrived, the weather began to change. Clouds began rolling in, and it looked as though we might just get some rain. But it wasn't soon enough. 
Within an hour and a half, it was done.
The field was almost completely leveled. The few pine trees in the field still stood, their trunks blackened but otherwise unfazed.  The cabbage palms, as well as a large number of wax myrtles, were damaged even more severely. The only portions of the field that were relatively untouched were the western third as well as the area near the eastern edge (next to the playground equipment that generally stood unused alongside Mindanao Drive, and where we normally launched). Where the launch pads had first stood was untouched, though the cars and equipment were moved when the inferno began. There was an area behind both the Pic-n-Save and the neighboring stores that was untouched as well; a fire company parked their trucks along that strip, and sprayed the area down solidly. 
When it was all done, I walked resolutely into the field until I found the captain of the first fire company to arrive.
"Sir," I said, tears forming in my eyes, "my name is Robert Little, I'm president of the model rocket club. This was our fault. It was an accident. We didn't mean to start this fire, we've never had problems like this before."
He was a muscular man, with a really thick moustache. Judging from the salt and pepper in his hair, and his rugged looks, he had battled many blazes. I wasn't sure what was about to happen next.
Looking at me, he tilted his helmet back, looked around a couple of times, and then looked at me again.
"Son, we've been trying to have controlled burns here for months. Only got an acre or two done. By accident, you burnt the entire field down. We let it. All we did was to keep it contained." Then he laughed, "I should be thanking you!" 
I nodded.
"Next time, you need to keep someone by your launch pads, maybe get a fire extinguisher. Got it?" he asked.
"Yes sir," I said. He took his glove off, extended his right hand, and gave mine a firm shake.
"Just don't let this happen again, okay?"
"Will do, sir."

That evening, a gentle rain fell over Jacksonville, and it grew colder. The next morning, the rain turned into snow, though it barely accumulated. As we left for church, we passed the now blackened field. Nobody in the car said a thing, but I still felt a pang in my heart for what had happened. 
The following launches would never have a mishap of that magnitude. There would be CATO's, failed recoveries, launch clips snagging tails, and the occasional out of control bird. But there would always be one person standing guard at the launch pad, a fire extinguisher nearby when we could get one. It was a lesson that we learned the hard way.
Our luck was never that bad again.
The field the way it appears today. Since 1981, it was gradually
developed. Only the western half remains.

Vanguard & Other Fruit Sized Satellites, Part II

An engineering model of the TRS Mk. II satellite.
Image courtesy Smithsonian Institute, Air & Space Museum
The Vanguard would not be the last small satellite orbited. There would be many others that would follow, though the trend was towards larger, more complex satellites. 
Early on in the Space Age, two sets of satellites bucked the trend.
TRW was contracted by the US Air Force to build a series of small satellites for measuring things like radiation in the Van Allen Belts and the Earth's magnetic field. These were named after the Platonic solids they resembled. 
The first were the TRS, the "Tetrahedral Research Satellites", part of the ERS (Environmental Research Satellites) series. The smallest of the bunch were the TRS Mk. I. They measured 6.5" (162 mm) on a a side. Each face was covered with solar cells, and they had two antennae. Their mass was light, much like the Vanguard 1 satellite, ranging from 1.5 to 3.3 pounds (.9 to 1.5 kg). 
Unlike the Vanguard, there was no specialized launch vehicle; these satellites would be hitchhikers. When they were launched in the early through mid-1960's, they rode up with other USAF payloads, usually on Atlas-Agena rockets. They were not designed to function long, at most only a few weeks, after which they would reenter and burn up in the atmosphere. 
In many ways, these are the ancestors of today's CubeSats, though given the technology for the time, were far simpler. They did seem to start the trend of riding with larger payloads. 
Over time, the TRS Mk.I would be joined by bigger stable mates, starting with the TRS Mk. II, which were larger (around 9"/230mm on a side) and heavier. Other Platonic solid shaped satellites would join them as well, such as the Octahedral Research Satellites (ORS) and others. These would grow in complexity and mass, eventually ceasing to be tiny satellites. As a proof on concept, however, they were something of a success. 
Even smaller, though, were what qualify perhaps as the most unusual satellite system ever conceived, and somewhat controversial at that.
There were concerns during the Cold War about lines of communications being disrupted. As the Space Age began, the only certain way to communicate with Europe and Asia was by means of underwater cables or shortwave radio. Unfortunately, shortwave radio could not always be relied upon; you are bouncing signals off of the Earth's ionosphere, and a direct line of communication could not always be relied upon. Further, the range could vary. The underwater cables were more reliable but were vulnerable to attack.
Even though the idea of geosynchronous satellites had been around since at least 1945 (thanks, Arthur C. Clarke), many felt that this was still an uncertainty. This wasn't the case, mind you; there were groups working on it. However, the paranoia that gripped the United States during that period resulted in some unusual thinking. 
One idea that was popular at the time were passive communication satellites. This is what led to the ECHO balloons, that certainly were not tiny sats. Going to the extreme, it was surmised that perhaps an artificial ionosphere of some sort might be made.
Enter MIT's Lincoln Labs, who worked closely with the Department of Defense. They imagined an artificial ionosphere made up of millions upon millions of tiny dipole antennae, nothing more than .7" (1.78cm) long copper wire "needles". 
This was Project West-Ford.
You, too, can make a full scale model of a West Ford needle!
All you need is #32 gauge copper wire.
Image by Robert Little
There were two launches, one in 1961, the second in 1963. These "needles" would be deployed by a dispenser, which when carrying the tiny copper antennae that would be spun off would have a mass of 88 pounds (40 kg). Only the second one worked, and then not very successfully. In theory, a radio signal could be bounced off this cloud. In practice, not very well. 
There were plenty of concerns about this idea. Radio astronomers were not too pleased, as were their visual cohorts. Those fears proved for naught, pretty much as did the idea. At the time, there was little concern about the notion of orbital debris; by that point in time, there simply wasn't that much of it. Perhaps millions of those little high velocity needles are still in orbit.
A short time later, the first active geosynchronous communication satellite would be launched; Syncom 2, in July of 1963. This ended the idea of passive communication satellites. Considering those tiny high velocity space needles, this was a good thing.
The need for tiny satellites would continue. With improvements in technology, it was getting easier to pack more and more into these small spacecraft. Today, they live on in CubeSats and others. 
Still, most need to "hitchhike". There are some out there who are dreaming of tiny little rockets to lob these very specialized payloads into orbit. This has the potential to truly democratize space.
(Edited - RL)