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.