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. 

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