Kids have loved building models of transportation vehicles for generations, but many of these creations, too delicate to actually play with, end up gathering dust on a shelf. When model rockets arrived on the scene in 1960, however, they offered a far more exciting experience. Finally, a model that could perform as it was intended, soaring ferociously towards the heavens, only to safely return to earth, thanks to a handy parachute hidden within the nosecone. As a result, model rocketry has grown into an enormous hobby, beloved by millions of former kids, who have since introduced this educational pastime to their own offspring.
When the space race began to heat up in the 50s, kids were anxious to join in the fun. Many dangerously attempted to make their own rocket engines from whatever combustible material was lying around, and the result was numerous injuries. A scientist named Orville Carlisle, concerned about these dangers, invented a much safer rocket engine in 1954. Three years later, the National Association of Rocketry was established to promote the new hobby, placing a strong emphasis on safety.
In 1958, Vernon Estes, whose dad made fireworks for a living, founded Estes Industries. The new company manufactured model rocket engines and, in 1960, they began selling prepackaged kits via mail order that allowed kids to build a variety of scale-model rockets. The company wisely began offering discounts to youth organizations like the Boy Scouts, who helped promote the new hobby across the country. A half-century later, Estes is still one of the most recognized manufacturers of model rockets and engines.
Model rockets usually come unassembled, consisting of parts made from a combination of balsa wood, plastic and paper. Once assembled, a solid fuel engine is inserted and attached to a piece of electrical wire, connected many feet away to a battery-powered launch pad. By pressing a switch, electricity lights a fuse inserted into the engine, igniting the rocket and sending it skyward to altitudes upwards of 1,500 feet. In recent years, there have been significant increases in engine power, with some being able to achieve altitudes of 10,000 feet. These projectiles are less stable, however, and more suitable for adult use. And, as a reminder, all model rocket launching should be done under the supervision of an adult.
After being launched, and once the vessel reaches its maximum altitude, a parachute is usually deployed – returning the rocket safely to earth. Due to the heights these little spacecrafts can achieve, it is best to practice this hobby in a large open field, far away from rooftops and other obstacles that might make the rocket difficult to retrieve. And assuming that the model isn’t too heavily damaged from its return to earth, a rocket can usually make dozens of return voyages.
Kids often frown upon “educational toys,” but model rockets remain a popular exception. The Boy Scouts, in fact, require that a scout build and fly a model rocket if they want to earn a Space Exploration Merit Badge. More importantly, for over fifty years, this educational hobby has been credited with turning many of its young enthusiasts into future engineers and scientists. But whether as a fun activity or a prelude to a career, model rockets have provided countless hours of enjoyment to millions of kids. If you are one of them, we welcome your memories in our comments section!