UPDATED: Oct 19, 2019
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Model rocketry is a hobby that really got going with the space race beginning in the 1950s. It emerged as an alternative to the more dangerous amateur rocket activity that injured and killed previous rocketry experimenters. The hobby continues to have a loyal following today with numerous rocket clubs still active across the United States.
Compared to older model rockets, modern ones are considered to be much safer. They are made of nonmetal materials such as cardboard, plastic, or wood. Safety measures like the Model Rocket Safety Code are also enforced to prevent accidents and injuries while participating in the building and launching of rockets.
If you are interested in taking up model rocketry as a hobby, keep reading!
History of Model Rocketry
Unsurprisingly, the history and development of model rocketry are closely tied to that of rockets. Still, it is important to note that there are some differences between the two. One obvious difference is that model rockets are designed to reach significantly lower altitudes than conventional rockets.
13th century China: In the early part of the century, the Chinese transformed their rudimentary black powder-propelled fireworks into offensive weapons for warfare. These ‘arrows of fire’ were catapulted high towards enemy territories using a launcher.
16th century: Centuries later, Jean Beavie, a Belgian inventor, would imagine and sketch an idea for a multistage rocket. Later on, this would help the development of multi-staging, which practically solved the problem of getting rockets to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull.
Modern era: In 1954, a pair of brothers, Orville and Robert Carlisle, designed the first modern model rocket. Three years after, the launch of the Sputnik would inspire civilians to build and launch their own, leading to some tragic accidents.
Realizing there might be a market for their invention, the Carlisle brothers would begin selling their rockets as a safer alternative. They would become founders, along with G. Harry Stine, of the first American company dedicated to model rockets, Model Missiles Incorporated.
Eventually, higher power motors would become available during the late 1980s to early 1990s.
Types of Model Rockets and Components
Model rockets are usually classified into two categories depending on the kind of engine they use.
Black powder engine rockets: This type of rocket is considered to be the traditional kind since it has been in production since the boom of model rocketry in the 1950s. It still remains a popular choice. Black powder engine rockets are typically made from a paper tube and feature a black powder propellant.
Composite engine rockets: This type can be further categorized into single-use and reloadable composite subcategories. Single-use composite engine rockets are made of high-temperature plastic and are designed to be three times more powerful than black powder types. Reloadable composite engine rockets are similar to the single-use type except they are relatively less expensive.
Basic Parts and Components
Nose Cone: This conical-shaped component is the part that enables air to flow more smoothly over the body of the rocket. It is usually made from a light material like Styrofoam, plastic, or fiberglass.
Payload Section: This is the part where loads like cameras or electronic altimeters can be stored. Not all model rockets have this.
Transition Section: Made of balsa wood, plastic, or hardwood, this section serves as a connection for body tubes of different sizes.
Tube body: This connects all the pieces and keeps the transition section protected.
- Livermore Unit National Association of Rocketry: All about rocket engines
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Q & A: Model rocket engines
- University of New Mexico: Parts of a model rocket
Building and Launching Model Rockets
This is perhaps the most exciting part of model rocketry. However, it can also be the most difficult if you do not prepare and research for it enough.
The good news is that you will not have to build a model rocket from scratch unless you really want to. There are plenty of commercial model rocket kits you can purchase from various hobby stores.
Once you have a kit, all you will need to do is follow the instructions and have these tools ready:
- Modeling knife and scissors
- Balsa sealer
- Masking tape and white glue
- Tube-type plastic cement
Make sure to learn and follow all safety measures and laws that may be in place in your state when it comes to launching model rockets. The launching process involves the following phases.
- 1st phase: Ignition and lift off
- 2nd phase: Engine burnout
- 3rd phase: Coasting
- 4th phase: Apogee and ejection
- 5th phase: Recovery
- University of Washington: Model rocketry technical manual
- Astronomy Department at Cornell University: How do I build a model rocket? (intermediate)
Precautions and Safety
To avoid causing accidents and mishaps, always remember these precautions:
Only use lightweight materials for the body, fins, and nose of your model rocket. Metals may cause damage or injury.
Avoid using anything but commercially-made and certified rocket motors. Be aware that using larger engines may require you to secure a permit from your local fire department.
Always warn onlookers to keep a safe distance from the pad before launching a model rocket.
Never aim model rockets at airplanes or clouds.
Hobbyists are typically required to secure permission from property owners before launching.
- Boy Scouts of America: Rocket safety
- Orange County Fire Authority: Community risk reduction informational bulletin model rocket safety
- University of California Cooperative Extension: Model rocketry safety
Recovering your Rockets
Most model rockets are equipped with a recovery system (typically a parachute) which allows them to come down safely back to the ground. Veterans of the hobby advise other enthusiasts to dust their parachutes with talcum powder pre-launch, as this makes it easier for them to open.
- Science Buddies: Model rocket safety guide
- Naval Postgraduate School: Miniature autonomous rocket recovery system
Model Rocket Groups and Websites
There are plenty of model rocket hobby groups currently active in the United States. Many of their websites and contact details are listed in the National Association of Rocketry site. Check the list out to see if you have a local chapter near you.
- National Association of Rocketry: Find a local NAR club
- Northern Virginia Association of Rocketry: About
- Tripoli Minnesota High Power Rocketry Club: Home
Are you looking for more reading material to get acquainted with the science behind and practical aspects of model rocketry? The Denton Independent School District has an informative Model rocketry study guide to peruse. PBS Learning Media also has a section on Model rockets for 4th to 6th grade students.
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