Career in rocketry is about to be launched

I spent Sunday night wondering why they didn't do me a favor and attach the support frame to the launch escape system rocket.

By the time I got around to doing it, my fingers were covered with glue and the support frame was stuck to my thumb.

The great thing about having children is that they allow you to relive your childhood. At least that's what it said in the brochure under "Benefits." Unfortunately, my childhood didn't include rocketry or models. My dad didn't want me messing with airplane glue back in the '60s. He figured I had enough problems dodging all the other mind-altering drugs available on the streets without having to worry about his son getting a buzz while gluing tiny pieces of the U.S.S. Nimitz.

But my son wants to be an astronaut and for the past month or so I've been building rockets. My first was a two-stager powered by an electrically charged booster of some sort. I can't explain how it works and my son hasn't asked. All we know is that when we stick the miniature explosive up inside the booster and hook it up with battery clips, the sucker blasts from its launch pad, reaches an altitude of 1,000 feet or so and returns to earth in two stages; one part by parachute and the other by helicopter blades.

We've had three successful launches to date, which is remarkable, considering what a pain it was to put together. The first time I hit the launch button I figured the odds were 100 to 1 against anything happening. It sat there fizzing for around 10 seconds before it suddenly took off high above the football field at Carson Middle School.

"Oh, my god!" I shouted. "It worked!"

My son was convinced it would. He'd seen me work the toaster lots of times without ever burning the house down. And then there was the time I made macaroni and cheese all by myself.

So by the time we returned to the hobby store I was feeling a little cocky. There wasn't a thing in the place I didn't think I could assemble, launch, float or fly. My son hauled down a box marked Man in Space Rocket Collection. On the cover was an illustration of five rockets leaving earth and headed for Infinity and Beyond, or some such place.

"How about this one, Dad?" he asked. "Let's build these."

As far as models go, rockets shouldn't be that tough. I mean you basically have a tube with a cone on the end and a couple of "USA" decals. At least that's what I thought as we hauled the box of rockets home.

I started with the Apollo Saturn V, since it was the largest of the five rockets and the one I figured would have the fewest tiny parts. Then I opened the instructions which measured roughly the size of my kitchen table and I knew I was in trouble.

Even though it was an American rocket, the instructions were also in French, German and Spanish. Heat shield, for example, is "bouclier thermique" in French, and command module is "kommandomodul" in German.

It really didn't matter to me. I wouldn't know a chammbres de poussee (thrust chamber) if it bit me in the ass.

Had I read the "Important Instructions" beforehand, I would have known to paint the rocket pieces before putting them together. And I would have known that "each coat should be carefully wet sanded using a slightly damp No. 1200 sandpaper," which I didn't own. Nor did I have at my disposal any "frosted tape," which is recommended for "masking off the areas not to be painted."

By that time I had enough rocket parts glued to my fingers to qualify for a NASA test flight.

The Saturn V sits on the kitchen table and appears ready for launch. It's leaning a little to the left, though, because one of the F-1 engines wasn't balanced to the fuel manifold well enough (pretty cool how I can just whip out those rocket terms, eh?). That would probably be a serious thing if we were building a real Saturn V. We'd probably miss our target by a planet or two.

But it's good enough for now. I'll swing by the hobby store on the way home from work and grab some paint. By the end of the week I should be "entfernen Sie den Klebstreifen, sobald die Farbe sich troken anfuhit," or at least well on my way to it.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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