Guide to Model Rockets: From Building to Launching and More

From Building to Launching Model Rockets

Model rocketry became very popular after World War II when the first model rockets were designed after rockets used to bomb England. Thousands of individuals of all ages find model rocketry a challenging, fun hobby. Model rockets are used in classrooms, scout groups, and scientific research on a daily basis. While s very simple rocket can be launched using air pressure alone, beginning rocket kits include everything needed to easily build and launch your first rocket. Many individuals are happy launching the traditional small model rockets. Others will advance to explore high power or experimental rocket types. Model rocketry is a great family oriented adventure and brings together people of all skill levels, ages, and backgrounds to enjoy learning more and launching rockets across the country and around the world.

History of Model Rocketry

As early as 1919, there has been an interest in rockets. Robert Goddard was among the first to conduct experiments with small-scale model rockets and published a paper detailing the design and use of a meteorological rocket to explore the upper atmosphere. After World War II, and the use of the V-2 rocket to bomb England, model rockets began to gain popularity. Early model rockets were designed based on rockets used during the war. Even though many regard Vern Estes as the ‘Father of Model Rockets’, the first model rocket pamphlet written by George James was advertised in a 1951 edition of Popular Science magazine. From the 1940s through 1950s, Orville Carlisle and G. Harry Stine used the ideas in James’ pamphlet to start Model Missiles in their basement. This first model rocket company soon had more business than Carlisle and Stine could handle. They then approached the Estes Fireworks Company about mass-producing engines and rockets. In 1958, Estes Fireworks became Estes Industries and began offering model rocket kits and model rocket engines coast to coast through mail order catalogues.

  • Industrial Technology and Model Rockets (PDF)– This publication is a teacher’s guide to rocketry history and includes the history and influence that rocketry technology during World War II had the popularity of model rockets after the war. A Brief overview of model rocket history is also part of the background information.
  • Where Did Model Rocketry Really Start? (PDF) – Apogee Components includes a look at the history of model rocketry in this edition of their newsletter.

Types of Model Rockets, Motors, and Engines

The most popular rockets used by armatures are model rockets built from kits. Model rockets are relatively inexpensive and a great introduction into the hobby. Once you have gained some experience you may be drawn to moving into the competitive area of high power rocketry. These rockets are larger, more powerful, and more expensive to build and fly. For those with a creative nature and an interest in design and technology, drawing plans for a rocket you design and build without the use of a kit may be a challenge you enjoy. All rockets depend upon motors or engines to supply the thrust needed to become airborne. Though the terms are often used interchangeable, all three types of model rockets use motors. Motors require no movable parts compared to true rocket engines such as those used during the space shuttle launches. There are two common types of motors (or engines) used in model rocketry. The traditional black powder motors and composite motors.

The traditional black powder motor is a paper cylinder that includes a clay nozzle, a section of solid black powder, a delay charge, and an ejection charge. While a composite motor has the same internal sections or components as a black powder motor, the propellant in a composite motor is a pellet of a rubber-like substance similar to the fuel used in true rocket engines. The fuel in a composite motor is much more powerful and compact. It is encased in a plastic shell rather than a cardboard or paper cylinder. There is a third type of rocket motor or engine sometimes used to launch larger scale model rockets or experimental rockets that uses liquid nitro however most rockets launched by armatures use either the black powder or composite engines.

  • Types of Rocketry – The three types of rockets used in amateur rocketry include high power rocketry, model rocketry, and experimental rocketry. A brief overview of all three types is discussed on this page along with a look at the basis of rocket motors used with all model rocketry.
  • Experimental Rocketry –Experimental rockets are those designed and constructed without the use of a kit. On this site, the author shares his experiences, tips, and suggestions for those interested in experimental rocketry.
  • Model Rockets – This site is a resource listing for nearly any questions you may have regarding model rockets. It includes a large list of publication resources, parts, kits, building tips and photos of model rocket launches.
  • All About Rocket Engines – In depth information about all three types of rocket engines is discussed here. There are also tables showing the size and thrust available with each class of rocket engines.
  • Model Rocket Engine Facts – Developed as an educational resource for teachers or group leaders, this HobbyLinc site includes diagrams and discussions explaining basic model rocket engine facts and more as well as links to products and accessories used to build and launch model rockets.

How Do Model Rockets Work?

Before you successfully launch a model rocket of any size, it is important to have an understanding of how model rockets work. You will be investing time and money in building your model rocket from a kit or from scratch if you are interested in experimental model rocketry. Understanding how these model rockets works can save you the frustration of a rocket that fails to launch or worst, that is destroyed during launch or recovery efforts. Understanding how model rockets work is also necessary for the safety of all those involved in launching and observing the flights.

  • Model Rocketry Basics (PDF) – This document provides a clear overview of the basics of model rocketry from a basic introduction, and explanation of all parts, supplies, and numbers you need to know and understand to helping a group assemble and launch rockets safely. Included are tips on selecting and setting up a launch field as well as what supplies and equipment to pack.
  • Beginner’s Guide to Rockets– This National Aeronautics and Space Administration page includes multiple resource links helpful to those beginning to explore model rocketry. Many of the links provide material you can study further at your own pace.
  • Model Rocketry and Flight– As part of the Model Rocketry and Flight site accessible from the link at the bottom of the page, these photos of rocket launches also include launches of non-traditional items.
  • Model Rocket Tips–Organization of model rocket supplies, parts, and repair items is a necessity. This page offers tips to organizing your equipment as well as tips for recovery wading, streamers, and chutes.

Building and Launching Model Rockets

Building and launching your first model rocket can seem a bit challenging. The easiest way to get started is with a rocket kit from a trusted manufacturer such as Estes. Estes offers many educational resources for beginning rocketeers on their websites and their beginner level kits are often used in groups to introduce model rockets to new hobbyist of all ages. All of the rocket clubs and organizations also offer workshops, meetings, and one- on- one assistance in learning more about building and launching model rockets. Before you attend a launch or prepare your rocket for launching, become familiar with the safety codes set down by the National Rocket Association for each type of model rocket. Always think safety first! The safety guidelines not only protect you and your rocket, they also help safeguard observers, the surrounding property during launch and recovery, as well as the environment.

  • Model Rocket Designer’s Manual (PDF)– For the beginning rocketeer this offers a good guide to designing and building model rockets. In addition to an introduction to the basic components of a model rocket, this guide provides a clear explanation of how a model rocket works. Choosing the correct engine size as well as the proper delay time affects the altitude your rocket will obtain. The details of both engine selection and delay time are discussed in this report.
  • Model Rocket Safety Guide – This is a copy of the official Model Rocket Safety Guide of the NAR. Model rocketry has a history of outstanding safety when proper attention to safety codes is established. This page also includes a table of launch site dimensions for the safe launch and recovery of rockets.
  • Model Rocket and High Power Rocket Safety Codes – The NAR establishes a set of safety codes for each type of model rocketry. Though there are many common safety guides, rocketeers are expected to be familiar with guidelines covering the rockets they are launching and must keep safety a priority at all times.
  • Tips for First-time Rocketeers – These tips not only assist first time rocketeers to have a successful launch, but they also offer valid reminders that safety must be a priority. Model rockets use dangerous propellants and understanding how the components of a rocket work together for a successful launch is the first safety consideration.
  • Fly Rockets – If you are a beginning rocketeer needing to connect with a local club or seasoned hobbyist looking for specific information on building and launching all types of model rockets, the Fly Rocket site is a great resource. Includes links to pictures and information regarding regulations involving model rockets.
  • World's Largest Model Rocket Launch -This National Geographic report documents the launch of the world’s largest model rocket.
  • Model Rocketry Study Guide (PDF) – This is a comprehensive study guide designed to assist in understanding the basics of model rockets.

Model Rocket Recovery Methods

Recovery your rocket begins with building your rocket and preparing it to launch. Successful rocket recovery depends on rocket design and your choice of recovery methods as well as the use of wadding and your ability to locate your rocket once the flight is over. Proper connects and timing delays figure in the successful rocket recovery. Improper chute loading and protection, failed connections or a lost rocket can occur without attention to these details before you ever lunch your first rocket. Begin by determining which type of recovery is best for your rocket and expected launch conditions. By selecting the proper materials and paying attention to details, you can recover your rocket quickly and safely.

  • Rocket Recovery – After a rocket is launched, you want a dependable way to recover the rocket and protect it from damage as much as possible. While a parachute is the traditional recovery method this page explains other options such as featherweight recovery, streamer recovery, break apart recovery, helicopter recovery, and gliding recovery.
  • Building a Model Rocket Parachute Recovery System– How big a parachute is needed to recover the rocket you launch? This page addresses this question. There is a formula given to help determine ideal chute size and a link to further technical information.
  • Recovery Wading: Protecting the parachute – Model rockets depend on wading to protect the chute during launch. The discussion here is about the two common types of wading used and a table lists recommended number of wading sheets that should be used for various rocket sizes.
  • Rocket Finding – In addition to the use of wading and recovery systems to bring your rocket safely to the ground, you must be able to find your rocket and retrieve it once it has landed. Here is a discussion of ways to track and find your rocket once it is on the ground.

Model Rocket Clubs and Associations

One of the best sources you will find for information concerning model rocketry is theNational Association of Rocketry (NAR). Since 1957, the NAR has been recognized as the governing authority over all aspects of hobby rocketing. With over 90-thousand members worldwide, the NAR is the first resource you should consider as an introduction to model rocketry. The NAR can also help you in finding a local rocket club or organization. The NAR organizes and sanctions competitions and launches will provide a schedule of events on request.

  • National Association of Rocketry – This is the official home to the NAR. The National Association also certifies the organization local rocketry chapters and clubs.
  • Southern California Rocket Association– The Southern California Rocket Association is a recognized chapter of the NAR. This association covers the greater Los Angeles area. A calendar of events and contact information is accessible from this page.
  • Austin Area Rocketry Group (PDF)– This brochure includes information about the Austin Area Rocketry group. In addition to membership information, this brochure includes a copy of the Model Rocketry Safety Code and a brief look at the stages of flight taken by a model rocket.
  • NARHAMS Model Rocket Club– The NARHAMS club is also a local chapter of the NAR. The NARHAMS serves the Washington Metropolitan area and Maryland. This club holds the distinction of being the oldest model rocket club running continually in the US since 1965.
  • Tripoli Rocketry Association – This is the home of high-powered rocketry!As a non-profit organization, Tripoli Rocketry has members from across the US and twenty-two other countries worldwide.
  • Blue Mountain Rocketeers– Blue Mountain Rocketeers ranks among the top five rocket clubs in the nation. The BMR is a youth and family oriented club that is recognized as the nation’s premier youth model rocketry club.