Model Rocket Launching for Fun and Family

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Dad holds launch controller while 12yo hooks model rocket to launch pad
Model rockets are intergenerational fun. Don’t set it off if your kid is still hooking it up though. Photo by the author

The day before school started, we decided to send off summer with a literal blast: by launching a model rocket.

My husband used to launch model rockets as a kid and was super excited to start our own kids on the hobby. He actually bought three kits several years ago—one for our house, one each for the grandparents—but though he and the then-nine-year-old assembled it then, the launch was delayed when he discovered the starters/igniters he’d had stashed away for a couple of decades were duds. But this summer, it was time. He pulled the now-12-and-10-year-olds away from their electronics and out to the Family Farm, regaling with tales of how he had systematically broken every safety warning on the list one by one in his misspent youth. The kids, for the most part, were mildly amused.

Model rocketry was never a part of my childhood, so I never realized how (relatively) cheap and easy it could be. A starter kit like we had, with a rocket and a launcher, seems to run between 20 and 30 dollars. Then you’ll have to supply the consumables, which can be bought in bulk—if not, a three-or-four-pack of engines is around $10, more starters and recovery wadding (which keeps your parachute from melting) for less than that, and AA batteries you probably have lying around. Aside from the starters, he’d had everything waiting for this moment.

You also need a large enough open area to launch a rocket with whatever power engines you have. We went out to my extended in-laws’ farm, with lots of open fields. Even still, our first launch, with, admittedly, the biggest engine our rocket could take, it flew across the street into what seemed to be an empty cow pasture, until my husband climbed the fence to retrieve the rocket, and a whole herd of cows poured over the hill, mooing threateningly. One of them stared him down until he left. We decided to move our launch site deeper into our family’s property.

In the distance a man approaches a herd of cattle, one of whom is staring him down
That cow is SUPER ANNOYED. Photo by author

Once you’ve found a launch site far from power lines and trampling herd animals, learning to prep and reprep the rocket goes relatively quickly. The trickiest part is rolling up the parachute to stuff inside the rocket tube (along with the wadding), so your rocket survives the return trip to be used again. Once that’s in place, you pack a model rocket engine in the bottom and hook an igniter to it. Model rocket engines are more like fireworks than mechanical engines: they come in one-time-use paper tubes of various firepower.

three pics of family doing what's described in the caption
You have to pack the parachute into the top, put an engine into the bottom, and slide it onto the launch pad. Photo by author

Then you slide the hooks on the side of the rocket onto a wire launchpad and clip the wires of the launch controller to the exposed ends of the igniter (starter).

12yo hooking launcher wires to model rocket
Hook up the launcher wires to the igniter. Photo by author

Then you stand back, give the countdown, and press the launch button. Poof!

10yo and dad holding launch control of model rocket
Stand back and hit the launch button. Photo by author

Naturally, the more powerful the engine, the higher your rocket flies. The higher it flies, the farther away it blows. The farther away it blows, the more exercise your kids get running to retrieve them.

12yo carries a model rocket over the crest of a hill
Exercise. Photo by author

We discovered that size B engines worked best with our rocket. Size A was a little anticlimatic.

Size C was what got us into the cow pasture, and, once we moved, seemed to lose the rocket entirely for half an hour or so.

Family in the distance looking around
Binoculars help. Photo by author

I got bored and started taking pictures of butterflies. But, hey, there’s all sorts of opportunities for learning once you’re out in an open area, even if the rocket goes missing!

3 pictures of various butterflies
Look, it was a phone camera. Photo collage by author

We eventually pulled the ATV out of the barn for easier retrieval of size-C launches. Less exercise, but a whole new level of excitement for the kids.

12yo hooks up rocket while dad and 10yo stand (sit) by on an ATV
The 10yo became really proud of her position on the Search and Rescue Crew. Photo by author.

Over the course of the afternoon, the kids went from humoring their father to using every last engine in the box. “That’s how I was! Before I launched one, I thought, ‘What’s the big deal?’ But once I did, I went all out! Now you can paint it and personalize it, and build more rockets that do tricks or move in different ways, or—”

“Don’t say ‘Systematically break every rule on the safety warnings sheet’,” I said.

“But if it happens—”

“No!”

Anyway, the kids are looking forward to the next time we can get out and launch rockets, and I wonder why I’d never tried it sooner.

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