home made rocket


“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This sentence is one that I, like most Americans remember. Most people my age remember where they were when those words were transmitted from the moon. My mom was in an art show in Va Beach, VA, and my family was in a hotel room watching with the rest of America as Neil Armstrong said these words.

As a young boy, I idolized the likes of Robert Goddard who began to experiment with liquid fueled rockets followed by captured German scientist Wernher von Braun who eventually developed the vehicles that delivered man to the moon. These were my heroes. If it were not for them, we would have never made it to the moon, at least not in 1969. I wanted to be a rocket builder. I started with Estes model rockets. I combined 3 of their most powerful “D” engines as well as built the rocket to hold this engine cluster. At that time, you were supposed to only use one “D” engine in a rocket. I had to build my own launch pad in order to hold the rocket prior to launch, but after that successful launch, I knew that I would need to develop my own rocket fuel if I ever wanted to launch a mouse into the stratosphere. After building the most powerful model rockets, I soon became bored with these toys. The model rockets were simply not powerful enough to do much more than launch a few insects a few thousand feet into the air. I set out to build a really big rocket, but a rocket of this size was not sold in a hobby shop. I would have to build this rocket from scratch as well as the rocket motors to power it. I needed to find some cylinders that were large enough to house my rocket motors as well as form the body of the rocket. I found two cardboard carpet tubes at a carpet store, one smaller than the other so that one would be a first stage and the second smaller tube would be the second stage. I formed a nose cone and fins, then attached these to the rocket. This was going to be one tall rocket! Each tube was 6′, and when I put one on top of the other, I had to add the nose cone from the second floor window of our house due to it being now 12′ tall. I constructed a battery operated device that was going to ignite the second stage of the rocket, once the first stage was expended. All I needed was rocket fuel for my creation. Liquid fuel, the stuff that NASA used was out of the question as my dad, for tools, owned a hammer, screwdriver and a hammer, and at age 15, I couldn’t afford all of the metalworking tools needed, much less the precision instruments! I was going to have to rely upon solid rocket fuel. For this, I would need Ammonium Nitrate, the main ingredient, for the oxidizer. Upon research, I found that this is also used as a fertilizer. I had my dad order a 50# bag of it. He got strange looks when he went to order it, even back in 1969. The only issue that I had with this form of Ammonium Nitrate was that it was in pellet form and it turned to wet mush when I tried to grind it.
I would have to dry it out. I took some of it and poured it onto one of my mom’s cookie sheets, then put it in the oven for about 30 minutes. Well, the smell of fertilizer cooking in the oven was more than she could stand and this was put to an end very quickly as well as ruined her cookie sheets. I was able to dry out enough to make a small batch of fuel, combining it with sulfur and charcoal. The next step was to make a test apparatus for the fuel, to be able to test it in some sort of rocket motor. I found a copper pipe. I packed the rocket fuel into the copper pipe, but for the blast to be concentrated, it would have to pass through a nozzle. The only material that I had to build a nozzle was copper sheet metal. I formed a nozzle out of this, then soldered it to the copper pipe. Everything was ready to test. I hooked up the rocket motor to a test stand I had made out of 2×4’s and pipe clamps. I then took some fuse that a chemistry friend had sold me, inserted this through the nozzle so that it touched my rocket fuel. I lit the fuse and waited. How powerful would this be? Would it explode or light the field on fire? Suddenly, the lit fuse reached the rocket fuel, and it started to shoot out flames from the nozzle, but the heat of the fire soon liquified the solder that was holding the nozzle and tube together, so that the nozzle fell out on to the ground, with the rocket fuel following in one big clump of burning residue that would not launch a mouse much less an ant. I quickly realized I did not posses the tools nor the skills necessary to build a rocket motor. My 12′ rocket, was not going to hit the stratosphere, much less get off the ground. My dad used the rest of the Ammonium Nitrate to fertilize his lawn. It’s amazing how green a lawn will get with 100% Ammonium Nitrate! As I sulked about my failure to build and launch my rocket, an idea struck me as I peered outside my bedroom window looking into the back yard. My dad built my brother and I a really cool tree house. It was built around an old oak tree in our back yard. It looked like a rocket as he had covered it in cedar shake shingles and it had a nose cone shaped roof.

There was an entrance underneath the tree house in the form of a trap door. Over the years my brother and I had all kinds of fun in this tree house.  Suddenly, I had an idea. The tree house could be a great mock up of a manned space capsule mission. If I wasn’t going to go into space, I could at least pretend. I hurried to my desk. The bulletin board over my desk, full of my childhood heroes, Walt Disney, Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard were looking on, encouraging me to dream. I quickly drew out my plans and material list of what would be needed to build the perfect mock up space capsule. The inside of the tree house would need to look like the interior of a space capsule. It would need to have that shiny metal look with lots of switches and lights that could be turned off and on. For the mission, we would stay in our space capsule for several days to experience the feeling of what the Gemini astronauts had to deal with. This was going to be a Gemini mission, so I needed a “volunteer” to be my Gemini partner. I had a friend in crime, Billy who would be my fellow space traveler. We lined the walls and ceiling of the inside of the tree house with aluminum foil. We used all of my mom’s aluminum foil plus several other rolls to complete the project. I think I asked first. Next would be adding all of the necessary switches and lights. I made a trip to Radio Shack to purchase all kinds of switches, lights and battery holders. I soldered up all of the connections into a plywood panel, which I then covered with aluminum foil, then placed it into the interior wall of the tree house. How to tell which switch did what? A quick run to the garage, in my mom’s art supplies I found a Dymo label maker. I created all sorts of labels for my space capsule, like ‘Escape Tower Ignition’, ‘Parachute Deployment’ and a bunch of other names that I felt we would need. Each switch turned on a different colored light, and we would have a manual that would instruct us as to what to do when. The next task was, how were we going to look like astronauts? We didn’t have access to space suits, but we did have silver colored winter coats, along with black rubber boots. For our helmets, we simply made these out of cardboard and more aluminum foil. We used plastic for our visor. We noticed that when the astronauts went from the trailer to the launch pad, they had portable oxygen units and hoses that fed their space suits. They carried these as they walked to the space craft. They looked a lot like hair dryer units and guess what, each of our moms had one of these hair dryer units that had a case with a handle on it. We took the loose end of the hose and connected this to our coats and the other end was connected to the hair dryer case. (oxygen supply unit)oxygen supply This is what it was supposed to look like. As you see, it looks like a hair dryer! We would need food for our simulation. How to get food to us, without it going bad was going to be a trick as we didn’t have any space food that was stored in toothpaste style containers and squeezed out for consumption like the real NASA astronauts had. We would need some sort of delivery system. On one side of the tree house that faced our home, there was a window. I attached a pulley on the outside of the window, then a pulley under my bedroom window, which faced the tree house, I mean space capsule. I then ran a thin rope with a box to carry the food between the house and the space capsule. I nominated my brother for this task. He was going to be Mission Control. He liked the idea of being Mission Control, so he signed up for the job. Everything was set. Since it was summer and warm enough to sleep in the space capsule, Billy’s parents agreed to let him sign up for this educational endeavor for the several days that it would take to complete our mission. We had our space capsule outfitted, check. We had our food supply and delivery system that would be manned by my brother at Mission Control, check. We had our space suits and oxygen supply units, check. Now we were ready to experience deep space. “How many days are we going to spend in there?” asked Billy. “I’m thinking 3 days should do it.” I replied. “Uh, well, that’s fine, but what happens when we have to go?” Billy inquired. “What do you mean, ‘when we have to to'” I asked. “You know, when we have to pee and take a poo.” he said with an incredulous look that he even had to explain this. “Oh crap!” I said as I finally grabbed hold of what he was saying. “Exactly, ….crap!” Billy shouted. Hmm, that was a real dilemma for sure, we couldn’t stay up there for 3 days without having to go to the bathroom. “I’ve got it!” I exclaimed. We will do our business in Baggies, use a twist tie, then drop them down the bottom entry hatch door for my brother to pick them up and flush them down the toilet. “Yeah, I guess that would work.” Billy said. We walked into the house to find my brother, Mission Control, and told him what our plan was for waste removal. “You have got to be kidding! There is no way that I am going to handle your pee or your poo for you. I quit!” Drew said and off he stomped mumbling the whole way about my sanity and other concerns for my mental well being. “Well, if we don’t have anyone to take care of our business, then I guess the mission is scrubbed.” I said to Billy. “Yeah, I guess so.” Billy said as he somehow seemed to be in a hurry to go home. As I sat in my mock up space capsule, I realized that the only mission I could have would be to pretend to be John Glenn and circle the earth 3 times in 5 hours. I went from a Gemini mission to a Mercury mission in 5 minutes as seemed to be what happened to me most of the time. Typically I had been able to enlist my friends for all sorts of projects, but when the challenges appeared, I ended up finishing them solo. Oh well, I didn’t mind. For me, it was the journey and what I learned and discovered along the way. I would find another adventure to embark upon soon as I never seemed to run out of ideas. “Gill, where is all of my aluminum foil!” my mom yelled out the back door as I quickly ducked around the corner and headed for the woods. Another adventure was soon to begin in the jungles of Bennetts Creek.

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