Retry Mock Toys

How model rocket clubs and competitions became a way for students to get an early taste of outer space.

By Andrew Egan

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Andrew Egan, who is aiming for the sky with his latest. Read on if you love rockets (or expect to love rockets by the end, obviously).

Today in Tedium: Spending a significant portion of your childhood in the Houston, Texas metro area didn’t confer a whole lot of amenities. Getting anywhere cool was an eternal car ride away and the weather made daily existence a topic of contemplation. The Mexican food was good but the big draw was proximity to Johnson Space Center, home to NASA’s Mission Control. The idea you could be grocery shopping and run into a real life astronaut persisted but never happened. So to get a closer look at what it took to get to space, I did what any normal child would do. I joined my high school model rocket club. Today’s Tedium is taking a look at the Team America Rocketry Challenge and the role model rockets have played in modern society, for better and worse. — Andrew @ Tedium

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The final score of the 1969 Bluebonnet Bowl held in Houston, Texas. The game saw the University of Houston Cougars defeat the Auburn Tigers in the fondly remembered Astrodome. The victory helped Houston secure a #12 postseason ranking. What does this have to do with model rockets? Nothing. But during halftime model rocket maker Estes launched a scale model Saturn V, marking a rare indoor rocket launch. A few months before, the company managed to grab publicity for their Saturn V in a more meaningful way.

Model Rocket Example


You don’t get rockets without models

It’s one of those things that makes sense when you think about it. Model rockets precede rockets. Why would you build a full scale, fast moving cylinder capable of exploding on your first attempt? I mean, other than the awesomeness … Besides, the physics still apply on smaller scales and with less resources, which means better fine tuning.

The fine tuning is important because rockets are complicated. The earliest versions came from China during the 1200s as naval weapons before quickly being adopted by the Mongols who spread their use. While scientists made advancements in the subsequent centuries, like the Congreaves popular during the Napoleonic era, and of “rockets red glare” fame, modern rockets came of age in the middle 20th century.

Robert Goddard, a professor at Clark University, is widely considered to be the father of the modern rocket. Building on the work of 19th century scientists, Goddard attached a de Laval nozzle to a combustion chamber powered by liquid oxygen and gasoline. The crude rocket certainly was not the most aerodynamic, and was quite small while being hampered by what can only be called scaffolding, which was not the intention. Liquid fuel had proven to be a more efficient fuel over solid state. By 1926, Goddard helped demonstrate that human space flight was now a real possibility.

Robert Goddard

Robert Goddard with the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. (via NASA)

As Goddard once said: “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

(Side note: People in the space industry produce some amazing quotes.)

Of course, those possibilities would have to wait for World War II to begin and resolve. In a grim and crude sense, Germany’s V2 rocket program were models for the space age soon to begin in earnest.


The amount of time, in seconds, a machine called “Mabel” took to produce a solid state rocket motor. Owned and operated by Estes Industries, the machine completed every step required for a model rocket motor and helped the hobby explode in the 1950 and 60s. Company founder, Vernon Estes, credited the machine with the company’s success.

Bill Simon Estes

Model rocketry pioneers Vernon Estes and Bill Simon. (via

The cross-section of strangers that realized they were made for each other

What happens when a couple of shoe sellers meet a science and technology writer? Well, they obviously create a new industry.

The writer in question was G. Harry Stine, whose work at Popular Mechanics among others was widely circulated in the 1950s. Stine and his wife were close with famed sci-fi writer, Robert Heinlein, who dedicated many of his novels to the couple. One of his articles caught the attention of brothers Robert and Carlisle Orville, who had developed a safe model rocket motor for Robert to use in lectures about amateur rocket-powered aircraft.

In addition to being a science writer, Stine worked primarily as the safety range officer at the White Sands Proving Grounds, where America tested and developed the rockets that would later be used for nuclear weapons and the space race. Russia would, of course, beat the U.S. to orbit with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. The resulting explosion of interest in model rocketry led to many curious kids taking up their own attempts at rocket production.

In his 1957 article, “The World’s Safest Business”, Stine wrote, “In the 11 yeats of White Sands history, we have fired over 10,000 rockets and lost only two men-men who would still be with us if the rules had been followed.” Stine offered this admonition because growing amateur interest presented a problem to officials. “When we get letters from amateur rocket men-most of them asking for detailed, specific information-we usually give three loud cheers and shake in our boots at the same time … we shake in our boots because we know rocket flight testing is dangerous.”

The article goes on to list a series of commandments for amateurs to attempt their own model rockets safely. Still, the handling of propellants is dangerous no matter how you do it and when done in mass by an amateur population, mistakes happened and people were hurt.

After reading Stine’s work, the Orville brothers realized they had coincidentally made a safe and efficient rocket motor that would greatly reduce the danger. When they contacted Stine, the brothers sent the writer/rocketeer a few samples to test fire. The results were positive enough that Stine offered to create a company to license the motor for mass production. (It probably helped that he had recently been fired from a major aeronautics firm for offering a public reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik.)

A few failed attempts with inconsistent suppliers started the new company, Modern Missiles Inc., on shaky footing. However, they soon partnered with Vernon Estes, the son of a fireworks manufacturer to help maintain quality. Estes delivered by designing Mable in 1958.

By 1961, the company had grown so much that they moved from their original location in Denver to a 77-acre tract just outside Penrose, Colorado which soon became known as the “Model Rocket Capital of the World”. (Some of the Orville brothers’ original designs, known as the “Rock-A-Chute Mark I and Mark II” have been preserved in the National Air and Space Museum.)

A scene from the 1999 film October Sky, the story of rocketry enthusiast Homer H. Hickam, Jr., who went on to become a NASA engineer.

Interest in model rocketry has waxed and waned over the years, like many hobbies. Not every kid that had their own personal October Sky went on to work for NASA. Still, it gave enough of them a latent passion for space, or at least things that went BOOM!

But as emphasis for STEM education and activities increase, model rockets are an amazing vehicle for complicated concepts. Adding a healthy dose of competition doesn’t hurt either.


The approximate number of students that compete in the American Rocketry Challenge, formerly known as the Team America Rocketry Challenge, annually. Sponsored aerospace industry groups and major defense contractors, the competition allows budding rocket scientists to demonstrate their knowledge. Sometimes, it doesn’t go so well.

A scene from the 2015 Team America Rocketry Challenge.

Apparently a lot of kids want to play with rockets

The Team America Rocketry Challenge/The American Rocketry Challenge (TARC either way) was first held in 2002 to mark the centennial of the Orville brothers flight. Dignitaries like Homer Hickam of Rocket Boys/October Sky fame and Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi were in attendance. Interest ended up being so high it was decided to make it an annual event.

A couple of years later, I was looking to beef up my college applications when I noticed that my school had a competing rocket team and that it was very good. So I went to a meeting. The first one had a couple dozen eager kids. The next one had five.

Building a competition ready, model rocket is really hard. Computer modeling and simulation has made the task somewhat easier but in the early 2000s, there was still a lot of grunt work and design that I simply didn’t understand. So, I found a niche obsessing over the fins, the one element to the operation I could understand.

A two-stage rocket is kind of simple to explain. A bottom stage of (generally) multiple rockets gets the vehicle off the ground on a stable flight path while burning for a (generally) predictable period of time. The first stage also ignites the second while ejecting itself clear. The process repeats with the second stage, which often ejects a parachute.

The reality is that successfully completing that process is really hard. Every year, TARC issues the guidelines for competing teams, which adds to the problem. Limitations such as specific flight ceilings or times are adjusted every year. Some years require the launch and safe retrieval of uncooked eggs. (Sweet mercy those eggs caused so many problems.)

Our success wasn’t a team effort. That we managed to hit the exact specification for that year’s competition came down to one kid, who I will not name as I cannot reach him. He designed and built every element of that rocket, except the motors which came from Estes, with the exception of the fins. This was my domain. By the time we launched our qualifying runs on a decommissioned test pad at Johnson Space Center, our elite team was down to two, a future rocket scientist and me, a fin monkey, just happy to be there.

We qualified for the national championships on the efforts of our unnamed rocketeer. My mom wouldn’t let me go to Manassas, Virginia to watch our team compete. I was graduating from high school the same weekend. We performed poorly and I always wondered about the fins, much to the annoyance of my teammate. That wasn’t the problem, he assured me.

To this day, that’s probably the most successful project I have ever been a part of.

The phrase “it isn’t rocket science” often degrades a concept for not being hard enough. However difficult you think the actual science of rocketry is, you should probably just double or triple it. The math is crazy, every detail matters, and attempts are limited. Rockets take a certain kind of person.

The privilege and opportunity to participate in a high school rocket club is not something I take lightly. There was a budget and a knowledgeable faculty advisor who gleefully drove use to launch sites. This was a private school with an expensive tuition. The kind of place that gave me an opportunity to find out if I had what it takes to be a rocket scientist. I do not.

Creating more opportunities for others to find out for themselves isn’t a grand solution. Maybe it’s just something we can do.


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Andrew Egan

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Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at

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