The Rockets Red Glare

The Cast: Randon (assistant designer), Rannoch (technical supervisor), Myself (designer).

The creation turned on its creators… And tried to kill us.

Isn’t that the way it always is? The creation gets created. The creation comes to life. The creation tastes freedom and then turns on its master. Then someones dies. It’s not just in the movies, it happened to me once.

Some of you may be familiar with the 1999 film October Sky, if you’re not, you may want to take some time and watch it. It’s a good flick. Good story. Good cast. Plus, it’s based on the book—written by the main character’s son, about the main character. True stories are always the best (in my opinion), even if they are a little Hollywood-ized. You don’t know what will happen next and the ending may not be all that happy. Yeah, true stories… Where was I? Oh, yes! The main reason I bring October Sky to your attention is simply because I had not seen it—until last week.

Last week, while getting ready for bed, I turned on the television to see what was on—something to fall asleep to. Ya’ know? While I flipped through the channels I came across a guy asking some kids if he could watch their launch. Well, given what was in the background, I knew it was some sort of model rocket launch. And even though I had not seen the movie before, I had a gut feeling that things were going to go bad (bad for the kids, good for the viewer). Oh, how right I was.

Over the next few minutes, I was riveted to the television as rocket after rocket exploded or went haywire (then exploded). That’s when a memory surfaced that had remained dormant in the back of my mind for years. I think all memories are like that. They’re all there, in our heads, somewhere, waiting for their time to shine. Waiting to come to the forefront of our thoughts. I was having one of those ‘forefront of thoughts’ moments. I had remembered about the time… well, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. So, here goes it: Let me tell you about the time my rocket tried to kill me. Dang it! I just gave away the plot. Oh, well. Keep reading.

It was somewhere in the mid-to-late 80s’ when I was introduced to the new hobby of model rockets. See, there were these two brothers that I had befriended and it was the older of the two that invited me out to see a launch. Normally, the three of us would simply ride our bikes around town and sometimes include some amateur bird watching—if we found ourselves beyond the town’s borders and in the farmer’s fields. However, one glorious day was different. We weren’t going bike riding for fun, exercise, or even to watch owls, we were headed for a launch site.

The older brother, Rannoch, apparently had been an amateur rocket enthusiast for some time. His younger brother, Randon, had (by proximity) also picked up on the hobby. Now, they were including me. Cool. I was excited beyond belief. Rocket launch. What could this mean? Given my aptitude for creative imagination, my mind began to unveil all manner of impossible ideas. Rocket launch…

By the time the three of us reached the launch site, I had seriously set myself up for disappointment. We were out in the middle of nowhere (the middle of several farmer’s fields), and I could see nothing. Rocket launch my… Wait. What’s this? They have a box? What’s in the box? That’s when I discovered the letdown of a small model rocket launch. Inside their dilapidated cardboard box were all manners of junk. Wires. Tubes. Batteries. Bits of thick paper triangles. A long, long wire? A metal disk? Okay, maybe this was going to be interesting after all.

After a brief rundown of how the setup worked, I was cautioned to stand back. Connections were made. Countdown commenced. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, liftoff!” And that’s when I changed my mind about model rockets! Holy cats! It was amazing! I was hooked.

Over the next several months, there were more launches. Randon and I were no fools, however. We both knew why we were invited to go to the launches: We were willing to chase the falling rockets and retrieve them. We didn’t care. It was fun. There are few things that bring the thrill of running through a field, looking up, tracking a falling rocket, and NOT tripping. Yup, there’s some serious skill involved with that (and some serious fun).

It didn’t take long before Randon and I wanted to do more than just run and retrieve. We also wanted to launch. But, it was pointed out that neither of us had a rocket of our own. I was willing to change that. Since the first launch, I had paid attention and asked questions about how the rockets worked and how they were built—I had even assisted here and there in minor repairs and such. I knew I could build one. I just needed a design.

Randon was more than willing to assist in the design and construction process of the rocket. He had more experience, so I had no reason to object. Now, I just need parts.

Getting parts was not a problem. I have been an active collector of components for future projects since I was a small child—still am. Because of our town’s size, model rocket parts were not to be found readily at any store. So, junk was easier to come by. Old paper towel tubes were great for the body. Non-corrugated cardboard for the fins (cereal boxes). A nose cone made from… Made from…? I didn’t know what to make the nose cone out of.

“Balsa wood.” Was Rannoch’s choice. “It’s light-weight, easy to shape… It’s best.”

I didn’t have balsa wood. So, I found a chuck of some old, and light ‘feeling’ wood. That should be good enough. Right? Next: Design.

Randon and I wanted our rocket to be more than just any old rocket. We wanted a super-awesome rocket! And, if a single tube rocket (with one engine) was cool, then obviously a three-tube, duel engine rocket would clearly be a super-awesome rocket! YES!

“No.” Was Rannoch’s advice. “Even though the electricity runs through almost instantly, it doesn’t. There is a slight chance that one engine will ignite slightly before the other one and then the rocket will bind on the two guide wires, get stuck, and then burst into flames. I wouldn’t do it.”

Killjoy.

So, Randon and I kept the three tube idea, but, we had elected—after choosing of our own free will and not by any outside influences—to install only a single engine into the center tube, and not two engines (one in each of the outer tubes). Now for the fins! I had saved a few cereal boxes for this event. Wheaties had the biggest box (at the time), so we had plenty of cardboard for the fins. Looking back, I think this is where we started to go wrong—possibly earlier.

Randon and I had drawn out some wicked-looking curves and scallops. We traced and retraced and traced some more. While we did not possess the tools for 100% accuracy, we did understand that precision was critical to success. Crude and rudimentary aerodynamics were still going to be affecting the results of our efforts. We had to craft well. We did. The results of our efforts looked like the Blackbird from Marvel’s X-Men comics and DC’s Batman Batplane had a baby!

I know Whitewashed had more fins, I just can’t recall how many.

We had painted the whole thing black and had even christened it: Whitewashed.

For those who are unaware, this time period in fashion history was overflowing with denim washed in and/or with all manner of things besides detergent. There was acid-washed, stone-washed, white-washed, maybe even razorblade-washed… It was ridiculous. However, regardless of how stupid the washing had become, I did have a clear plastic tag from a pair of pants that had white outlining the word ‘WHITEWASHED’ on it. Randon and I wanted to curve the plastic and attach it to the main body of our rocket, but it wouldn’t bend. So, we carefully trimmed it up and glued it on with some Elmer’s glue (goes on white, dries clear). We had ever so carefully made it level (using our eyeballs, as an actual level wouldn’t fit around all the fins and such—we weren’t stupid).

After three days of cutting, gluing, and painting, Whitewashed was ready for launch. It was going to be the greatest thing to hit the skies since… well, ever! Off the three of us rode to a small alfalfa field just to the West of town. We settled into the center (no trees to catch the rocket on its decent) and prepped. Randon and I were stoked beyond belief as to what was about to occur: Our own three tube rocket! And if this went well, we just might convert it over to a two-engine rocket. We’d just have to see.

“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, liftoff!” There was the familiar FFWWIISSHHHHH!!! of the engine as the chemicals inside ignited and shot Whitewashed toward the stratosphere! Oh, yeah…

Then it happened. The very same thing that happens in all horror movies. That moment when the creator becomes the target of the creation’s anger and hate. The moment when the master becomes the victim. The moment when the creation turns and kills!

RU-UN!

Whitewashed, at about ten feet in the air, decided to not be a rocket anymore. It wanted to be a plane. A jet plane. A supersonic, rocket-powered, jet plane—with a vengeance. We were going to die. See, at ten feet, Whitewashed leveled off. It just took an abrupt 90° angle turn and leveled off. And now, at this new, low altitude, Whitewashed screamed about our heads. It zigged and it zagged. It then peeled left into a high-speed, graceful arc. It barrel-rolled. It loop-de-looped. It whizzed past our ears. It buzzed over our heads. It veered right. It swooped left. It shot around our bodies. It felt like forever but could only have been a few seconds (due to how much fuel was in the rocket engine).

Then, Whitewashed moved in for the kill. If there had been a miniature pilot sitting in a miniature cockpit, Randon and I would have seen the face of Death in his eyes. Whitewashed came for us both. As we stood side-by-side, Whitewashed zoomed straight for us. It even began to decrease in altitude, just to hit us. It really was aiming for us!

“JUMP!”

Randon dove left, I dodged right (both of us into the dirt). Whitewashed careened straight into a furrow of soil and fresh alfalfa plants—missing us both by millimeters. Then it exploded into flames. See, many rocket engines have a secondary burst to blast the nose cone free from the fuselage. This deploys a parachute. The parachute then allows the rocket to slow its descent back toward Earth. However, with Whitewashed buried halfway in that furrow, all that excess material just added fuel to the fire—literally.

Randon and I sprang from our dirt-ditches and began to feverishly stomp and kick at the small raging inferno that was now Whitewashed. In the background, Rannoch laughed. “All that work. All that work, for nothin’. You’ve got nothin’ to show for it.” Despondent, Randon and I looked at each other, both knowing Rannoch was right.

However, now, as I look back, I did have a takeaway: The frightfully, wonderful memory of the day my rocket tried to kill me.

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