LAUNCH: You mentioned the Sky Hook. I understand you also designed the Alpha and the SPEV, among others. True?
Simon: I had kind of hoped the SPEV would be forgotten. The story behind that is that John Hood, our warehouse manager, used the visual system of inventory control: if the bin in his warehouse looked to be near empty, he’d tell George Miller, our purchasing agent, to order more. At some point orders from Euclid, our body tube supplier, were slow coming in, so John, on his next weekly round, would dutifully note that the BT-xx bin was empty and tell George to order more. George in turn would place the purchase order. A few weeks like that and we ended up with a 50-year supply of a couple of items. The “Surplus Parts Elimination Vehicle (SPEV)” was purely a way to correct the imbalance, and it was discontinued as soon as it had done its job.
The Alpha went together on my kitchen table one night to get Vern off my back because he had been insisting that we needed a new beginner’s model. There were some others like the Drifter, Farside, and Cobra, which I also designed, and many others that were joint efforts. Wayne Kellner created a chart of “who designed what” a few years back, and I find myself referring to it to refresh my memory.
LAUNCH: Vern Estes has said that you and he developed the first multi-stage rocket together, which of course required a booster engine with no delay charge. I have an original Apogee II kit in my office here, dating from 1964. This replaced the earlier Apogee, which as I understand it was the first two-stager at Estes?
Simon: In fact, we had been producing booster engines for some time, but the reliability of multi-staging left much to be desired. Vern was working on ideas for improving upper stage ignition, but not having a whole lot of success when I suggested to him that he try just taping the two engines together. He tried it, it worked, and with a little experimenting with different types of tape, we came up with the system that we could feel confident about. The original Apogee (K5) actually predates the tape technique. (Another digression here: Note the shape of the fins on the Astron Apogee, Astron Ranger, and later, the Big Bertha, and to a lesser degree, the Streak. That double taper is a Vern Estes signature.)
LAUNCH: I understand the Alpha was the top selling Estes kit of all time. How many kits were sold in the years you were with Estes? And what other kits were best sellers?
Simon: The Alpha, because of its use in starter kits was the top seller, but Vern’s Big Bertha brought in more dollars. I’m sorry to say that I just don’t remember sales numbers. If I had to take a stab at it, I’d estimate that by 1967 we were selling around 70,000 kits per year and well in excess of a million kits total in my 15 years at Estes. Our sales channels changed from direct mail order to dealers’ sales, and then to distributors and mass marketers, and the number of kits increased at a greater rate than sales dollars. (I kept a copy of a chart showing comparable year-toyear sales dollars but finally decided to toss it into the recycle about six months ago.) I do remember that kits accounted for between one third and half of the company’s revenues.
LAUNCH: You mentioned that you designed the Drifter, Farside, and Cobra, among others. Those are certainly iconic Estes rockets. I’m reminded that the Farside-X, for instance, was an extremely popular three-stager with its large payload. And of course the Cobra was a clustered-engine model. How challenging was it to design these kits, and how much testing did you do between the first drawing board sort of design and the actual production of the kits?
Simon: Our original test procedure was to LAUNCH the model in normal trim to verify that it was stable and verify which engines were appropriate for it. Following that we would tape a nose cone weight to the rear of the body tube between the fins to move the balance point aft and launch again. This would be repeated with more weight until we established that it was stable enough to tolerate construction with mis-aligned fins, excessive glue, etc.
Cluster models would be flown with all engines, then with the igniter missing from one engine, then two dead engines, etc. Norm Avery filmed (16mm) a Saturn launch where the model chased me around the parking lot on one engine. It would have made a great “America’s Funniest Home Video” entry if it hadn’t disappeared sometime in the mid ‘70s.
Later on we started our testing by swinging the model on a string in various stages of nose-down trim before we went on to actual LAUNCHes. Of course, some of the test launches were just for the enjoyment of flying the model.
Old, beat-up models that were headed for the trash anyway often were LAUNCHed with a doctored engine so they could go out in a blaze of glory (or at least a bang of glory).
First launches were generally performed on models with unfinished surfaces. The fin edges were left square, the nose cone unsanded. We tried to simulate the worst a novice rocketeer could do. We also tested with the parachute restrained from fully opening to simulate a bad packing job. Often we’d tape three or four shroud lines together so we would have half or one third of the parachute deployed. Slim, sleek models might be flown with short delay engines to observe their behavior with premature parachute deployment. Other times big, slow models (Bertha type) were launched with long delay engines to pop the chute well on the way down.
Once we had gone through all this we would fly the model for Vern. This was largely based on the Murphy’s Law principle that the worst only happens when the boss is looking on. If Vern liked it, it went into the hopper for pattern, die, decal, instruction, and packaging design.