An epic decade was brought down to scale by model rocketry
AT THE DAWN of the 1960s I barely knew what planet I was on. I was four-years-old when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were trying to break
baseball’s single season home run record, and John Kennedy was defeating Richard Nixon in the presidential campaign. I have no memory of either contest. What I do remember is trying my best to wheel my red pedal tractor across a grassy lawn, and making little roads through the dirt with my toy bulldozer. But things would change, fast.
Looking back now, with the hindsight of time, the ‘60s turned out to be one of the most complicated decades in American history. There was the Cuban missile crisis, the Beatles, the civil rights movement, Vietnam and the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. And then, there was space travel.
As I came of age during the decade, my enthusiasm for anything connected to the space program grew proportionately—to the point that my fondest memories from the ‘60s always seem to have something to do with rockets. It was a type of euphoria that young people today cannot possibly imagine.
I was six years old when John Glenn made his three revolutions around the planet, but it is the very first space flight that I remember. With each subsequent Mercury flight, I was a little older and by the time the Gemini program began, I was completely mesmerized. More than a year after Glenn’s flight came the murder of JFK. I was in the second grade, and somehow the sadness I recall in my household over Kennedy’s death, and the euphoria of the space program he left behind will always be intertwined.
Perhaps this is only fitting because Kennedy gave the space pro- gram its bold mission: Landing on the moon. A lot has been made over the fact that Kennedy was reluctant to commit to manned space flight until it became expedient politically. Yet, there isn’t a steely-eyed missile man still living from that time who doesn’t hold Kennedy in high regard for his ultimate decision.
This, of course, was a time when little league baseball, and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were among the few diversions for kids. At my house, we had a black-and-white TV with three stations. It would be a few years later before color television arrived at home, along with a fourth (UHF) channel.
It was still the early 1960s when I saw my first model rocket launch. I remember the “whoosh,” the streak of movement skyward and the parachute. A group of older boys in my neighborhood were flying these things. I remember picking up a small, spent rocket motor and marveling at how this could make some- thing travel so fast. But that was a short-lived event for me. I was too young to “take up rocketry” on my own, and I don’t recall the older guys offering to help me along.
It would be a few years later, in the fall of 1967, when I rediscovered model rocketry. By this time, I was in the sixth grade and someone passed around an Estes Industries catalog in class. Suddenly it all came back to me. This was what those guys had been flying several years earlier. This was undoubtedly the greatest publication I had ever seen. School textbooks didn’t stand a chance. I wrote an immediate letter to Estes and begged for one of those catalogs. To my delight, they actually mailed me one. It showed up sometime after New Year’s 1968. My birthday was in February and my Mom and Dad promised I could buy a rocket with my birthday money (which, they will be the first to admit, didn’t amount to much cash in those days). I was still buying comic books for a dime and the idea of a rocket that cost several dollars was way beyond my reach.
Yet, I was determined to own a rocket, and I was particularly fascinated by the color photo on the back of that Estes catalog (No. 671) showing all these rockets lined up neatly in the grass. And right there, smack dab in the middle of the photo, sitting on a launcher, was the coolest rocket I had ever seen—the Mars Snooper. I had to have it, never mind that I discovered later that it wasn’t exactly a beginner’s model. (This was before skill levels were published).
I ordered the Mars Snooper for $3, and two rocket motors (a B.8- 4 for 40 cents and an A.8-3 for 35 cents) on February 5, 1968. I know the date and details because I still have the order form. In those days, model rocket companies like Estes and Centuri always sent back the original order form with the shipment of rockets and motors. I saved everything from that time, and I’ll always be grateful to my Mom for not throwing out all this stuff when I went off to college years later. In fact, I have most of the original order forms I sent in to Centuri and Estes in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
I built the Mars Snooper as soon as it arrived a couple of weeks later from Penrose, Colorado. I recall having a tough time getting the fins to stay attached because they each had these three futuristic “pods” that seemed to weigh them down. Nevertheless, I finished it in a day, made a launch pad from a wooden block and a piece of asbestos (which would be unimaginable now), and borrowed whatever else was needed from a friend, including a launch rod and controller. (I later made my own controller out of a doorbell).
As with the order forms, I also have saved many of my “flight data sheets” from that time, and looking back at them, I see I loaded up the B.8-4 motor and launched the Mars Snooper on February 17, 1968 and recorded that it “swerved” but nevertheless made a successful flight. I was hooked to say the least. I would fly the Mars Snooper several more times over the next few months, until June 25 of that year when I scribbled this on my flight sheet:
“Disaster. Rocket crashed, destroyed completely.” Oh well.
I can’t recall just how many rockets I built and flew over the next few years but I know they included the Big Bertha, Arcas, Gemini- Titan, Mars Lander, Honest John, X-Ray, Avenger, Omega-Cineroc and Saturn V from Estes; and the Arcon Hi, T-Bird, Payloader II, Snipe Hunter, Mercury-Redstone, Saturn V and Saturn 1-B from Centuri. My favorites tended to be the two-stagers—the Avenger, Arcon-Hi, and Omega—and the scale kits. I always got a huge thrill out of flying the Saturn Vs and their three-engine clusters.
In the middle of all this, my family moved from one side of town to another—and by 1970, a group of my friends and I had formed the “Loch Ridge Rocket Society,” named after the street that two of us lived on. We had regular meetings and flew lots of rockets in and around Birmingham, Alabama. Our flying fields were as diverse as our rockets. We generally chose construction sites, including one halfway up a mountain that is now occupied by a hospital, the Brookwood Medical Center. I recall the second stage of my Estes Avenger floating under a parachute completely across the mountain behind us, never to be found again.
Our favorite field turned out to be farmland that was at least a mile wide and a half mile or more across, a few miles to the south in Shelby County. We never lost a rocket there, which is about the best endorsement you could ever have for a flying field. That entire area now is one of the fastest growing in Alabama and although at last check the field was still there, it was surrounded by dozens of developments and buildings—no longer rural by any- one’s assessment.
Unlike so many people of my generation who gave up model rocketry completely when they entered high school or college, I stayed with it off and on throughout college and into the early part of my career. I recall coming home to visit my parents from college one weekend, going out to yet another construction site in Homewood, Alabama, near Birmingham, and flying rockets with some friends.
A guy who seemed to know much more about model rocketry, technically, than the rest of us walked up to the group that day and introduced himself. He was George Gassaway, a legend in the world of the NAR and competition rocketry. I recall that George was carrying with him the first G motor I had ever seen. The highest power my group was flying at that time was a D-motor, and I’m still a bit partial to it.
I continued to fly rockets for many more years, until my career truly seemed to get in the way in the 1990s. Even then, however, I collected vintage rocket kits—not as investments but because they bring me back to a time that we’ll probably never see again— the dawn of the space age.
Unlike George Gassaway and so many others, I never got the competition bug, but preferred to continue to fly rockets for sport. Although I have joined the NAR off and on many times, still to this day have attended just one NARAM—No. 30 in Huntsville, Alabama, when I was a reporter for USA Today. I got a thrill when Estes Industries, in it’s Winter 1988 issue of Model Rocket News published a photo of me interviewing Vern Estes for a brief story in USA Today. Very cool.
NARAM 48 in Phoenix this summer will be my second national event, and I have a feeling that this time, I might just be coming back every year.