The Rocket Years

by Ralph J. Chin


The year was 1962 and I was a freshman at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey. A new President had just been elected and sworn in on January 20, 1961. In his first year of office he had boldly set a national goal and declared that the United States would land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth before the new decade was over. This President was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the youngest President to be elected to America’s highest office. Little did he know at the time that this initiative would generate so much innovation in so many fields of science that it would literally change course of American history forever. The reason for this agenda was that the space race had been unofficially been declared between the United States of America and Union of Soviet Socialist Republic. Russia struck the first blow as the world was startled when they launched their Sputnik satellite around the world on October 4, 1957. I remember all of the neighbors gathering in their backyards to watch the appearance of Sputnik’s little glimpse of light as it orbited the earth after it was announced on the news a few days before. There was a definite buzz of interest in the air.

The space race more than likely was the incentive in the formation of a company called Estes industries in Denver, Colorado in 1958 by a man called Vern Estes. Estes Industries was the first company to develop a machine that could mass produce a reliable solid propellant rocket engine that was intended to be used by all the budding space enthusiasts of the time. It provided them a means to join the space race using model rocketry as their vehicle. Estes Industries began selling model rocket kits in the year of 1960 and although they have undergone many changes, they still sell model rocket kits to this day.

One of my older cousins, Wayne, found an advertisement for Estes Industries in the early sixties and promptly ordered one of their rocket kits that had a premade model rocket in it. Wayne was determined to enter the space age in one way or another after being thoroughly energized by the space race events in the news. As a result, he brought a few of us along with him as he pursued his interests and made Weequahic High School history when his science teacher permitted him to set off a rocket motor that was securely anchored to the windowsill with its nozzle pointing out of the window. It still stunk up the room despite this precaution and the teacher was stunned by the rocket engine’s power. As time went by, Wayne’s friends all lost interest and eventually he was left with just me as a helper and co-conspirator. Together we ventured deeper and deeper into this exciting new hobby of model rocketry.

Our first launch was amazing event for both Wayne and I. We set the rocket’s launch pad in the middle of a huge field in Irvington Park which was the closest park to our house. I hand lit the fuse and ran to the spot where my cousin deemed that it was a safe distance from the launch pad and waited until the fuse burnt into the rocket engine’s nozzle. We waited for what seemed like minutes and then suddenly a spark at the nozzle indicating that it was finally igniting and Whooooooosh, it took off!!! The rocket had disappeared from sight within seconds and all that was left was trail of smoke from its exhaust. I remember the look of shock on my cousin’s face turning into a big smile as he spotted the rocket gliding down to earth by its parachute. We ran excitedly towards it and were yelling in the excitement of the moment at its success! We proceeded to shoot the same rocket off two more times with the same results and then went home satisfied that our day was a success.

Wayne ordered many more rockets as we progressed in this new hobby. Each time he ordered a new rocket it got bigger with more powerful engines and soon we were dealing with some of the largest rockets that Estes Industries produced at that time. In the course of our adventures some of the rockets were lost because the parachute failed to deploy or they were so far out of sight that we couldn’t possible track them without a pair of binoculars. The larger rockets were shot off from the center of an old race track located in Weequahic Park on the Dayton Street Project side. As far as we could tell it was no longer used as a racetrack but it was a perfect for our purposes. It was a huge track and being located in a park setting, it had lots of empty park land around it. We estimated that it must have been a half mile track because the track at Utermann Field which was next to Weequahic High School was a quarter mile track and this was much larger. But as successful as we were with the launches, my cousin had an undying thirst for more power and bigger rockets.

He then located a company that built bigger solid propellant rocket engines that were so big, it made the Estes Industries motors look like little toys. I don’t remember the name of the company that manufactured these motors or their specifications but they were serious motors for hardcore rocket builders like my cousin. They literally looked like sticks of dynamite with the difference being that they had an exhaust nozzle at one end and paper parachute plug at the other end. Wayne then proceeded to design and build a custom four foot rocket that was approximately 5 inches in diameter and it had three of these monster motors in it!!

He built the entire rocket out of balsa wood in a circular rib and spar construction technique that is used in model aircraft construction. Instead of a paper skin that was used on model airplanes, he used thin sheets of balsa wood to cover the rocket’s body and give it strength. He made the blunt nose cone out of large block of balsa wood and glued the three modified triangular wings on the rocket’s body. He then painted the rocket like only he could. It was a beautiful project that was impressive at the same time. I remember thinking that we would never be able to find this rocket once it took off if the engines were that powerful and we would surely lose this beautiful and expertly crafted rocket to the skies. It would probably land on some one’s roof and stay there for posterity.

The day that we launched that monster was slightly overcast but the sun still mange to peek out from behind the clouds. There was a lady and her baby walking on the inner grass area of the track where we planned to do the launch and my cousin sent me over to warn her that there might be some danger since we were setting off an experimental rocket. Surprisingly the woman heeded my warnings, gathered up her baby and promptly got off the inner track. My cousin had finished setting up the rocket for launch and it sat there like a big stick in the mud. I was about to ask my cousin how he was going to ignite all three rocket engines simultaneously when he pressed the ignition switch and ignited the common fuse. I could see three separate fuses, one from each motor and they were tied together to form the common fuse. This form of ignition proved to be our downfall because the engines did not ignite simultaneously but instead ignited sequentially resulting in massive instability that sent the rocket zigzagging across the sky in an uncontrolled manner. We were hugging the ground as this was happening but then as the motors burnt out, I stood up to see the rocket gliding horizontally across the sky on the aerodynamics of its design. Despite the flawed launch, it was a beautiful sight to watch the rocket gliding to its resting place on the grass.

Although we had survived the launch without harm and the rocket was in one piece, the walk home was quiet and without joy. Wayne was not use to failure. He was upset at the results of the launch but never said anything further about it. The following year he graduated high school and was off to college. My interests were directed towards a new girlfriend and as a result, that ill fated launch turned out to be our last hurrah and the rocket years were now officially over but its effects went on for years. (Wayne went on to become an Aeronautical Engineer, worked for NASA and then formed his own company until he retired. His brother, Ronald, worked for the NASA Space Tracking network in Kauai, Hawaii and then worked for NASA in Texas until he also retired. I worked for 4 years at the same NASA Space Tracking network in Kauai, Hawaii as my cousin Ronald starting in 1975 until I returned to the mainland in 1979. Not bad for a bunch of Newark kids!!)


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