Boys and Their Toys
Birmingham’s model-rocket club.
>Gazing into a blue October sky, Ron Witherspoon couldn’t have been more pleased. “That’s what I’m talking about!” he shouted. “Did you see the flame on that thing? That’s bright enough to make the devil proud . . . Let’s go to the Moon!” Witherspoon is president of the Birmingham Rocket Boys club (BRB). Like another dozen or so local enthusiasts, there is nothing he’d rather do on a Saturday than launch model rockets. A chapter of the National Association of Rocketry (NAR), the BRB is comprised of local rocketeers from broad ends of the career spectrum, including a medical doctor, a postal worker, schoolteacher, and a retired local television station cameraman (who often attaches video cameras to rockets to record the onboard perspective). The group gathers once a month for launches at either the North Birmingham landfill or a cotton farm near Talladega.
On this particular day, Witherspoon’s ever-present enthusiasm was bolstered by the presence of novelist and former NASA engineer Homer Hickam, who is writing an article for Parade magazine that includes the BRB. Hickam’s best-seller Rocket Boys chronicled his boyhood fascination with backyard rocketry in West Virginia coal country, later serving as the inspiration for the film October Sky. As he autographed model rockets and copies of his books, Hickam told a reporter at the BRB gathering that although the rest of the United States probably found Russia’s launch of Sputnik “foreboding,” he and his childhood pals had been devouring so much science fiction that instead of being intimidated by the Soviets, they were excited. “We knew this would start a space race!”
In the 1960s, model rockets were only available through the mail or in hobby shops. By the 1970s, rockets could be found on the shelves of department stores. “One day I was in K-Mart, and suddenly: ‘Oh boy! Rockets!’” recalled BRB member George Gassaway, an award-winning model-rocket designer. “A few years before that I had thought, ‘what if I got a hundred bottle rockets and clustered them all together, and I could make one rocket that could fly!’”
BRB members are usually science geeks and craftsmen of sorts who lug around rockets, launch pads, pop-up awnings, and fishing tackle boxes filled with nylon string, X-acto blades, tape, glue, Vaseline, sandpaper, and plenty of extra rocket engines. During launching sessions, every 10 minutes there is an announcement via a small portable public address system: “On launch pad 3 we’ve got a red, white, and black Patriot with an H-165R motor blasting off at ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .’” When the launch button is pushed, all eyes simultaneously look skyward amid cheers.
The propellant for these models includes aluminum perchlorate (APC), the same solid fuel used on the two booster rockets that launch the Space Shuttle. Amateur enthusiasts must be certified to use such fuel. APC-powered rockets often emit a loud pop at blastoff, followed by a brightly colored flame tail and impressive “whoosh” sound as the projectile climbs to more than half a mile. The more expensive rockets employ an altimeter to determine the height attained. Ready-to-fly models start at $15, and higher-powered rockets can cost anywhere from $100 to more than $1,000.
Model rockets are available in an impressively wide range of designs, including NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft; a two-foot missile called a Skywriter painted to resemble a pencil; flying saucer–style contraptions made from cardboard boxes; and even a miniature blue Porta-John that emits a two-foot yellow flame and features an unraveling roll of toilet paper.
BRB member Tony Williams began competing on rocket teams with Gassaway in 1975, but he began his hobby more than a decade earlier. “One change has been the higher power. Model rockets were pretty limited in the ’60s, but in the early ’70s engines got stronger,” recalled Williams. “As far as the look of the rockets, there are a lot more variations now. The basic rocket is the pretty much the same, except there was a lot more [hands-on] modeling back then. There’s a lot of pre-fab stuff now. I think it was probably more fun back then.”
For Kim Mitchell, a self-professed “space junkie,” launching rockets that he’s built with his own hands is the continuation of not only his infatuation with outer space as a kid but also his earliest childhood memories. “I can remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon when I was three years old. I was at my grandparents’ house and can even remember the little TV set they had,” he laughed. Mitchell, a broadcast engineer at FOX 6 in Birmingham, added that the satellite technology he was enamored with as a child is integral to his current job.
Blake Driskill, a computer science specialist with an in-depth background in math, got involved with the BRB a couple of years ago. “I’m what they call a ‘BAR’— ‘born again rocketeer.’ I did it a little as a kid but didn’t have a lot of direction,” explained Driskill. “Then I saw October Sky and read the book. So when I turned 35 or 40 I decided I needed a hobby before I went out and got in trouble.” Driskill has seen some rockets reach altitudes of 13,000 feet at competitions.
Model rockets can be used repeatedly simply by installing more propellant, unless the rocket has crashed because its parachute failed to deploy. Cynics often wonder where the excitement lies in watching something fly skyward for five seconds before disappearing—sometimes for good. But rocket enthusiasts feel that half the fun is trying to locate the rockets as they parachute down, and then accomplishing recovery—which is easier said than done when your rocket lands in a forest or field of unpicked cotton. It’s not unusual for rocket owners to search a field for half an hour.
“I was enjoying myself because there wasn’t any wind,” said Driskill of a recent launch day. “And you could just shoot ’em up and they would come straight down, and they would glide just a little.” One afternoon Driskill lost his rocket. A curious farmer had been observing the launches, sometimes joining in the search parties. After combing the area for an hour, with no success, Driskill gave up and continued launching the rest of his arsenal until late afternoon. “We were leaving the site, and here comes this same farmer walking out of the woods with my lost rocket in his hands. He said, ‘I love hunting these things down!’” &