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Rocketfest: A Family Tradition
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By Tom Krawczyk

ReadyThe following is my entry for the Youth Participation contest, although it's not something I just started because of the contest. It all started in 2001 when my brother brought a model rocket to our family land where a group of us were camping just to fly it and provide a little entertainment for the kids along with introducing the group of them to the hobby. Now, 8 years later, we just wrapped up our seventh official Rocketfest where 37 rockets were in the competition and there were over fifty launches. Out of those 37 rockets, 14 were designed and built by kids' ages 2 to 17 years old!

These 14 kids who participated this past year have pretty much grown up around rockets (obviously some having a bit more experience then others). The younger ones, including my 2 boys, look forward to being old enough to solely build and paint there own rockets like the "big kids", but until then it is valuable time I enjoy spending with my 6 and 4 year old. The other parents in our group agree that it is a great project and they love the ideas their kids have for building, painting and naming their rockets.

Rocketfest first started out as a looks and flight competition. We had adult judges and a rating system on the esthetics of the rocket and a successful flight. There were extra points awarded for originality and thrills like confetti popping out of the rocket with the chute. The basic rules included engine and weight specifications. Each family was allowed 1 rocket per family member including their children. The glitch was if your children was going to fly a rocket in their name that child had to actively construct the rocket as a whole (as much as they could for their age) This would include the child having to pick out their kit, help with the construction, paint them, and of course name the rocket. Once at the site, an adult would assist them with packing the chute, installing the engine and igniter.

The following year in order to make it fairer for the children, the format of Rocketfest was changed. Instead of there being judges, we painted a giant "X" in the middle of a field about 50 yards away from the launch pad and the rocket that landed closest to the "X" was the winner. So the more rockets your family brought, the better your chance of winning. Every family member had a rocket and this is when the kids really started getting involved.

Getting ReadyIn our house, we start preparing our rockets early. The boys help to pick out what rocket they wanted and you wouldn't believe the excitement when the box of rocket kits arrived at our house! As the year progresses, they helped with the building process. They help me to put the parts together, test the chutes, and learn the parts of the rockets. When anyone comes over to visit, they are immediately taken into the rocket building room to see how the boys' rockets look!

As soon as spring breaks we begin to paint the rockets. The boys would pick out the colors and come up the scheme. The other families would do much the same. When it was time to start applying decals and stickers, the kids all took over! Some of the kids would use the decals that come with the kits while other families would get vinyl and the kids would then in turn cut out different designs and such. Some of the families who buy the smaller kits like to have their kids decorate their rockets with stickers of their favorite kids show characters, etc.

In fact, this year was one of the first years that a rocket was built, painted and designed entirely by one of the 11 year olds in our group. She refused to have her parents' help and spent hours building and planning how she was going to paint her first rocket. In the end, she decided to give the rocket away to one of the adults in our group because that adult never had her own rocket. Not only are we sharing the rocket experience with kids, but they are sharing it with adults!

PreppingRocket building is not the only way that the kids get into the Rocketfest during the year. Every year we put together a video of last year's rocket flights which is a mix of videos, pictures and great music. The most recent year's Rocketfest video is one of the most popular DVDs in our house. The kids love watching their rockets and their friends' rockets blast off. The best part is the top 10 from last year! A nice re-cap of who went down in Rocketfest History that year.

As if the video wasn't enough, my sister does screen-printing with her class of students and every year they make us t-shirts and sweatshirts commemorating the previous years' top ten finalists. We all have closets full of Rocketfest apparel and they are some of the most colorful and eye catching parts of our wardrobe at rocket launches we attend throughout the year. When you wear the shirt, you cannot expect to avoid a question or two about the event and what Rocketfest is. You wouldn't believe how many people have flown rockets before and love to share their stories.

With all of the build-up and work that goes into it throughout the year it finally culminates in early September with Rocketfest. Friday night, the tradition is to display your fleet of rockets. We usually set up a tent and there are many elaborate displays and stands used to show off the years' hard work. Most of the kids are so excited to show off their rockets you couldn't imagine. There are tons of pictures taken and a lot of talk about the following day.

Also, on Friday night we pick our launching order. Everyone gathers around and anticipates the outcome. Pretty much at this time the kids are falling out of their skin. The previous year's winner of Rocketfest automatically starts first but the rest get into the random draw to see what time of the day they will fly. After one picks his/her spot they then pick a name out of another hat and that is the person who goes next to pick their spot.

This year, for Rocketfest 2008, we again made a different twist with the format. The launch order of every ones rockets was entered into an excel spreadsheet on Friday evening to get it ready for the following day. That spreadsheet would be used to determine the winner for the new system we came up with to give us a winner. welcome ."The Ring Of Fire".

For Rocketfest 2008, after you launched your rocket, and it landed, a crew using a sign at the landing spot and range finder, would measure that distance to a common focal point (where the X used to be) and that measurement was then entered into our excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet would then randomly assign you a ring 20, 40, 60, 80 or 100 yards away from the focal point. Your score would then be determined by the difference between your measured distance and the ring you were assigned. For example, if your rocket landed and was measured at 78.5 yards from the focal point and you were assigned the 40 yard ring, your score would be 38.5 yards. If you had been randomly assigned the 80 yard ring, your distance would have been 1.5 yards. So on and so on. It was now entirely based on luck of the draw so to speak and the kids had a ball with it. Truly every sized rocket each child constructed and an equal chance of winning.

Saturday morning, we begin setting up the launch pad and the launch equipment. A large wooden platform is brought out on a tractor from its storage place in the barn and set up about 100 yards away from the spectator area. On top of it there are two interchangeable launch rod holders. We then set up the car batteries that will be used to ignite the rockets. The launch button is about 75 yards away from the launch pad for safety reasons and so that each kid can launch their own rockets.

A laptop with the excel spreadsheet we had prepared the night before was hooked up to a TV so that we could instantly show what your distance was once it was entered into the computer. We could also give updates on what place every rocket was in. We have a table set up where each rocket checks in. The kids all have to fill out their own flight card and then submit it in to our range LCO at which time your rocket is weighed in to ensure that you have the proper motor for your rocket. This was an opportunity for each child to use the PA system and explain their rocket and of course hopes of the flight. Armed with walkie talkies, about 6 adults on ATVs set up in the area as the recovery team and once recovery is in position, the launch pad operator hooks up the rocket and the battery and we are now ready for launch. Using the PA with the portable microphones, our announcer ensures the crowd is ready and begins the countdown from off!!! The kids are always ready and waiting to help with the count down!

The measurement team then immediately heads to where the rocket has landed and using a sign secured to an extendable pole, someone standing at the focal point with a range finder measures and reports the distance. It is then entered right into the computer and the score is announced. The recovery team returns the rocket to the owner and gets back into position for the next flight. All of the launches usually take a good portion of the day. We only break for lunch and keep snacks out for everyone to munch on. Once everyone's initial flight is done, we begin The Chase! Yes there's more...

The top five closest rockets after everyone has gone then get the chance to launch one more time under the exact same format I just described. These new scores are plugged into their first scores and their average distance is used to determine the final order. This is where things get intense. The kids just love seeing their rockets go up again and those who didn't make are just as excited to cheer on their friends! We have the top five draw launch positions from a hat again, but this time they pick in the order that they finished the first round (the current first place holder picks first and so on). These last flights of the day are definitely the most memorable, and now with The Ring Of Fire, it is definitely more fun because you are sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to see what ring you got! It came down to the very last flight this year to decide the winner! That would be 8 year old Ryan, family friend with an overall average of 7 yards. Not Bad. O yeah did I mention the winner of each Rocketfest gets his/ her name embroidered onto a jacket that is passed along from year to year. Kind of like the Stanley Cup of the rocket world.

I think that Rocketfest is a great event that brings all of our friends and family together, and teaches our kids how to safely use rockets and to be proud of the rockets that they built, named and decorated. It is also great quality time I spend that I will forever cherish. This is why we have continued to make this even bigger and better every see the smiles of pride and hear the cheers and excitement from all of the kids who participate.

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