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The 6th Grade that Launched 39 Rockets:
A Build & Launch in Two Acts at the Dr. John C. Page Elementary School
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By Claude V. Maina

Prologue

For some time I have had the urge to direct a 'build and launch' session with a group of kids and the final impetus was Stephen Lubliner's article in May/June, 2008 issue of N.A.R.'s Sport Rocketry. The article really inspired and excited me and I approached my daughter's 6th grade science teacher, John Benvenuti, about hosting one at the school. John had no experience with model rockets and had not done anything like this before, nor had the school (nor I for that matter!). But he and the principal, Liz Perry, were very excited about it and gave me the go-ahead. I am a stereotypical B.A.R., having flown rockets for a few years when I was my daughter, Katy's, age. I dropped it once I got to high school and didn't pick it up again till a few years ago, when I got Katy interested. So, the stage was set - a relatively new B.A.R. with no experience with a 'build and launch', and a teacher and school with no experience in rocketry. This was either going to be a big hit, or we were going to lay an egg!

I got to work first by re-reading Stephen's article and gathering information and ideas from the educational and technical sections of various rocketry web sites. The education sections of Estes and Apogee Components web sites were particularly helpful. From those resources and a number of discussions with John, I was able to get a good sense of what we could accomplish, how long it would take, and how much it would cost. After a couple of weeks, I presented John with several rocket kits that I thought would work well, the criteria being price, ease of construction and finally the 'cool' factor. John decided to go with two - FlisKits 'Thing-a-ma-Jig' and Custom Rockets 'Razor', two good choices. Both rockets are unique and not the 3F&NC that is typical for most beginner rockets. So, the cool factor is there. I've seen the Thing-a-ma-Jig fly at CMASS launches and they always seem to fly straight with good altitudes. My daughter, Katy, and her friend Jack, a fellow rocketeer, each have the scaled-down version - Watchamacallit. The Watchamacallit was easy for them to put together and they have always had great flights with them. The Razor, with its tube fins is also unique. I've only seen it fly once at a CMASS launch; but the reviews on EMRR were good. I ordered two bulk packs of Razors (twelve per pack) and twenty-one Thing-a-ma-Jigs. That gave us six extra rockets. I would build one of each as a demo and the rest would be for the unexpected (make that expected) catastrophes. Just to give a plug for FlisKits and especially Jim Flis - he is a great guy. The Page School's PTO was going to pay for the rockets and I knew the price tag was going to be a little steep for them. I talked with Jim and he was able to come down in price for the twenty-one Thing-a-ma-Jigs, which I really appreciated. I purchased Estes A8-3 engines in bulk packs myself at a local hobby store.

There are 78 kids in the 6th grade and John wanted to make sure that all of the kids participated, so this meant having both the build and launch sessions during the school day. The 6th grade schedule is pretty tight so fitting both a build and launch session into their day was going to be a real challenge. To make things somewhat more manageable (and affordable), we decided to have the class pair up with each team building and launching one rocket - 39 pairs, 39 rockets, 39 builds and 39 launches - one session to build and, on a second day, one session to launch.

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Once the rockets arrived, I built one of each making note of any tricky points and timing myself to get an idea of how long it would take. There were no real 'gotchas' to the construction. The instructions for both rockets were very clear with good illustrations. However, building them did point out a few things that I decided to take care of before the in-class build session. Both kits had unassembled parachutes and because I knew we were going to be pressed for time, I decided to assemble them beforehand. The Razor had a two-piece plastic nose cone that needed assembly, requiring either plastic cement or CA, neither of which I wanted to use in class. The Razor also used a standard Estes trifold assembly for the shock cord. I've always had better luck if I let the glue of the trifold dry overnight before I glued it to the inside of the body tube. The instructions for the Thing-a-ma-Jig had you notch one of the centering rings of the motor mount to accommodate the engine clip, but I didn't want to introduce any X-acto knives or razors into class. And finally I was concerned about the kids punching out the Thing-a-ma-Jigs fins from the balsa stock as the tabs could easily break off while the fins were being punched out. So one Friday afternoon after school, Katy, Jack, my wife, Melissa, and I set up a parachute, trifold, nose cone, centering ring, fin punching assembly line for 39 kits! Melissa never knew what she was getting into when she volunteered for this project! (Come to think of it, neither did I!) But the assembly line was a lot of fun and we had a lot of laughs cutting, tying, gluing and punching. We put the assembled components and punched-out fins back in their respective bags, along with a swivel for the parachute, and treated ourselves to some fresh-baked apple crisp. It was October in New England, after all!

There was one more thing to do before build day. I didn't want to leave anything to chance so I took the Razor and Thing-a-ma-Jig I constructed to the soccer fields where we would have the launch session, for a test launch of both rockets. I had Katy and Jack come along and they used a homemade ruler/protractor altimeter I had made and stopwatch to measure the angle of elevation and time to apogee at a stake 200 ft from the launch pad. It was a clear October day with a moderate but steady breeze. We launched each rocket twice with the Estes A8-3 engines we would be using on launch day. The flights were nice and straight flights with parachute deployment right about apogee, landings within a radius of 100 ft of the launch pad, and no damage. The altimeter and stopwatch worked well and Katy and Jack were able to calculate the flight altitudes and velocity. But - I had to push things. Since the A engines worked so well we tried each rocket with a B6-4. The Razor landed in the field next to the soccer fields and was recovered. But the Think-a-ma-Jig just kept going and was lost in a stand of tall trees a few hundred yards from the launch site (I owed the Page School one rocket!) Aside from that, everything was in place and we were all set.

Act I - To-build, and to-build, and to-build, ...

Build day arrived and there was a lot of anticipation and excitement on everyone's part, and a certain level of anxiety on my part. I had gone over everything about the build session many times in the weeks before, driving Melissa and Katy crazy! But I still wasn't sure there was going to be enough time or if I had prepared for every contingency. However, once class started and the kids got themselves situated, it was too late for all of that. The curtain was up and the show was on!

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Build Day

{short description of image} For the build, John split the 6th grade into two groups with an hour and 15 minutes for each session. John paired up the students for the first group and decided that they would build the Thing-a-ma-Jig. Katy and Jack were in the first group and worked together so that once they finished their rockets they could help the others. Before John passed out the rockets, he talked to the kids about what was going to happen during the build and launch sessions and what they were supposed to pay attention to and focus on. I spoke for a few minutes about rocket construction and how it was important to read the instructions and work carefully. But you could tell the kids were barely listening to us, chomping at the bit to get at those rockets. John gave each team one Thing-a-ma-Jig kit along with a small squeeze bottle of wood glue, a square of 120 grit sandpaper, a wood applicator and an instruction booklet. The kids would also need a ruler and pencil. I had with me CA, an X-acto knife, masking tape and extra wood glue.

I first had the teams take the rocket parts out of the bag, spread them out on their workspace and identify all of the parts. The instructions call for building the engine mount first, but I had them first assemble their trifold fins, so that the glue would have the maximum time to dry before attaching the fins to the body tube. They then assembled the engine mounts pretty much according to the instructions (except for the notched centering ring). Once constructed, they put the engine mounts aside for the glue to dry. These two assemblies seem easy and no one had any major difficulties but it took a lot longer than I thought it would; we were going to run over time.

While the glue on the engine mounts and fins was drying, we had time for some education. Katy and Jack are participating in N.A.R.'s NARTREK Cadet Program. They had both received their Mercury and Gemini certificates earlier in the year and were in the middle of completing their Apollo certificates. As one of the tasks for the Apollo, they chose to give a presentation on rocketry to an audience and John was kind enough to let them speak to the class. Katy gave a short presentation defining the flight profile, how we would measure altitude during our launch session, and finally defining parts and burn sequence of a rocket engine. Jack gave his presentation, defining parts of a model rocket, explaining the engine labeling system, and finally some basic physics of thrust and newton-seconds. They used figures that we obtained from both the Estes and Apogee Components web pages. I had helped them prepare their talks and each gave a couple of practice talks in front of Melissa and me. They were nervous and excited as they approached the front of the class to give their respective talks; but once they got started, they settled down and each did a very good job.


Jack and Katy giving presentations

OK, talking was over and it was back to the build. I had the teams dry fit their glued fins to the body tube and mark the tube at the point where the fins touched the tube, remove the fins, and put a line of glue down the tube from the mark to the bottom of the tube. Next they put the fins on as described in the instructions. I then had them glue in the engine mounts, dry fitting first. While the fins and engine mounts were drying, we worked on the parachute attachments and nose cone. Since the parachutes were already assembled, all they had to do was pass the shroud lines through the eye of the swivel. They screwed in the eyehook into the nose cone and clipped the swivel onto the eyehook. This last part was rushed because we were now 25 minutes past the scheduled end of class. This was already a tightly scheduled day for the kids, and those 25 minutes were going to affect some other part of their day. But we were now done and the kids were handing their rockets to John to store for the night and cleaning up.

As the kids were cleaning up and bringing their rockets to John, one of the students came to me and asked what this was for, and showed me what was in his hand. It was the launch lug! The LAUNCH LUG! I had completely forgotten about the launch lug! I could not believe I had done that! But, it was too late now. The kids were already packing up to head to their next class and we were already very late. I told him not to worry about it, collected all of the launch lugs and glued them onto the Thing-a-ma-Jigs myself later that day. Once the first group left, the second came in. This group was going to build the Razor. Just as in the first session, John paired up the kids; the kids got their rockets and supplies and got to work. After spreading out and identifying the Razor parts, I had them put a line of glue down the six tube fins and place them aside while they next started on their engine mounts. I wanted the glue on the tube fins to set for a while before attaching them to the body tube. When five minutes had passed, I had the kids stop working on their engine mounts and attach the tube fins to the body tube. They did this by standing the body tube vertical on a sheet of wax paper, placing the six tube fins around it, and finally securing it all with a rubber band around the tube fins. They put the tube/fin assembly aside for the glue to dry and finished assembling their engine mounts. While the fins and engine mounts were drying, Katy and Jack repeated their presentations. When Katy and Jack had finished, I had the kids insert the engine mounts into the body tube, glue the shock cord trifolds to the inside of the body tube, glue on the launch lug (I wasn't going to forget that a second time!) and finally attach the swivel to their parachute. This build went a lot easier than the first one and was done in the allotted time, partly because the Razor is an easier build and partly because now I was a little more experienced.

When it was all over - close to three hours of building in two different sessions, I was mentally exhausted. I wouldn't say that it was three hours of chaos but I wouldn't call it controlled-chaos either. John however thought it went great! And, in fact he was calm throughout. He got the kids attention when he needed to, and let them build and talk, as they needed to; and he was clearly having a good time. I have to say that the kids did a very good job. I inspected the rockets later on that day and they all looked good. At that point, I felt better and then started to enjoy all that had happened that morning. I was very happy with what the kids had accomplished, with how everything went, and even more, relieved. But there was still tomorrow!

Act II - A rocket built in the first act must be launched in the second.

The next day was launch day and it was a perfect day for the launch - sunny, temperature in the 50's with NO breeze. We decided to have one launch session for the entire class. This would save some time and allow the other two 6th grade teachers, Brenda Dresser and John Peterson and the class aide, Jane Dunn to attend. However, it also meant longer wait times for individual teams, which could pose a problem. We were outside on a soccer field, on a beautiful fall day and the long wait times could be too tempting for some of the kids to get out of hand. I was a little nervous.

The launch session started in class and I reviewed what was going to happen during the launch, how the teams would time their flight, and how to use the altimeter to calculate the height of their flights. Next we passed out the rockets to each team along with a small bag containing an A8-3 engine, 2 sheets of wadding, igniter, and igniter plug. We also passed out a clipboard with a Launch Card, a Flight Log and tangent table. I instructed the kids how to prep their rocket and how to fill out the Launch Card and Flight Log. The Launch Card was a simplified version of what is used at CMASS launches and had a number written on the top that represented the team's place in the launch queue. The Flight Log had the kids record the flight basics (name, engine, weather conditions, ejection, etc.) plus tangent angle at apogee and flight time to apogee. Once the instructions were given and the rockets prepared, we were off to the soccer fields. Fortunately the soccer field is directly across the road from the school so, it was a short walk and John took the added precaution of having a town police officer there to direct traffic for us (one of the advantages of living in a small town).

{short description of image} I had already set up the launch area earlier that morning. We had two launch pads sitting off the ground on two milk crates, labeled 'A' and 'B' with two Estes Launchers, and two stakes 200 feet from their respective launch pads. I also had a bucket of sand, shovel, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, and a small bucket for spent engines. A little overkill, but it was better to err on the side of being too safe than not being safe enough. I also had my own Range Box with extra engines, igniters, plugs, masking tape, an X-acto knife, extra batteries, an extra Estes launcher, extra launch rods (I'm not sure why I brought the extra launch rods.) and CA. The CA came in handy as we had a couple of last minute repairs. I set up the launch sequence very similar to a club launch. Melissa was the Launch Control Officer and I played the role of Range Safety Officer. Each team would bring their launch card and rocket to me. I gave the rocket a final safety inspection, wrote the launch pad designation on it and passed the card to Melissa. The team then loaded their rocket on the pad. Once loaded, the team went off to the 200-ft stake, took up their altimeter and stopwatch, and waited for lift off. Melissa made a final check to make sure no one was within 15 feet of the launch pad, started the countdown and launched. At that point the next team loaded their rocket onto the empty pad. When Melissa was sure that the launched rocket had deployed its parachute and was not going to land near the launch area, she started a countdown on the other launch pad. At the 200-ft stake, one team member recorded the angle using the altimeter and the other recorded the time to apogee using a stopwatch. Using both numbers and the tangent table, each team would calculate the maximum height of their rocket and average velocity of their rocket as it traveled to apogee.

Jack and Katy were first to launch. After my inspection, they loaded their rocket on Launch Pad A and went off to the stake to time and measure the angle of their flight. This was it! The first launch of the day and what could be an omen for what was to come. While Melissa was conducting the count down, I was extremely nervous and found myself chanting to myself - 'Please launch! Please launch! Please launch! "... three, two, one, launch!" - and the Thing-a-ma-Jig was up!! I was so relieved! And, in fact, it was an omen, for rest of the launch went very smoothly. My initial apprehensions about the down time that teams would have and what would happen were unfounded. Having Brenda Dresser, John Peterson and Jane Dunn there was a real big help. Mrs. Dresser got the on-deck teams ready, and sent them to me for inspection and launch pad assignment. She also took over the camera duties from me for a while. Mr. Peterson helped the kids with their calculations and filling out their flight logs. Katy and Jack stayed at the 200-ft stakes to help the other teams measure and time their rocket flights. Melissa was a great Launch Control Officer. She kept the launch sequence moving, all the while keeping track of landing rockets and the movements of kids around the launch area. I found myself doing a little bit of everything: inspecting rockets, repairing rockets, helping kids load their rockets onto the pad, taking pictures, giving instructions. This is not to say that this was a NASA launch. There were a few times when no rockets were on the pad or two teams headed to the same pad. Several teams needed help loading their rockets onto the launch pad. A few teams loaded their rockets on the pad and then tore off for the 200-ft. stake, forgetting to attach the alligator clips. And a couple of teams handed me their rockets and clipboards with a blank expression on their faces, having absolutely no idea of what they were supposed to do. But mostly, things ran smoothly because the kids are great kids and were having a great time watching and cheering all the launches, talking about the different rocket flights, and filling out their flight logs.

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"That was a high one!" - Running to catch his rocket.
Brenda Dresser and John Peterson in the background

As for the flights themselves, they were good, fairly straight (no severe arcing) so that the one-point tracking should be relatively accurate. All parachutes deployed nicely; although, a surprising number didn't unfurl. I made the mistake of instructing the kids to fold their parachutes tightly so that it would not get stuck in the body tube and would eject easily. 'Tightly' is a relative term! But there was no damage; both rockets are very light and the unfurled parachute acted as a streamer.


John Peterson helping some kids with their calculations
'Razor Group' saluting the first Razor launch of the day

There was a lot of cheering from the kids throughout the launch session, particularly when a rocket would go especially high. That made me feel great. To hear the kids get that excited was a great feeling for me. But the highlight had to be when the school principal, Liz Perry, arrived. She is a great principal and the kids love her. I persuaded Liz to launch a rocket to the great excitement of the kids. The kids chanted her name as she gave the countdown and pressed the launch button. And as the rocket soared high into the sky, they gave her loud cheers and a standing ovation! OK, everyone was already standing. But it was great fun to see!


Principal Liz Perry at the controls
Melissa, John Benvenuti, Liz Perry and myself having as much fun as the kids

Once all 39 rockets were launched, there was still some time so we had a couple more launches. One of the students brought in his Big Bertha and another brought in his two Estes Mini Super Shots. We launched the Big Bertha on a B6-4; it went much higher than the Razors and Thing-a-ma-Jigs to great cheers. Next we launched the two Mini's in a drag race. They went especially high to a lot of 'Wow's!' And that was it, the launch session was over! We picked up the field for any wadding or other debris; the kids and teachers headed back to class with their rockets, and Melissa and I took town the launch area. {short description of image}

Epilogue

No lost rockets, no lawn darts, no CATOs, no fires, no hospital visits! Wow! The kids had a great time; the adults had a great time, and I think we actually accomplished some education as well. Katy later told me that the launch was all that the kids talked about for the rest of that day. The show was a hit! This was a very rewarding endeavor for me, a lot of fun and I can't wait till curtain call next year!

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