Fire In The Sky

Every year at the end of May, people gather in a desolate field in The Middle of Nowhere, Eastern Washington. (Actually, it’s called Mansfield, but the towns motto is the “the town at the end of the tracks.” Local residents are known to call it the Middle of Bum-F*** Nowhere.).  Every one of these people have something in common: they are crazy pyromaniacs!

This convention is called Fire In The Sky, or FITS.  It is the largest gathering of rocketeers in the northwest. And by rocketeers, we mean those people who enjoy the wonderful hobby of model rocketry.

Model rocketry is an activity dating from the 1950’s that originated as middle and high schoolers raced to get into the space race. In the beginning, model rocket motors were homemade from ammonium perchlorate and black powder, which were heated and poured into metal tubes, then lit with a standard mining fuse. Rockets were essentially a guess and check science, even in the army, which did all of the federal rocket science in the United States, and many spent their explosive force outwards, rather than upwards. Safety issues led to public and civil mistrust of rockets, especially because the term was still most commonly associated with fireworks. In 1954, Orville Carlisle and G. Harry Stein designed the first commercially produced model rocket in the United States. Along with their rocket, the Rock-A-Chute Mark II, they started selling the first commercially available motors, produced by their business partner Vernon Estes, founder of Estes Industries.

Three years later, as sales of the Rock-A-Chute were starting to slack off, Mr. Carlisle founded the National Association of Rocketry (NAR). NAR is now the largest and oldest sport rocketry association in the world, with over 5000 members divided into more than 120 chapters dispersed across the nation. NAR functions as the voice of its members, working with hobby manufacturers, national media, local public safety officials, and government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ensure that the public and the government respect the stellar safety record NAR has established in the course half a billion launches over the past 52 years.

One of NAR’s primary purposes is to regulate rocket motors and launches. Indeed, the NAR Organizational Statement says that “We were established in part to ensure that hobby rocketry enthusiasts had legal access to safety-certified, commercially made rocket motors.” As a part of this regulation, NAR divides rocketry into three levels: low power, mid-power, and high power.  Low power rockets are quite small, and fly on motors classified as D or lower.  These are preferred by children and newbies, still trying to get the hang of things. Low power rockets are normally no more than two feet long and two inches in diameter. Mid-power rockets fly on motors classified as E through G and are far more expensive, though still available to the general public. Mid-power rockets are usually two to four inches in diameter and between two and four feet long. High power motors, on the other hand, classified H and above, require a special license (a cert, in rocketry parlance, short for certification) to buy and a waiver from the FAA to launch. Both of these can be obtained for free, although motor certification requires that you fly a rocket with a motor that requires your target cert, and a waiver requires the permission of the owner of a large piece of land and several reams of paperwork. High power rockets are normally four to eight inches in diameter and as many as fifteen to twenty feet long. However, there is no upper limit.

Rocketry is an excellent hobby, though expensive, and one that I would highly recommend. Check out these books on model rocketry and the history of the hobby:

Also, coming to FITS is an excellent way to find out about the hobby. Like I said, you’ll see huindreds of launches, and just about anybody you see will be wiling to introduce you to the hobby. Puget Sound Propulsion, my go-to guys for motors, always have a tent there, and if you feel so inclined, you can buy a low power kit off of them, borrow some wood glue from one of the many fliers, and, for a small fee, have your own rocket ready to fly. Please note, however, that spectators must pay to attend FITS, to the tune of $10 per person, or $20 per family. A WAC liability waiver is required.

Post by Aidan, teen blogger

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