Saturday, March 01, 2003

Model Rocketry: The First Step

I am the co-founder and first President of the Mid-South Rocket Society, a model rocketry club here in Memphis, Tennessee. We've been going strong for almost seven years now.

I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, the home of America's space program at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Some of you may have gone to the Space and Rocket Center there, or sent your kids to Space Camp. I still have great memories of hearing this terrible roar, followed by a shaking of the ground so strong it rattled the plates and glasses in the kitchen. The cause was a static test firing of a Saturn V booster, the rocket that took us to the Moon. You learned to appreciate the vast power of those rockets. I never got to meet Werner Von Braun, though my dad did, but space and rocketry influenced my life in all sorts of ways.

I got into model rocketry as a kid. I just liked watching something I made go hundreds or even thousands of feet into the air, to come back safely (most of the time) under parachute or streamer. Model rocketry taught me a lot of science, and some discipline. Even though I never went into a mechanical or scientific career, the lessons of science and the scientific method have stayed with me all my life, shaping the man I became. I left the hobby in my late teens, but came back to it in my thirties.

It's changed a lot, for those of you who may have flown once upon a time. Model rockets now can be up to 20 feet long, up to 50 or 60 pounds, and fly many miles into the atmosphere. Here in Memphis, the members of our club don't fly anything that large, but rockets as big as an adult, powered by motors as large as your arm, are common.

Even with the increases in size, altitude and motor power, the hobby still has the safest record of any hobby. There hasn't been a single fatality in forty years, and not a single major acccident or injury caused by model rockets. There have been fires, of course, but even these are rare. Why? Because the hobby has at its heart the Model Rocket Safety Code, which is a guide that is unique to most hobbies. It gives guidelines that, if followed, will help prevent any accident or damage. It's been working for forty years. Safety isn't something most in the hobby just give lip service to; it's a touchstone that we all take as seriously as our own safetly.

This year, with the advent of the Homeland Security Department, the usual clampdown on liberties that follows an event like September 11, and new moves by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the hobby of model rocketry is under attack to the point that it may disappear. It's reached the point that the two major model rocketry organisations (The National Association of Rocketry and the Tripoli Rocketry Association) have been pursuing a lawsuit against the BATFE.

But another group, the Amateur Rocket Society of America, went a different route and found a legislator who is willing to help. He has introduced some legislative amendments that will provide permanent relief for the hobby. You can read more about it here.

That last link is really important. It lists actions you can take -- RIGHT NOW -- that can save the hobby. They give sample letters and emails, instructions, and lists of Senators and Representatives to contact. Please go there now and do what you can.

Model rocketry has to be the most fun, exciting and painless way to get kids to think about science. You can pursue the hobby and never give a thought to the physics, ballistics, meteorology, aerodynamics and chemistry involved. Or you can follow your natural curiousity, as many thousands have done, and find yourself in a scientific and technical career. Model rocketry is the first step into space. It can be the first step into your future. But if it's not there, that can't happen.

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