During the first age of space exploration in the 1960s and ’70s, kids (and adults) built and flew scale models of the Saturn V rocket that lifted astronauts toward the moon.
Now NASA is planning to return humans to the moon for the first time in over half a century, with the Artemis II mission planned for next year. One rocket club leader calls it “the next great age of space exploration.”
Valley AeroSpace Team, or VAST, which launches in Highland County, and New River Valley Rocketry, which launches in Montgomery County, are two Western Virginia rocket clubs that offer hobbyists and STEM students a chance to launch their own rockets.
Both clubs attract adult rocketeers who began as youngsters launching low-powered rockets in school ballfields and later returned to the hobby — “born-again rocketeers” — as well as lifelong enthusiasts, boys and girls launching for the first time, and college students honing their engineering skills.
VAST was founded by Chuck Neff in 2005 and is chartered by the Tripoli Rocketry Association and the National Association of Rocketry.
“Everybody thinks that this is such a dangerous hobby, but they know nothing about it,” Neff said. “This is actually one of the safest outdoor activities there is. With a sanctioned launch and following the … safety codes that we have, there’s never been a death as a result. There has been one death [nationally] as a result of another launch where they weren’t following the safety code, and somebody was killed.” By comparison, a 2013 study found an average of 12 fatalities per year from high school and college football.
No one has ever been injured at a launch of VAST. “I don’t think that we have a lot of concerns as far as their safety record is concerned,” county administrator Roberta Lambert said.
VAST has flown in Highland since 2010 at a 500-acre site off U.S. 220 south of Monterey. With its mountains and forests, Highland may not seem ideal for rocketry. On the other hand, it is sparsely populated, with 2,233 residents in 2020.
VAST has about 45 memberships, amounting to 60 or 70 individuals including family members. Membership is $20. At a launch in the summer months, there may be 20 active fliers. Nonmembers are welcome to launch as well. Kids stopping by with their parents can get their first taste of rocketry by launching a club rocket.
Rocketry tends to attract people from technical professions. Neff is a mechanical designer. “It does seem to be more technology-based people, but we get ’em all,” Neff said.
The geographic range is wide, with members from Stafford, Winchester, North Carolina and West Virginia. The club has conducted outreach and STEM education programs in locations as distant as Wise County; Pocahontas County, West Virginia; and Richmond. “There’s not much like rockets to get a kid excited about science, technology, engineering and math,” Neff said.
Among the rocketeers who showed up at the VAST launch on June 3 were Barry Kinnison, 69, a retired data communications specialist from North Carolina; Eric Brown, 58, a retail worker from Roanoke; and Katie Wahl, 7, from Harrisonburg, each hoping for a successful launch.
Eric Brown’s first rocket, at age 13, was an Estes Mosquito he launched at a school field in Roanoke County. The igniter, which fires the single-use, solid-fuel motor, was wired to the battery in his mom’s car. (In the 21st century schools frown on unsanctioned rocket launches.) Brown lost that rocket, teaching him “the unwritten rule of rocketry: If you don’t want to lose it, you don’t want to break it, don’t launch it.” Brown kept launching.
At the VAST launch he brought a Big Red Max he built from an Estes kit. He stood at the control panel as Neff called “Range is clear! Sky is clear! Launching in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!” Brown pressed the button, a puff of smoke blossomed from the pad, and the Big Red Max streaked into the sky with a “phfffft!” All eyes were skyward as Brown tracked the parachute deployment and descent.
After the rocket was recovered, Brown said, “It’s exhilarating. Pride and pleasure. It’s something you make, and when you get it back, it’s great.”
Kinnison’s Aspire was a $26 kit, with an altimeter to trigger the deployment of a streamer at peak altitude of 800 to 1,100 feet. The rocket descends fairly quickly on the streamer to 300 feet, then the altimeter triggers a parachute. Delaying the parachute decreases the horizontal distance traveled. On a windy day like June 3, that increases the chance of a successful recovery.
At least that is how it is supposed to work. The Aspire shot upward but no one saw the streamer or the parachute deploy or saw the rocket come down.
The streamer was 5 inches wide, 7 feet long. “It should have been obvious,” Kinnison said. As to what went wrong, he said, “We won’t know until we find it. That’s part of rocketry though. Maybe after they mow, they’ll find pieces of it.”
Elizabeth Bouldin-Clopton’s rocket landed on an adjacent property whose owner allows the club to use it. A renter on the property, however, threatened to call the sheriff when Bouldin-Clopton’s 16-year-old granddaughter attempted to retrieve the rocket. The girl made a tactical retreat while Neff tried to call the property owner.
About the mishaps, Neff said: “NASA, Space X, they all have issues. We’re no different.”
Seven-year-old Katie had good luck with her Alpha III launch. After a successful recovery, she hopped up and down and exclaimed, “I want to launch it again!”
While little kids generally launch little rockets on little engines, some of the big boys build very big rockets indeed. At VAST’s July launch, Neff plans to launch a 14 1/2-foot rocket. Engines come in letter designations starting with A, the lowest power. Each succeeding letter provides twice as much power, i.e., a B motor is twice as powerful as an A motor. Neff’s monster will fly on an M.
While anyone can fly the smaller motors, rocketeers wishing to fly high-powered rockets must earn Tripoli or NAR certification, which a club can help obtain.
Bob Schoner is assistant manager of the Advanced Engineering Design Lab at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and prefect of New River Valley Rocketry, or NRVR.
“Now’s a great time to be in aerospace,” he said. “I really think it’s the next great age of space exploration. And there’s a whole new group of kids who are interested in aerospace and STEM type stuff. Clubs are a good way for kids to get experience with the do’s and don’ts.”
Schoner recommends that aspiring rocketeers participate with clubs, rather than conducting guerilla-type launches in parks or sports fields, which are “multi-use facilities, there’s people walking dogs or kids playing soccer. And you don’t want to be launching rockets where you don’t have control over what is going on around you.” Among other things, clubs are supervised by qualified launch officers, follow safety codes and carry insurance.
Part of the Tripoli Rocketry Association, NRVR was founded in 2012 and has about 35 members. It conducts monthly launches at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm, located outside Blacksburg, across the New River from Radford Army Ammunition Plant, known locally as “the arsenal.” Virginia Tech only allows launches at Kentland during official NRVR events.
NRVR’s launches, like VAST’s, are open to the public, and children are welcome. NRVR also works with Virginia Tech students and recently hosted CanSat, a design-build-launch competition sponsored by the American Astronautical Society that drew college-level teams from all over the world, including South Korea, Scotland, Poland, Turkey and Peru. Around 340 people were on hand for the launch on June 10. “We started hosting it last year. So this was our second year, and it really went very smooth,” Schoner said.
Not every rocketry event goes off without hitches. “We’ve had some incidents where rockets drifted into the arsenal,” Schoner said. “They were really nice about it. But I just don’t want to be putting rockets over there. We’ve had a couple landed in the New River. And so the FAA allows us to fly up to 10,000 feet. But I have decided that 5,000 feet is really the limit for what we can support and still keep things on our field.”
That’s still nearly a mile high.
A rocket launch offers both education and excitement for everyone from a boy or girl launching for the first time, to an adult who might have once wanted to be an astronaut. A bumper sticker seen at the VAST launch offered this reminder: “Remember who you wanted to be.”