Ask Hackaday: How About Some Model Rocket Hacks?

There’s nothing like the smell of black powder in the morning, along with the excitement and burnt propellant in the air that comes after launching a model rocket. All those 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s kids out there may remember the classes of model rocket engines – generally A, B, C, and D sized engines used to push your cardboard tube with balsa fins skyward.

A lot has changed in the world of model and amateur rocketry in the last few years. In 2009, the Tripoli Rocketry Association won a lawsuit against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to allow the sale of Ammonium perchlorate rocket engines to anyone. This lawsuit took almost 10 years to come to a head, but finally anyone can walk into Hobby Lobby and come out with D, E, F, and G engines in hand. Even our old favorite, Estes rockets, has gotten into the game by putting out a few awesome G-powered kits. With these off-the-shelf motors, anyone (in the US, at least) can launch a G-powered model rocket weighing under 1500 grams (3.3 lbs) without the need for a certification.

With that in mind, we’re putting out a call for model rocket hacks. If you put together an microcontroller-powered altimeter project, awesomeSend it in. On board video camera? Great! Even if you built a huge replica of the Titan IIIe (or the Estes Star Rider, a personal favorite), send that thing in. If you’re going for a huge Saturn V, the record to beat is a 1/10 scale model, so get on it.

33 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: How About Some Model Rocket Hacks?

  1. Old news, I’ve been buying and using D and E engines in Portugal since I was a kid. It is nice to see the US coming up with stuff which other European countries had for years.

    1. Don’t be a dick. I know it is fashionably to bash on the US, but I was launching elaborate G powered rockets when I was a preteen nearly two decades ago in the US.

      There isn’t an excuse for being ignorant. Deal with it.

      1. Oh but ignorance is bliss, Didn’t you know? Lol, Generally there’s a reason that a long, drawn out process is required in order to (re-)legalize certain EXPLOSIVES. I bet that ‘MrX’ character is that one asshole in the workplace that only has good days when he sees someone else having a terrible one. cheers!

  2. I have a little something sitting neglected on a shelf. Thanks for the Kick in the pants. Please point me to the Pic/Video submission link, I would appreciate constructive input from the community.

  3. Nothing like making a 3 stage A rocket. I never recovered any of them as they were a tumble recovery, but they did go way higher than you were supposed to launch.

    Finding lower stage A engines was tough, I remember having to bore out the top to turn a regular one into a stage 2.

    1. Step 1) Raid the Wifes/Girlfriends/Grandmothers stash of Wrapping paper tubes in the attic.
      Step 2) Roll all the paper on 1 beat up tube.
      Step 3) Convince Her you are Organizing (lol)
      Step 4) Grill every night, Always cover the Grill with fresh Heavy Duty (better Tubes) Aluminum wrap.

  4. Ummm Tripoli and the National Association of Rocketry ( won that lawsuit. It was not just Tripoli. Also FYI, even when the ban was in place you could if you were 18+ walk in an purchase up through G motors. Now there are some exceptions to certain G motors but my statement covers the 90% of G motors out there. With that said people, go build a rocket or dozen and grab the kids and go to an organized launch. The people at a launch will be more than willing to assist if you have any questions.

  5. When I was a kid I tried to launch my Honest John model rocket in a suburban field when an LA County Sheriff car pulled up. The deputies told me not to launch my rocket but admitted they were not clear on the fire regulations concerning rockets. They took my address and said the Los Angeles County FD would mail me information about rocket/pyrotechnic regulations. A couple months later I recieved an order form for E and F class motors.

  6. Does anybody know the name of that Chinese fellow who was the first to attempt manned space flight?

    He took a sturdy chair and attached a huge quantity of rockets to it, then he had his servants light them all at the same time. He blasted off into the sky and was never heard from again.

    Supposedly he had thought to bring a large unfolding parasol to slow his descent, however, he was never found.

    What was his name?

    I actually think he should be recognized internationally as the first astronaut (taikonaut?) as he really did achieve powered flight.

    He was a wealthy fellow of some means and not some nut as is commonly assumed.

    The descriptions of his ascent are consistent with a well planned attempt, considering the technology available at the time.

    The chair did not break up while it was visible.

    1. I think that guy was a panda bear. And if memory serves, the chair turned to dust under him right before he fell into the kung fu demonstration by the furious five.

  7. Someone with a laser cutter please make some awesome kits. Last I looked, there were really very few kits out there, even walmart and hobby stores mostly carry A-C motors and pre-built estes rockets

  8. I’ve just gotten back into rockets. I was nuts about them for a few years as a kid, but nobody I knew shared my enthusiasm, and I found other interests.

    Now I’m much older, and becoming a bit of a whiz with circuits, plus I met some people who still launch model rockets. So, I’ve been getting back into it.

    My current project is a launch controller. Nothing too fancy.. i have seen ones that use a microcontroller. Mine will just have a 12V motorcycle battery, a key switch, a covered toggle (aka missile launch switches, as sparkfun calls them), a continuity indicator (might make a 555 circuit so it blinks), and a BIG RED LAUNCH BUTTON. All built into an ammo box. I’ll submit it when I finish, and you guys can decide if it’s a “hack” or not.

  9. Here we go

    “According to one ancient legend, a Chinese official named Wan-Hoo attempted a flight to the moon using a large wicker chair to which were fastened 47 large rockets. Forty seven assistants, each armed with torches, rushed forward to light the fuses. In a moment there was a tremendous roar accompanied by billowing clouds of smoke. When the smoke cleared, the flying chair and Wan-Hu were gone.(Illustration courtesy of United States Civil Air Patrol)”


  10. Whichever idiot at the ATF decided that black powder rocket propellant and ammonium perchlorate composite propellant should be treated as “explosives” needs their head examined. The whole point of rocket fuels and rocket motors (including black powder and APCP and motors containing same) is that they designed and intended NOT to explode, therefore they are not explosives and should never have been labeled/regulated as such.

    1. First note – I agree that the over regulation of these is just stupid and hate the idiocy of the ATF. If anyone wanted to there are much easier ways of making bombs from materials at Walmart, Home Depot and your local grocery store.

      But, I can see where they would, based on their narrow focus, determine that model rocket engines could be dangerous. They were a common component of pipe bombs in the area where I grew up. Removing and crushing the propellant provided a very powerful mixture. Things may have changed from 30 years ago, but I imagine that inventive/destructive people could do the same today.

      The real sad part is that by being so stupidly over cautious they are depriving kids of the wonders of rockets. The nanny state mentality has a sad side effect of stifling the sense of wonder and adventure that should develope in children exposed to science and engineering. In 10-20 years that leads to a generation of people focused on MBAs and finance, with no one creating anything new. Sound familiar?

      1. But, I can see where they would, based on their narrow focus, determine that model rocket engines could be dangerous. They were a common component of pipe bombs in the area where I grew up. Removing and crushing the propellant provided a very powerful mixture. Things may have changed from 30 years ago, but I imagine that inventive/destructive people could do the same today.

        Well, it is still a stupid reason to ban selling them. Someone willing to build a pipebomb will just use something else – like nitrocellulose which is very easy to make..

  11. Yea! The Colorado governor just lifted the state ban on open fire, which included the use of educational rockets. A few more weeks of rain, and we might even be able to fly them in Larimer County again.

  12. I have recently started turning my own motor casings:

    I am also working on my own simple avionics board using light sensors to compare sky/ground return light levels to detect apogee. The entire BoM is under $5, uses all through-hole components, and can be built on a protoboard without difficulty.

    Software is currently C, but I am also working on a BASIC interpreter for it so that newbie programmers can write their own flight control software in just a few dozen lines of code.

    No pictures of this, though, as my protoboard, having gone through several revisions now, is far too ugly to show. ;-)

  13. There are a lot of small manufacturers of amateur rockets, ranging from exotic multi-mach speed javelin shaped rockets to largish (9+ feet) V-2 missile replicas. These are essentially off the shelf.

    You need to jump through hoops to get engines, but the rockets themselves can be obtained or built without any licenses or paperwork. They make excellent static displays for younger kids who like science, and usually don’t weigh much.

    Engines are available up to O size, and anything up to J will be less than a few hundred bucks. Engines double in impulse(thrust) for each letter, so you do the math.

    Commercially manufactured engines won’t* explode, but you can get a nasty burn or start a grass fire by being careless. (*= well, not usually!)

    Enterprising folks who don’t mind watching $300 worth of cool looking rocket get converted into a crumpled mass of charred visa payments have fabricated home brew engines of the “I don’t know, it just burned up” variety for decades.

    Some of these engines have decent range, and are quite popular with the kitchen crowd all over the world. You can sometimes see them winging their way into tel aviv, making a lot of noise and smoke on lift-off. I’m rather surprised that these have never been seen in Compton, especially given the general growth of amateur chemistry skills in Californian proles.

    Such engines are poor from an engineering standpoint; They’re more useful as smoke and noise generators than they are as propellents.

    Basically, they are roughly as dangerous as small pig flung from a trebuchet; although you don’t want to get too close, and you don’t want one to land on you.

    Others build hybrid engines (so many ways to do it) that are capable of mach speeds, and once in a while someone will build a kerosene and LOX engine for laughs, of which perhaps 2% of these work for more than a few minutes and the others generally end up in a puddle of molten scrap metal.

    There are (well-heeled and financed)people who build giant rockets as an alternative to Nascar/Karting/insert-expensive-redneck-hobby here. These are impressive to watch, and are often on the order of early 1950’s launches in terms of complexity and decibels.

    These guys generally sport a 44″+ waist-line hanging over size 38-40 pants, thinning hair and bad sunburns, and a variety of hats. They often drag their wives and kids along to launches, were they can be miserable along with the other husband’s hobby hostages.

    So it’s a lot like NASCAR, but without the bikinis, gullible girls and beer soaked spectators.

    Anyway, this is an excellent hobby if you have disposable income. Cruise missile replicas may result in uncomfortable visits, so stick to the basics.

    There are CFRs on this, meaning restrictions, so you can’t launch the neighbor’s yippy little dog into space without doing some paperwork.

    Small and amusing rockets that don’t attract much attention will provide the least hassle, so that usually means 5 feet or less, and fewer than 12 hobbyist engines per vehicle.

    But it’s way past estes!

    1. Hundreds of ways, hundreds of propellant choices and still lots of unregulated ingredients. Having said that, it’s basically way too much work for anyone who values their lab or has an active sex life.

      People have made rocket engines from everything, including roofing paper, acrylic blocks, matches, a long list of chemicals and even urine.

      Rocket fuels are simply a means to a chemical reaction that expands into hot gas by burning in a controlled fashion rather than exploding. That means anything exothermic (produces heat) is a candidate.

      I’ve found that kids often have more fun using hydraulic water rockets of various magnitudes than in launching what we think of as rockets.

      That, and the impromptu beer can cannons launching tennis balls.

  14. On an unrelated note, my father was huge into model rockets when I was child. He would take me to launch meet ups (pre 9-11) and I remember it being a ton of fun.

    The hobby eventually faded for him, but he built hundreds of model rockets. From the Estes beginner stuff, all the way up to multi-stage E’s and F’s. Four and five feet tall.

    They’re all in the basement. He has fond memories of building and flying them, so he doesn’t just want to throw them in the trash. But he doesn’t really know what do to with them. Would there be any recycled use for these? Local schools? Maybe a rocketry club? Do people even really buy them pre-assembled?

  15. I’ll be fleshing out this tip a bit more but for now here is my awesome tip for cheap, strong, lightweight, and SEXY fuselage – whiffle ball bats.

    take 2 whiffle ball bats and cut off rounded top and handle.

    build adapter to join body tube.

    shave off one end where handle was connected to accept a standard size nose cone

    shave off the other end where handle was to accept motor of your desired size.

    todo – motor mounts and fin alignment guide

    for an idea check out

    the paint was most expensive part of that lightweight 4ft tall rocket that is incredibly durable.

    please excuse the hillbilliness, we are launching out in the country and well sometimes you just kind of fall into it… when in rome and all that.

    I havent tried APCP yet, those launches were all estes D and E black powder engines.

    I also want to try R-candy.

    request – HaD R-candy write up. yes i’m look at you, do it for great glory.

  16. Oh man the memories. I’ve still got most of my rocketry gear tucked away in the closet. My first real mod was taking an estes prowler rocket, cutting down the main tube by about a foot(its a tall rocket for those who don’t remember), and constrcuted a makeshift E and F rocket holder for it. When we launched it we were lost in a cloud of smoke. It would have been lost if not for amazed bystanders pointing at it. Good times!

  17. we used to make motos for our rockets w/ empty co2 cartriges and use zinc dust and sulphur for a propelant. a cigar tube made up the body of the rpocket. never found any of our rockets tho.. as soon as it went of us kids would hide (loud as hell + no one wanted to look for rockets after a mini explosion in city of toronto as cops usually showed up.ah the good old days of the 60’s hard to find cigar tubes now howev er lol

    1. George,

      Bulk aluminum tubes can be picked up for less than $0.50 each. Easiest is the bulk chinese manufacture sites. Though various cigar discussion boards do group buys every now and then.


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