Retrotechtacular: Junior Missile Men Of The 1960s

model rocketry

Just like the imaginative kids depicted in “Junior Missile Men in Action,” you’ll have to employ a fair bit of your own imagination to figure out what was going on in the original film, which seems to have suffered a bit — OK, a lot — from multiple rounds of digitization and format conversion. [GarageManCave] tells us he found the film on a newsgroup back in the 1990s, but only recently uploaded it to YouTube. It’s hard to watch, but worth it for anyone who spent hours building an Estes model rocket and had that gut-check moment when sliding it onto the guide rail and getting it ready for launch. Would it go? Would it survive the trip? Or would it end up hanging from a tree branch, or lost in the high grass that always seemed to be ready to eat model rockets, planes, Frisbees, or pretty much anything that was fun?

Model rocketry was most definitely good, clean fun, even with the rotten egg stink of the propellant and the risk of failure. To mitigate those risks, the West Covina Model Rocket Society, the group the film focuses on, was formed in the 1960s. The boys and girls pictured had the distinct advantage of living in an area where many of their parents were employed by the aerospace industry, and the influence of trained engineers shows — weekly build sessions, well-organized range days, and even theodolites to track the rockets and calculate their altitude. They even test-fired rockets from miniature silos, and mimicked a Polaris missile launch by firing a model from a bucket of water. It was far more intensive and organized than the early rocketry exposure most of us got, and has the look and feel of a FIRST robotics group today.

Given the membership numbers the WCMRS boasted of in its heyday, and the fact that model rocketry was often the “gateway drug” into the hacking lifestyle, there’s a good chance that someone in the Hackaday community got their start out in that park in West Covina, or perhaps was even in the film. If you’re out there, let us know in the comments — we’d love to hear a first-hand report on what the club was like, and how it helped you get started.

30 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Junior Missile Men Of The 1960s

  1. I wasn’t in that club but I was definitely there. We built and destroyed our share of model rockets.

    My favorite was a 2 stage Nike Zeus. The first stage had a class D igniter rocket engine and from memory the second stage had a class D or class C ejector rocket engine. I flew that one three times before the nosecone completely separated from the main body and the main body didn’t survive the crash. The rubber band connecting the nosecone to the tube broke or came loose.

    I wanted a model Apollo rocket but my parents could not afford or would not buy that one. That one took three Class D engines in the first stage but I don’t remember what the second stage took.

    I also built and flew dozens of single stage rockets and most of those took class C engines.

    The biggest challenge was packing the tube above the engine so that the chute wasn’t damaged by the ejector engine but not so tight that the chute didn’t deploy.

  2. I grew up in the 60’s flying not only Estes Rockets but also Century Engineering rockets. I was also a member of the West Covina Rocket Society, the National Association of Rocketry and a local Southern California Amateur group, The Reaction Research Society . This adventure and love of Rocketry guided me to become an Aerospace Engineer. Today we have groups like the Tripoli Rocketry Association flying Rockets I could only dream of in the 60’s.

  3. Lots of rocketry clubs still exist around the US and the world. The Music City Missile Club holds launches about an hour from me, once a month. We have FAA permission for flights to 10K feet on that day. Everything from small rockets on “A” impulse motors to (last month) a 10″ diameter, 10′ tall rocket on an “M” motor.

    Almost everything over “E” (well…baby “F”) impulse doesn’t use blackpowder. They’re composite motors that contain ammonium perchlorate composite propellant — basically the same sort of propellant used in solid space-boosters.

    We who flew rockets in the 60s and 70s grew up. And so did the rockets. :-) See

  4. Time stamp 3:30
    “Dr. Goddard cannot answer… He’s dead.”

    Did anyone else grow up hearing stories of a family member who launched a rocket which lost control and blasted into a brick wall (partially destroying said wall)?

    1. There was a rocket explosion in Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, but that was a bigger model rocket.

      The Simpsons had an episode about a model rocket, and it damaged a church.

      October Sky has a rocket damaging a fence. Homer Hickam, who wrote the book the movie was made from, once replied to a post I made.

    2. My dad was active in model rocketry in the 1950’s before Estes Rockets. He and kids like him were the reason that one of the first rules of Estes Model Rockets was no metal in the rockets.
      His rockets were made of copper plumbing tubing with copper fins soldered on, because that was what they had. They were filled with a couple of *pounds* of ZnS propellant. They made nosecones by carefully hammering and crimping the copper into a conic shape and soldering the seam, then hacksawing off the crimped part to form a sort of cone and soldering that onto the top. Which is to say: there was no parachute. It was a huge slug of sharp copper that shot up and came screaming down at whatever its terminal velocity was.
      They did have the intelligence to launch them from inside a steel conduit. Like, they put down the rocket on a launch guide, fed the fuse out along the ground, put the conduit over the whole works, lit the fuse, and ran, so when not if they had ground failures the conduit mostly contained the debris.
      Mostly. One of the failures blew chunks of shrapnel into one of his friends, and when that friend died in a helicopter crash years later, they found copper bits still in his body.
      Estes Rockets was an unbelievable increase in safety.
      Fun fact: ZnS sometimes spontaneously ignites. It’s mildly hypergolic. They packed the rocket bodies with ZnS and hammered it in with a dowel to solidify it, then crimped the nozzle down with pliers around a bit of dynamite fuse. In the basement of his house. Wearing safety glasses, but nothing more protective than that.
      Oh, and, they were launching these in the middle of a city. They launched them on a golf course (and trashed the grass) but just outside the golf course there are houses all around.
      They never found one they’d launched. I assume they’d buried themselves completely in whatever was unlucky enough to be in the way.

      1. Back then we could buy zinc powder at paint manufactuers and flowers of sulfur at drug stores and chemical supplies. Nobody cared that we were 10 years old. Used CO2 cartridges were the rocket motors of choice but the nozzle end was not at all efficient and produced pressures too high.

        I never heard of the spontaneous ignition, but zinc and sulfur produces a solid fluff and very little thrust if the pressure/temperature is above some level which makes it a rather poor propellant. For some reason sugar rockets did not catch on. Powdered zinc was banned about the same time as firecrackers (of course) and people tried aluminum and magnesium with KNO3 by using a file to make shavings. Generally this just made bombs. Thus ended the great Age of Experimentation of the 1950’s.

        1. We were completely unsupervised most of the time building and launching rockets (and boats, and bare engines with a straw taped on for the “launch rod”) but somehow we all survived without injury or major property damage, and had a lot of fun. We tried some of the “homebrew” fuels but nothing we built was the right combination of performance vs effort that would have made them better than the commercial engines. In our experience unfortunately Zn/S is actually fairly sensitive to impact, and along with anything else that is powdered and not compacted/cast usually burns too slow (no go) or too fast (explosion). Sugar/KNO3 caught fire while making it on the first try (outside fortunately) and at other times if it had been stored for a few days it must have been affected by humidity and just made a mess. Great fun!
          I never let my kids out of my sight when using them many years later (or told them what we had done)

        2. Right on!

          Aluminum/Magnesium and Potassium Chlorate was our first rocket (bomb) in 1955. Our HS chemistry teacher gave us proto rocket guys the run of the lab. It was a literal pipe bomb. One guy’s father gave us a bag of the Alumiinum/Magnesium floor scrap from a machine shop and I ground it into a powder (just a little bit at a time, said the teacher!). The KNO3 was from Harshaw Chemical in Cleveland. We just went up to the side door and said we needed a couple of pounds and paid something like $5 for it. Totally illegal now. Anyway after a putting together the steel pipe with a reducer for a nozzle we packed it in with a nichrome wire igniter to be powered by a 12 volt car battery. Down the the beach behind the HS. Larry closed the switch; nothing happened. I waited for a minute then went down the the rocket and adjusted the fuse, pushing it further into the rocket. Still no action. Another wait and the teacher made up a paper fuse stuck it in the rocket and lit it with a match. Then he ran down to where we were hunkered down behind a huge log. As he jumped over the log the rocket blew up making a really neat mushroom cloud. That brought the school janitor to see what blew up (at first he thought it was the school boiler). It also brought the school principle who said the teacher should come and “see me later”. Our second rocket was liquid fueled; nitric acid and hydrogen peroxide. Unfortunately it fizzled. Our third attempt was a 3 inch diameter aluminum tube to hold alcohol and liquid O2. I designed the motor which one guy’s dad machined on a lathe at work. We discovered bits of aluminum welding bits inside and didn’t have enough money to do that over again so it never flew or worse. The engine sits on my friends desk as a paperweight to this day. I still have Sutton’s “Rocket Propulsion Elements” in my library. It cost $10.25, a lot for a book back then. I thought that model rockets would be a good business for us to get into, but the rest of the guys thought no one would be interested if buying toy rockets. Oh well.

  5. Ah, the good old days of Estes vs Century. Estes won for me. My first rocket was the Wac Corporal which was launched many times from my elementary school in Maryland. It was followed by a Scout, a Streak, a Big Bertha, an X-Ray (the grasshoppers I launched all came back alive), and a Mars Snooper (that was fun to build). Then there was my cousin’s disastrous Saturn V launch in Pittsburgh (the motor blew and it went up in flames). And all ended when we moved to California. After getting the Camroc, my first model in CA, I found getting rocket motors was a real pain in that state and required interaction with the state fire Marshall to launch my models. The Camroc was never launched. Perhaps if I lived closer to West Covina, I would have joined a club. But there were no clubs where I lived near the coast, and I liked the unstructured, at any whim launches any way (given I had rocket motors and batteries).

    Years later, I spent 4 years in a shoddy apartment off the I-10 freeway in West Covina (karma?) while attending Cal Poly Pomona. But still no rockets. But by this time, the skills I learned building rockets and many other models morphed into an 8-bit successive approximation analog to digital converter for an electronics lab class; a precursor to my senior project where the A/D was just a small part of the project. It was an all protoboard build and was a beauty sporting telephone wire colors few ever saw before. I found about 10 feet of of many conductor telephone wire discarded near a telephone pole before we left Maryland, and I still have about 3 feet of it left today. I was doing project work in an apartment that most makers require a well stocked shop to do. Sheet metal, painting, PWB’s, point-to-point wiring, you name it. Not to mention thickened callouses on my fingers from unsoldering parts from surplus electronics boards. I was broke and used any discarded electronics I could find as my source of supply.

    Then flash forward some 25 years and the itch came back. My oldest daughter decided to build rockets for her charter school science fair competition. It was to prove the value of spin stabilization and I built the launch rail, launch control electronics and a slick PIC based flight data recorder (based on a design in an electronics magazine) for her. She designed and built the rockets and even learned a Computational Flow Dynamics software for modelers to do virtual wind-tunnel testing. She made it all the way to the LA county finals. Alas, some bad advice on project presentation from a school volunteer kept her from placing, but one of the judges did ask my daughter for my business card. It seems the judge was an engineer at a local aerospace company and he said my data recorder was exactly what he was trying to develop for some test application on the Space Shuttle. I probably should have called him.

    Her launch was done in the California desert near Barstow. I called the fire Marshall in the area and he said it would be an achievement if I could light anything on fire out there, so we got permission to launch.

    The first flight was marginally stabilized, and the launch conditions were far from perfect. Just after the launch (using the largest rocket motor I had only seen before in a Century Catalog), the rocket got hit by a huge gust of wind and traced a perfect parabolic curve into the desert floor. The second launch, a week later, with the spin stabilization worked perfectly.

    But there was the looming question of why the parabolic flight trajectory happened. I was a sparky, not a rocket scientist, so I was stumped. But I did have the privilege at the time of working launch operations for a major defense satellite. I was the Attitude Control System electronics specialist and my partner that mid shift was a brilliant controls engineer and that handled all the gory math. Since our shift was quiet and all was going well, I volunteered to take all the shift telemetry if he could answer the question of the parabolic flight. About 20 minutes later, he was frantically scratching equations on a notepad, and I feared I missed something with our mission.

    He reassured me it was not the mission – rather, he could not remember the rocket equation, so he was re-deriving it. At the top if his notepad was F=MA. Dave, there is a chance you may read this — if so, those were great times and I miss them! Thanks again for your help; and I think you know my oldest now works for our old company on a major missile program. We were a bad influence!

    At about 2AM my OPS partner, Dave (shades of 2001), walked me through his work and explained that the parabolic trajectory was exactly what would be expected if the rocket was hit with a gust of wind. It had to do with the shifting of the center of gravity vs the center of pressure of the rocket motor on the marginally stabilized rocket. His hand sketched plot of the trajectory was a parabola. Needless to say, he got credit in my daughter’s science fair report for helping to explain why what should have been a marginally stable trajectory went so wrong.

    While I did not become a rocket scientist, model rockets definitely honed my model building skills and led me to a career in the aerospace electronics industry. I graduated to more and more complex home projects, missile launch safety and control electronics and even a programmable warhead time fuze, and I even had a space electronics design survive flawlessly on a nine year mission (until NASA brought down the Compton Observatory due to a failed inertial reference unit). My defensive missile launch safety and launch controller even made it past EMRTC field safety review on first pass (it was just a more complex version of an Estes launcher). They said that never happened before.

    So, while it is falling apart and yellowed, I still have one of my old Estes catalogs from circa 1969. I found it in the attic while leaving CA after I retired working 39 years at a major aerospace company. Now there is nothing stopping me from launches in my new home state, so who knows. After we settle, I may yet build rockets again.

    1. I always balanced my rockets so the would slightly weathercock – ie, center of pressure just below the center of gravity so it would turn a little into the wind.

      It worked. I got all my rockets back. I never launched in more than a light breeze, but they’d fly just enough upwind so they’d drift back very closer to my position on the parachute. I never used larger than an Estes C engine.

  6. In my early twenties my brother and I got crazy into Estes model rockets. Bought one with a 110 camera film in the nose cone. It took a picture at the top of the apogee as the rocket decelerates. Hours went in to building, and finding center of gravity, etc. On the first flight rocket went up about thirty feet then went sideways and was never seen again. Very saddening. By the way Robert Goddard sucks, Verner Von Brown rules!!!

  7. What is with the ‘was’ bit. Model rocketry ‘IS’ most definitely good, clean fun …. Here every month we have a shoot if possible. Get clearance to around 23,000feet. This year was a bit lean due to fire danger. From the small Estes to high power. All good! Wish more kids would get involved instead of gaming. Good learning experience and gets kids out doors too. When my kids were in school they were in Rocket Club. They even managed to go to Washington DC and compete there one one year. Neat. Even got to meet Buzz Aldrin which they can say they shook hands with a man that walked on the moon. No rocketry is still a good hobby and good learning experience in the process. Same with flying and building R/C aircraft without all the hand-holding do-dads that are available today. . No young people currently in our R/C club now either.

  8. Pretty sure Estes didn’t go bigger than C6-(delay) Centuri could have but not in Cali back before 75/76. There was a propellant weight restriction in LA county by the fire marshall

    1. D size motors were always available here. I seem to recall E size as well. Now it is hard to flnd a brink and morter store that sales rocket stuff. All on-line now for the most part. And of course certification required for the hi-power motor purchases.

  9. In the mid 1970’s as sophomore/juniors at the UW-Madison, my buddies and I got into model rocketry. One
    of us bought the Saturn V and on its first launch the chute failed. But because of its size, it drifted down more than plummeted and mostly survived the crash.
    I had the camera rocket and the chute failed on that the first (and only) time it flew.
    If it had hit the ground 2 inches to the left, it would have survived but it hit the concrete instead.
    I also had a glider rocket. When it hit the peak, it popped a chute but also released a glider with a wing that swung out on release.
    I recall that it flew a few times. One winter some of us lived in an apartment on the lake and we launched rockets out on the ice. After one successful launch, we went out to recover the vehicle and an ice fisherman came up to use carrying the rocket and asked “Do you come in peace?”
    Stupid antics as well. Fixing a motor in a vice and set it off in the basement. Sometimes we just glued fins onto an engine and launched that.
    Successes, failures and lots of fun. Also no injuries.

  10. I participated extensively in the hobby of Model Rocketry for several years from the late 1960’s until the late 1990’s.

    I had twin Uncles who built the Estes Saturn V rocket that used multiple engines. We tried to launch it twice, but the problem was that not all of the engines would detonate during liftoff. This resulted in unbalanced thrust, so each time the rocket rose about 100 feet and then curved back into the ground with a loud bang.

    I also recall the persistent problem of trying prevent the melting of the parachute on many of my rockets. If the parachute melted too much, it would not deploy properly and the rocket would often be damaged upon landing.

    One final story. In the early 1990’s, I purchased a brand new, pre-assembled Estes rocket with parachute recovery that I was going to use to introduce my young children to the hobby. The recommended engines for this rocket were the “B” class engines. However, one of my friends had previously purchased some “C” class engines and asked me to use one of those for the maiden flight of my new rocket. Unfortunately, I agreed to his request.

    When we launched the rocket with the C engine, it went so high that the parachute got caught in a cross wind and it drifted so far away that there was no way we were ever going to find it.

    Next time, I’ll go with tumble recovery …..

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