Model Rockets: A Great Way to Learn about Spaceflight

Rocket launch
Rockets of all sizes and shapes operate under the same principles of powered flight. Model rockets help us understand how. Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

Families and educators looking for something unique to help learn about science can build and launch model rockets. It's a hobby that's been around with roots in the first rocket experiments dating back to the ancient Chinese. Let's take a look at how budding rocketeers can walk in the footsteps of space explorers through short-hop flights from the backward or nearby park.

What are Model Rockets?

Model rockets are simply miniature versions of the larger rockets that space agencies and companies use to loft things to orbit and beyond. They can be as simple as a 2-liter soda bottle powered by water or something as complex as a model space shuttle, model Saturn V, other other spacecraft. They use small motors to reach low altitudes of up to a few hundred feet (meters). It's a very safe hobby and teaches about the mechanics of lifting off from Earth against the pull of gravity.

launch a model rocket
Junior astronauts learn the basics of rocket flight at Space Camp at NASA. NASA

Most rocket hobbyists get started with pre-built rockets, but a great many also build their own, using kits from companies that specialize in models. The best-known are: Estes Rockets, Apogee Components, and Quest Aerospace. Each has extensive educational information on how rockets fly. They also guide builders through the rules, regulations, and terms that rocketeers use, such as "lift", "propellant", "payload", "powered flight". It's also not a bad idea to learn the principles of powered flight via airplanes and helicopters, too.

Getting Started with Model Rockets

Generally speaking, the best way to get started using model rockets is to buy (or build) a simple rocket, learn how to handle it safely, and then start launching one's own little space agency vehicles. If there's a rocket club nearby, visit with its members. They can provide valuable guidance because many of them started out simply and worked their way up to the larger models. They can also give advice on the best rockets for kids (of all ages!). For example, the Estes 220 Swift is a good starter kit someone can build and fly in record time. Prices for rockets range from the cost of an empty two-liter soda bottle to expert rockets for more experienced builders that can be well more than $100.00 (not including accessories). Collector's rockets and specialty items can cost a lot more. It's best to start with the basics and then work up to the larger models. Some of the most popular large models are quite intricate and take patience and expertise to build properly.

After construction is done, it's flight time. Launching rockets is more than just "lighting the fuse" on whatever "loads" and motors are used for ignition and take-off. Each model handles differently, and learning with a simple one will be more cost-effective in the long run. That's why many young model builders start out with "stomp rockets" and simple rockets. It's valuable training for the time when they graduate up to the bigger, more complex models.

Rockets at School

Many school activities include learning all the roles of a launch team: flight director, safety director, launch control, etc. They often start with water rockets or stomp rockets, both of which are easy to use and teach the basics of propelled rocket flight. NASA has many resources for model rocketry available on its various web pages, including one for educators.

Saturn V model rocket launch.
A scale model Saturn V rocket on launch. Joe Schneid, CC BY-SA 3.0

Building a rocket will teach the basics of aerodynamics — that is, the best shape for a rocket that will help it fly successfully. People learn how propulsion forces help overcome the force of gravity. And, each time a rocket soars into the air and then floats back to earth via its parachute, its builders get a little thrill.

Take a Flight into History

When enthusiasts get involved in model rocketry, they're taking the same steps that rocketeers have made since the days of the 13th century, when the Chinese began experimenting with sending missiles into the air as fireworks. Until the start of the Space Age in the late 1950s, rockets were mainly associated with war, and used to deliver destructive payloads against enemies. They are still part of the arsenals of many countries but many more are using them to access space. 

Dr. Robert H. Goddard and His Rockets
Dr. Robert H. Goddard and his rocket. NASA

Robert H. Goddard, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and science fiction writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells all envisioned a time when rockets would be used to access outer space. Those dreams came true in the Space Age, and today the applications of rocketry continue to allow humans and their technology to go into orbit and out to the Moon, planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, and comets.

The future belongs also to human spaceflight, taking explorers and even tourists out to space for short- and long-term trips. It may be a big step from model rockets to space exploration, but many women and men who grew up making and flying model rockets as kids are exploring space today, using much bigger rockets to realize their work. 

Fast Facts

  • Model rockets help people of all ages understand some important principles of space flight.
  • People can buy ready-made model rockets or build their own from kits.
  • Model rockets can be a useful classroom activity in physics and astronomy.