Model Rockets: A Great Way to Learn about Spaceflight

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

Looking for something unique to do with others in your family or your school class? How about making and launching 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 you can walk in the footsteps of space explorers with your own rockets!

What are Model Rockets?

Model rockets can be as simple as a 2-liter soda bottle powered by water or something as complex as a model space shuttle or model Saturn V that 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.

You can build your own rocket, or get them companies that make and sell models. The best-known are: Estes Rockets, Apogee Components, and Quest Aerospace. Each has extensive educational information on how rockets fly. They also guide you through the rules, regulations, and terms that rocketeers use, such as "lift", "propellant", "payload", "powered flight". Browse these pages to your heart's content and then figure out which model rocket suits your fancy!  

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 your own little space agency vehicles. If you know of a model rocket club in your area, visit with its members. They can guide you through your first launches and give advice on the best rockets for kids (of all ages!). For example, the Estes 220 Swift is a good starter kit you 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 more than $100.00 (not including accessories). 

Start with the basics and then work your way up to the larger models as you get more experience. Launching rockets is more than just "lighting the fuse" — each one handles differently, and learning with a simple one will be more cost-effective in the long run. 

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's Glenn Research Center has a fantastic learning module on rockets on its Web page, so check that out!

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

Take a Flight into History

When you and your family or friends get involved in model rocketry, you'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. 

Robert H. Goddard, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and science fiction writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, envisioned a time when rockets could 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 are exploring space today, using rockets to realize their work.