Citizen Rocketry

In the 1950s towns across the U.S. saw a disturbing pattern of young people causing explosions, with life-threatening results, in an effort to make rocket motors that they could use to launch their own model rockets. How many of you have seen the movie “October Sky”? The movie is based on the book “Rocket Boys,” written by Homer Hickam, who later went on to work at NASA. His book describes how a group of three young men at a rural high school in a Kentucky coal mining town invented amateur rocketry on their own. Of course, many other groups of young men were engaged in the same activities around the same time. It was difficult and dangerous. They built a rocket out of steel pipe. Motors were made up of sugar, saltpeter, and alcohol1. Melting these ingredients over flame in order to mold a motor was extremely difficult and was in fact beyond the ability of most students.

This essay is the basis of a talk I gave at a rescent AIAA meeting at New Mexico State University.

Sputnik was in the news. These young men wanted to launch rockets no matter what. A handful of entrepreneurs, including Vern Estes (Estes Industries,) Orville Carlisle, and G. Harry Stine set out to make model rocketry predictable, safe, and available to as many young people as possible. Vern Estes managed to manufacture cheap and reliable rocket motors that could be sold in hobby stores. Orville Carlisle came up with stable and easy to build model rocket kits made from paper and balsa wood. G. Harry Stine, an engineer working at White Sands Missile Range, developed a system of safety rules and launch equipment standards that reduced accidents from a rule to a rarity. As a matter of fact, Harry Stein was the founder of the first Model rocket club in the United States, right here in Las Cruces, NM2.

There were several others who, along with Stine, worked with regulatory bodies such as the FAA and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to develop regulations which recognized model rocketry as safe and legal when conducted under certain rules. This was critical, because rockets need to be differentiated from fireworks in practice and under regulation. When I was growing up in Iowa, my father told me that we could not launch rockets because fireworks were illegal in Iowa. I do not know what the state of regulation was at that time, but I do know that today the headquarters of the National Association of Rocketry are in Marion IA., my home town.

In 2007 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) undertook a review of the rules regarding the launching of rockets. A couple of remarkable statements and rulings came out of this public review. First of all the FAA committee found that the safety rules and practices of the national organizations, the National Association of Rocketry (NAR,) and the Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA) were more effective than any federal regulation and did not need to be enforced by any other body. The second point, in my words, was a tacit recognition that five guys in a garage might quite possibly put an object into orbit. On this score, a little more regulation was called for3.

Jim Jarvis L3 Carmack Prize
Jim Jarvis' minimum diameter, all carbon fiber, two stage "L" motor rocket has been described as 100lbs of fuel in 20lb airframe. This rocket was designed to reach 115,000ft AGL.

Under the modified rules, Class 1 rockets need no regulation or notification. Hobby model rocketry, when conducted under the rules of one of the national organizations, does not require permission from anyone.

Class 2 rockets, heavier and with higher thrust, may impinge on flight corridors and thus still require FAA notification. This is usually pre-arranged by telephone through the regional FAA office. As a courtesy we start this conversation two or three days in advance.

Class 3 rockets, with the highest weight and thrust allowances, are now subject to a 45 day notice and application for waiver to the FAA. The specific requirements are complex and thorough. In fact, the application is very similar to an engineering proposal. It requires a complete account of all materials, launch system components, motor specifications, launch location, estimated atmospheric conditions, and a model which demonstrates that the rocket will not reach orbit and will not cross any national boundaries. For the time being, orbital operations are off limits.

Rocketry is well within the realm of citizen science. If you want to teach or practice real engineering principles using high energies, you need little more than cardboard, lightweight wood or plastic, and good adhesives. Add an off the shelf rocket motor from the local hobby shop and you have a recipe for a very exciting aerospace engineering experience.

My particular interest is in high power rocketry (HPR) using advanced materials and on board flight control electronics. In 2012 FLARE member John DeMar (TRA LIII) acquired an FAA waiver to launch rockets up to 150,000ft AGL. Our West Mesa launch site, near Aquilla Flats, is one of only two sites in the United States to be granted this waiver. The other is in Blackrock Nevada.

Please share the experience of model rocketry with as many boys and girls as possible. Flying rockets together is a great outdoor activity that fosters real scientific reasoning skills, and is a whole lotta fun.


  1. FAA Rules for Rockets (TRA) -
  2. The roots of model rocketry, by Harry G. Stine, Model Rocketeer, September 1977
  3. U.S. DOT/FAA - Notice of Proposed Rulemaking - Reqs. for Amateur Rocket Activities