At Least it’s Not Rocket Science

by Kelsie Crawford

. . . but oh wait . . . it is!

So you probably think rocket science is pretty difficult, right? You would have to be a genius or some crazy nut of a person to want to get into rocketry and learn all that stuff ‘cause it’s the hardest thing in world. Like what else could be more difficult than working with an actual rocket and like figuring out how to get it to work and not blow up and actually soar into the air and then recover it safely after flight?

For me, my communication class is immensely harder than rocketry.

And I will tell you that yes, rocketry is a science. But no, it’s nothing like a standard science like biology or chemistry or physics or astronomy.

I can say that because I am a normal scientist on top of being a rocket scientist.

Well, “normal”. I’m an astrophysics major, so scientist in training.

But that’s beside the point.


Rockets are like their own category of science. You use chemistry when you are mixing the chemicals of the motors to make sure you don’t blow anything up. At least in a way that you shouldn’t be blowing things up. You use physics in the aerodynamics of the rocket, finding your stability margins, your center of gravity and pressure, calculating out the effect that wind will have during flight, etc. Okay, I guess you use physics a lot in rocketry.

But I’m not saying all of this to scare you. Just giving you a background.

And you have to understand that I hate chemistry. Maybe hate is a little too strong but dislike is not quite strong enough. Either way, I never enjoyed chemistry in school. But I find that it’s incredibly fun to learn how to be mixing your chemicals and your powdered metals together and “never forgetting to make sure your metals are thoroughly wet out before continuing” as I have been told while mixing together a batch of propellant for my rocket. It’s a lot of fun.

And what’s even better is that basically for all of the physics stuff, there are programs available for download and purchase that do all that complicated stuff for you. I use a program called OpenRocket that is completely free to download and use. It allows you to design rockets and select which motor you want to use and what the flight simulation performance will be based on your design and motor selection. It takes all that complicated physics stuff out of it. Does it all for you. It’s amazing really.

And that’s another thing, it’s not just about all this science stuff – though granted that is the most important part otherwise you could end up destroying your rocket and that would just be bad – but you also have the opportunity to paint and design what the final exterior of your rocket will look like.

Some of my favorite rockets I have seen are giant 11-foot tall, 9-inch diameter crayons. Yes, I said that, crayons. And I truly do mean that these rockets look exactly crayons. With final coats of paint differentiating the wax and the wrapper with Crayola painted on and the color name which typically ends up being the name of the rocket.

My rocket is just a nice purple color with a quote painted onto the side of it. “All you need is faith, trust, and a little bit of BLACK POWDER.” (If you change out black powder for pixie dust you have a quote from Tinkerbell.) And you always name your rockets too so that way when you go to launch them people know what the name of the rocket is . . . anyways, I named her NeverLand (yes my rocket is girl).

I wanted to use the quote because

  1. It’s cute and girly and I liked the thought of bringing that into rocketry
  2. Rocketeers use black powder in order to make the parachutes deploy, and
  3. I have this sort of obsession with quotes.

I thought it was a really neat idea to have a quote on my rocket. It was something I had never seen before and made it extremely personal to me.

So now you’re probably thinking, “okay, so there is actual science to rockets but there are computer programs that can do those calculations for me and help make designing them easier and then once the rocket is built I get to paint it however I want, but like, what actually goes into building the rockets?”

Well, the answer depends on how complicated you want to get. The more challenging and higher power the rocket is, the more you will need to make sure your rocket survives the flight.

So then let’s go over the basic rocket parts needed:

  1. Nose cone – needed to help cut through the air
  2. Air frame/body tube – what holds everything together
  3. Electronics bay – contains your electronics (GPS if you want, altimeter to see how high it goes and to deploy your chutes if you aren’t using a motor ejection charge)
  4. Fins – for stability during flight
  5. Motor casing – what holds your motor together and in the aft (bottom end of the rocket)
  6. Motor – a bit more complicated cause you have multiple parts to it but basically what makes your rocket fly and possibly deploy your chute
  7. Parachute – you want to recover your rocket in one piece, right?

Again, those are just the basics components. There are lots of other little odds and ends of things that are important, but that just makes rocketry seem more complicated than it actually is.

And I promise you that once you get started in rocketry and put a little bit of effort into it, it’s addicting. I don’t want to stop. It’s my hobby and I love it.

I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t been introduced to rocketry last fall.

I was at a camp for a weekend in September for my school, the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). The last day of Camp SESE there was this egg drop challenge.

You’re probably thinking that this is just a normal egg drop, but it wasn’t.

This egg drop had VERY specific parameters. Our egg, after building the contraption to protect the egg, would be placed into the body tube of a rocket, launched into the air, and released with the motor ejection charge.

My team ended up winning the challenge with using only rubber bands, cooked spaghetti, and a Ziploc bag.

True story.

The egg even had to go through structural tests and then some even got eliminated because the rocket could only fit 3 eggs.

Anyways, I ended up being the one who took the egg up to the person who was launching the rocket and was proudly (or stupidly) boasting how we only had the spaghetti protecting our egg. The guy was quite amused that we ended up winning.

He later added me on Facebook and then asked if I wanted to join his rocketry team because they could use some out of the box thinking and he had assumed I was the master mind behind the spaghetti egg. (I sort of was but not really; I was just really proud of it especially considering I didn’t really care about it in the beginning.)

I said that I was interested and would try going to their meetings.

I only really joined the team after the same guy had asked on Facebook if anyone knew how to use Adobe Illustrator. I do (I’ve taken graphic design before for my interior design major in high school) so I told him so. It ended up being he just needed help vectorizing the logo that he had made for the rocket team.

So I helped him with it. And hey, he was cute too so why not help out. If anything at least I could try to get to be his friend, right?

And after helping vectorize this logo, I basically felt obligated to join his team.

So I did.

And I couldn’t be happier.

Also, that same guy is now my boyfriend.

Turned out he thought I was cute, too.

But it was only after we had gone to a rocket launch together in Tucson and were alone in my car for two hours each way. We ended up talking nonstop for the next five weeks. Now here we are 4 months later.

We even have plans for a rocket that we are going to build together that should reach over 15,000 feet according to the simulations in OpenRocket.

I’m excited for that rocket. Cause not only will it be my first rocket with my boyfriend who brought me into the world of rocketry, but it will just be a really amazing feat that we make it higher than 15,000 feet.

Most rocketeers don’t really go that high. I know people who have been in rocketry longer than I have been alive and they haven’t even reached 10,000 feet. So I’m really excited to be able to reach 15,000 feet.

Even if it is a joint effort.

My rocket for my level two certification should reach 6000-7000 feet.

That’s the other thing.

There are three levels of rocket certifications here in the US. Certifications are done by either the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) or Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA).

The different levels of rocket certifications dictate which motors you can buy. Each level has different letter motors that they correspond to and each letter represents a range of the average impulse of the motor. In English, the letter tells you about the amount of force the motor produces in a given amount of time.

I promise it’s not complicated at all.

But for high power rocketry, because of the amount of power you are using, you have to be certified because of the possible risk. Of course for your very first rocket you don’t have to be, but that’s if you are going for your certification.

Level one certification you just have to build a rocket, assemble a motor, have a successful flight, and recover the rocket with minimal damage.

Level two certification you have to do the same as level one, but you also take a written test that you have to pass. Also, most of these rockets are dual deploy (two parachutes) so they have an electronics bay which makes things a bit more complicated.

Level three certification you have to get two advisors from whichever association you are a part of and have fully detailed plans of your rocket design and build and the advisors must approve along the way. Then of course you have to have a successful flight and recovery after that.

I promise you that rocketry is not scary.

The entire rocketry community is generally very welcoming, especially to younger people because the old farts that have been doing rocketry for 30 years like to see younger people getting involved.

And I love showing everyone that even though I may be young, I can still figure out what I’m doing with relative ease.

And I love it.

And I think that’s the most important about anyone’s hobby. That you love it.

So join the community.

Rockets are great.

Rockets are amazing!

And best of all, you get to brag to people that you’re a rocket scientist and you have an automatic conversation starter.


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