Spaced Out
February 24th, 2011

As I sit here at my desk, my son Alexander is in Florida, poised to observe today’s scheduled launch of the space shuttle Discovery. Aboard the craft are six brave souls and America’s first robotic astronaut. Alex is a member of the JPL team that programs Robonaut 2, and whether he knows it or not, he is living his father’s dream.

It all began back in 1957, the year the Russians launched an orbiting satellite named Sputnik. For Americans, that infernal beeping from above served as a wake-up call. Holy crap! The Rooskies are ahead of us! Their schools are better; their kids are smarter!

Well, duh! Where I grew up it was commonly accepted that everyone’s kids were stupid. But that didn’t stop us from trying to catch up with the Russians. Soon I had partnered up with my pal Michael Tatton. The two of us were determined to build some sort of a rocket. But how?

I had unlimited access to a Gilbert Junior chemistry set; Michael had limited access to his stepfather’s reloading bench. In other words, we could lay our little hands on small quantities of charcoal, powdered zinc, saltpeter and potassium chlorate. Sulphur? We discovered an almost unlimited source in an unlocked potting shed in the city park.

Mike and I started small, using cardboard tubes salvaged from coat hangars. We’d pack them with various combinations of chemicals, light the fuse and stand back. Right away we learned that gunpowder isn’t the ideal rocket fuel. So we experimented with less volatile combinations of ingredients. I remember in particular a motor that generated approximately as much thrust as a railroad flare and which burned our makeshift launch pad to the ground.

Meantime, our rival across town—a kid by the name of Dalton Takahashi—had built a much bigger rocket incorporating metal tubing from his mom’s Electrolux. Mike and I didn’t witness the launch but we heard the explosion, and watched in awe as a mushroom cloud formed above what remained of Dalton’s neighborhood.

After that, there was a moratorium imposed on space exploration programs in Price, Utah.

Fast forward thirty years. I had acquired a new partner in my son Alex and a perfect excuse to resume messing with rockets. This time around we were using store bought Estes solid fuel motors, which come in various sizes ranging from A to D. In the first grade, Alex’s classmates assembled on the playground to watch what was advertised as a suborbital launch of a raw egg. Alas, the payload was a bit heavy and as a result the rocket took off sideways. As the saying goes, the yolk was on us.

One day Alex and I ventured out to have a look at the Thiokol plant in northwest Utah, where on display is a twelve-foot-diameter shell of a solid-state shuttle booster. For someone who never got beyond the level of an Estes D, it was an eye-opener. I can scarcely imagine three million pounds of thrust!Booster_Rocket

My friends, we are living in an age of petty tyrants and small-minded politicians who evidently never slept out under a blanket of stars on a warm July night. I count myself fortunate to have grown up at a time when the heavens, though out of reach, were still clearly visible.

Go,go Robonaut!

-Richard Menzies