The Rise and Rise of Model Rocketry | A Brief History of Model Rockets

Model Rocketry has a tumultuous and exciting history. What started during WW II as an experiment, is now in everyone’s reach.

There’s no doubt that model rockets are quickly gaining momentum in the mainstream, even to the extent of being popular. However, model rocketry as a hobby is thought of to be more of a recent trend whereas in fact, the modern model rockets have been around for decades.

Although rocketry as a concept was around since the 13th century, model rockets came into existence only much later. It was not till World War II did model rocketry flourish. Like many other fields, rocketry too was affected by World War II. The great war had ended and in the early 1930s it looked like the world was ready for war again. This time the differentiator would be arial attacks. Special emphasis was given on missiles that could destroy the enemy hundreds of miles away. It was Germany, that was able to build the first fully operational long range guided ballistic missile capable of suborbital space flight, called the V2. Germany used the V2 to bombard England. The world now looked at awe at the superpowers that possessed such military strength.

A natural progression of this was the Space Race, where sub orbital paths were being given special attention. Post WW II, the Space Race continued between the USA and the Soviet Union, with each nation trying the best the other. It was during this time that model rockets started garnering mainstream regard. Post WW II people were looking for hope and they looked up to the skies. The launch of the Sputnik put the Soviet Union in the lead in the space race and also led to a lot of young people trying to build their own rockets at home. The awe that rockets held, seeped into the common man and every backyard became a workshop. Some of these attempts were dramatized in the fact-based movieOctober Sky.

As model rockets grew in popularity, much research and experimentation was done by enthusiasts, specifically on improving the efficiency of the model rockets and more specifically the model rocket motor. It was in 1954 that Orville Carlisle, a shoe salesman/ licensed pyrotechnician and his brother Robert, a model rocket enthusiast, built the first modern model rocket. They initially designed the rocket motor for Robert to use in lectures on the principles of rocket-powered flight.

It was while flicking through the pages of Popular Mechanics magazine that Orville stumbled across articles by G. Harry Stine. In these articles, Stine argued the lack of safety while building model rockets at home and their spectacular failure. The Carlisle bothers soon realized that the rocket motors they had developed, would help provide a safe outlet for this new beorgening hobby. In January 1957 they sent samples of single use rocket engines to be used in reusable model rockets to Mr. Stein. Stein constructed, launched and fell in love with them

Their partnership was predestined and together, along with a few others, they started the first american model rocket company in their basement called “ Model Missiles Incorporated (MMI)”. The company saw great success, so much so that they had a hard time keeping up with the demand. Their suppliers, specifically of the rocket engines were local firework manufacturers and hence ran into reliability and delivery troubles. Stein finally found Vernon Estes. Vernon Estes loved the idea of a model rocket and came up with a custom built automated machine to specifically to make solid fuel model rocket engines for MMI. The machine, nicknamed “Mabel”, made low-cost motors with great reliability, and did so in quantities much greater than Stine needed.

Orville Carlisle

MMI, unfortunately, didn’t stand the test of time and collapsed. However, Vernon Estes found success in manufacturing and marketing the model rocket engines independently, eventually setting up Estes Industries in Colorado. Eventually by the 1960s Estes Industries started marketing model rocket kits as well and began dominating the market. Many competitors like Centuri and Cox tried to find success in the market but to no avail. Even to this day, Estes Industries is the leader in rockets, motors, and launch equipment for the low- to medium-power rocketry.

In 1957, Stein and Orville Carlisle, founded the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) which, even today, is the premier organization dedicated to consumer safety, youth education, and the advancement of technology in the hobby of sport rocketry in the United States. It has a global following, with people of various nation being active members. The NAR has grown to become an international authority on model rockets with their performance and reliability certification of consumer rocket motors and for the certification of high-power rocket fliers held in high regard. Their model rocket safety code is said to have eliminated all possibilities of accidents and injury. The NAR has since launched 500 million model rockets.

Here is a short documentary on model rockets as narrated by G.H. Stein himself.

By the time the world entered the 1970s, model rockets were a phenomenon. Enthusiasts started heavily experimenting with alternate materials and were also making their own model rocket motors. However, model rocketry was still largely unregulated. It was here that organizations like the NAR, Estes Industries and many others came together to bring about a provision in the laws of the land and regulate model rocketry. The introduction of these regulations had a positive effect in the acceptance of rocketry. Novice students now could become amateur enthusiast and could practice rocketry safely.

Since then, many companies have come and gone that have specialized in model rocketry. More recently, high powered rocketry has gained popularity with vehicles breaking Mach 1 and reaching heights of 3000 m. Custom built model rocket even experiment with reaching dizzying height of 17,000 m and producing colored and glittering plume of exhaust.

The history of model rockets is colorful and very interesting to observe. Most of the historical breakthroughs have happened in the USA. However, the other countries are not far behind with South Africa, UK, Canada, Switzerland and many other countries starting their own legalized model rocketry governing bodies. India as well is seeing a rise in interest in model rockets.

Hopefully, the day is not too far along that we have our own model rocket governing body that inspires minds to see the magic that is model rocketry.

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