Sunday, April 24, 2016

Time to restock...

This week's launch in Chattanooga depleted my stock of A8-3 motors, thereby providing an impetus to take a supply inventory; we are coming up on NSL and other launches, and it is not cool to run out of stuff mid flying season. Folks often ask me where I get my rocket supplies, thinking that I have some great insight into special deals. Naturally, I do not - any deals that I might find pop up via postings on the forums or shear dumb luck. However, I will state that I am pretty good at recognizing a good buy when I see it, and these happen on a weekly basis. You just got to know where to look; the 40% off coupon for Hobby Lobby is a great start, as you can get a rocket kit or some motors for cheap using it.

Here's the list of vendors I regularly patronize, in no particular order. There are many more very fine rocket suppliers out there - these are just the ones I use. You may have found others.

AC Supply - perpetual 40% off Estes items. My number 1 spot to pick up Estes motors and kit bulk packs, as well as the normal Estes kits.

Aerospace Specialty Products - ASP has very nice scale kits, available at an even nicer price. They also have the NEO standard, which is a very good looking beginner kit.

Apogee Components - Tim offers perhaps the greatest variety in rocket kits of any vendor, with selections from many manufacturers. He also is the developer of the very versatile Rocksim software package and stocks items of great use in TARC, such as egg cushions. Prices are not the lowest, but you can't beat the selection - or the customer service.

Balsa Machining Service - tubes and balsa nose cones. Their school rockets are great beginner kits, and at $5.25 a rocket, hard to compete with on price.

eRockets - huge selection of parts and vendor for the outstanding Semroc kits.

Estes - they occasionally have fabulous sales on rocket kits, especially around holidays. Keep an eye out for Mother's or Father's Day specials. I also usually buy my first of any new Estes kit here, to show my appreciation for the recent revitalization of the company.

Excelsior Rocketry - The Sandman fills most of my water slide decal needs. He is also a fantastic woodworker, and will do custom nose cones, etc.

JollyLogic - John Beans has a great line of altimeters, including one that communicates via BlueTooth with a phone or tablet. His Chute Release is the rage among mid-power rocketeers, especially old guys who don't like to walk. - my source for Odd'l Rockets and Dr. Zooch kits, rip stop parachutes, and other odds and ends. Roger and Bracchia are very responsive, ship quickly, and have some decent sale items.

Perfectflite - the manufacturer of the altimeters used in TARC; I usually buy these straight from them.

StickerShock23 - The place to go for vinyl decals, markings, and wraps. His variations on the Red Max themes are hilarious.

The local hobby store for balsa and basswood - I like to inspect my wood before buying it.

So this is where I shop; now if I could only find some money...

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Launch by the river

I was invited by the Creative Discovery Museum (CDM) to give a couple of "intro to model rockets" sessions to their home school classes on Tuesday and Thursday of this week.  The CDM is a pretty neat place located a couple of blocks from the Tennessee River, and about the same distance from the popular aquarium in Chattanooga; a long time friend currently works there, and it was he who made the initial contact to get things moving on the rocket classes. Not that I needed much prodding - I took advantage of the trip to visit my parents, something I need to do more often now that they are getting up in years. Anyway, there was one class of 19 3rd-5th grade home schoolers on Tuesday, and a smaller group of 8 on Thursday. The sessions were only two hours in length, so I prebuilt the rockets; the first class got the Estes Make-It-Take-It (red, white, and blue versions of the Alpha III), and the Thursday bunch were outfitted with Estes Generic kits. I could have allowed the kids to build the models using superglue, but experience with the Scouts suggests that this is not a good idea - too many stuck-in-the-wrong-place pieces and glued together fingers. So I built the rockets beforehand, giving the students plenty of time to decorate their models and learn how to pack the parachutes/streamers. This turned out to be almost perfect, as we were just able to decorate, prep, and fly in the 2 hour class period.

I initially thought we were going to fly in the AT&T Stadium, the home of Chattanooga's minor league baseball team, but that was a no go. Upon arrival, I was told we would launch in the greenway, which is a small patch of grass by the river. Things got even more restrictive when I went down to that area to set up the pad, as a good section of the greenway was cordoned off with tape due to a recent application of weed killer. This left only the narrow strip between the heavily-travelled road and the river, and I informed the kids that I was going to set up the pad so that the rockets would not land in the road. They could opt out of flying their rocket if they didn't want it to splash down in the river, which I thought was very possible, even though there was almost no wind on Tuesday. There was absolutely no way I was going to chance a rocket landing on a moving vehicle in that road.

Red x marks the location of the launch pad (Click to enlarge).
Fortunately, things went very well - the first class only lost one rocket, which hung in a small tree to the east of the pad, and the second class, which used streamers due to the stronger wind on Thursday, did not loose any. I was pleased to note the excitement of the kids as their rockets took to the air on the A8-3 motors; building is fun, but it ain't nothing like flying. The teacher was happy, and invited me to do some more rocketry sessions there in September. Again, a no-brainer; introducing young ones to model rocketry is one of the great joys of the hobby. I just hope that they will have found a bigger area in which to launch by then. I should also thank Lucien at the CDM, who got the necessary permissions from city officials to do this launch; I would not have liked to spend part of the trip explaining to the police why I was launching "mini missiles" in the middle of downtown.

A Make-It-Take-It blasts off on Tuesday.
An Estes Generic takes to the skies on Thursday.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

SLI launch day...

Today is the launch day for the NASA Student Launch Initiative (SLI). I really wish I could be out there on the field at Bragg Farms - not only will there be a lot of unique high power rockets taking to the air, but there will also be several big name members of the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) along with some guys from my club running the range to insure things go well and safely. However, I have a couple of rocket workshops in Chattanooga this coming week, which were supposed to be "Build it, fly it" events. Unfortunately these sessions are only 2 hours in length, which means that the glue will not be dry in time to fly by the end of the session, even with the Estes Make-It-Take-It rocket (a red, white and blue version of the Alpha III). I could suggest the use of superglue, which would allow the kiddos to build the birds, but experiences with the scouts have demonstrated that this does not work well - too many messed up motor mounts and fingers stuck together. So I am in the process of building 29 rockets, which will turn the workshops into "build the parachute, decorate the rocket, fly" sessions. The rockets go together quickly, but it will take a few hours to complete.

Thanks to modern technology, I am still able to watch what is going on at the SLI launch as I build (and take a little time to write this post). The iPad Pro is a fantastic device - its multitasking power permits me to stream the SLI Ustream feed in an expandable picture in picture window while I write this blog and keep track on my email. It's also pretty easy to screen capture the video if I think something interesting is coming up. The NASA TV/SLI folks are doing a great job broadcasting that event, and I recommend you take the time to watch the future streams of this launch - if you can't be in Huntsville in mid-April to attend in person. Here's a cap of my current iPad screen - as you can see, I'm trying out a new blogging app.

IPad Pro screen capture - SLI live feed at lower right corner (Click to enlarge).
And here are some caps from the SLI video feed:

Sunday, April 3, 2016

At season's end...

Jurassic TARC preps their final flight of the season (Click to enlarge).
Today saw the last of this year's TARC qualification flights at Pegasus field - tomorrow is the deadline for all scores at TARC HQ.  Pope John Paul II's Jurassic TARC and the Grissom High team each finished their 3 flights, making 9 Huntsville teams turning in scores. This is a already a win, whether any of them make it to Nationals or not, as any team producing 3 scores has demonstrated they have the right stuff. So we have 9 victors in this mentor's eyes - I am very pleased, especially with our two first year teams, Hope Christian Academy and Grissom. Job well done!

After I returned to my apartment, I did my usual reflection on the TARC season - what went right, what went wrong, and above all, what could I do better next year. Thinking is good, and I tend to do a lot of it when I am not feeling well. So here are my thoughts, spawned in the relative comfort of my recliner...

Not enough practice - the local teams qualified, but the scores were not great. Good, but not great. This is because the teams did not practice much, and you need a fair number of practice flights to tune the rocket. Lack of practice resulted in a lot of flights that were in the ballpark of the altitude and duration goals, but not close enough for get-me-in-the top-100 scores. Kids nowadays seem to have much more structured lives than I did - robotics, sports, band, etc. eat up a lot of their after school time. Other than an hour of after school band practice and my father's "Saturday of your rear is doing work around the house" once per month, I was free as a bird. Doesn't seem to be the case today, and TARC is very often a lower priority than the other stuff. Hence, few practices and so-so scores.

Design and other constraints imposed by teachers/mentors - many teams designed and built the rocket around the motor, rather trying to come up with the best bird capable of meeting the goals. This is caused in part by economics and supply; budgets are often tight, which makes using last year's leftover motors attractive. There is also a supply issue, as a team needs to bulk order motors early in the season, by December at the latest. If they don't, they cannot get them from the same batch (manufacturing run), and motors from different batches vary widely in performance. Even motors in the same batch vary somewhat, but this variability is smaller than that between those from different batches (no such thing as identical model rocket motors - a fact that some teams tend to ignore until they start flying).

I'm sad to say that I also feel that Geezer TARC has played a role in constraining team freedom of design. Geezer TARC was intended to give the mentors an idea of what challenges the teams would face in the coming season, but this has occasionally translated into pressure on the teams by mentors/teachers. If a Geezer TARC rocket does well on a F32 motor, then that motor may quickly be adopted by the local TARC community, even if there are other viable motor choices, and even before the teams have begun the design process. Body tubes may also be selected based on Geezer TARC models, leaving the teams with little more to do than choose a fin shape and nose cone. We started Geezer TARC to help advise the teams, not to create design constraints; hopefully, next year's teams will be more free in their rocket designs.

Lack of active mentors - on paper, Huntsville has a fair number of mentors. In practice, it's usually just me and Duane out there with the teams, which can be taxing. We love TARC, but we occasionally have something else that needs done, and it would be nice if there were more mentors who came out regularly with the teams. Not only would it encourage more practice, but it would also help catch mistakes early on, when there is time and resources to make corrections. It is not enough to recruit kids for TARC; you need to hang in with them through the season, flight by flight.

So what can I do better next year?

Help restructure the TARC class - HARA offers TARC classes to teams in the hour before the monthly meeting, but the topics covered are hopelessly out of sync with TARC realities. It does little good to talk parachutes in February, because the teams are already flying their rockets with parachutes they have selected back in November/December.

Help recruit more mentors - can never have too many.

Advertise TARC more - need to keep spreading the word.

And above all, I need to win Geezer TARC. Duane has held the crown long enough.