Monday, June 29, 2015

Thoughts on a beginner rocket...

I am often asked what the best rocket is for a beginner, or other variants of this like:
  • What is a good rocket for me and my kid to build?
  • What rocket would you recommend for a school (cub scout, girl scout, 4H) group?
  • I (and/or my kid) want to fly at your launch this weekend. What can I get?
The answer, of course, depends on what you wish to achieve. Do you
  1. Want to learn/teach the basics of rocket building?
  2. Want something for a one-time launch, and have plenty of other things to do?
If you fall into #2, the answer is easy. Pick up a RTF (Ready To Fly) rocket at Hobby Lobby, Hobby Town, Michaels, or a local hobby shop. Estes makes quite a few of these, ranging from standard 3 fins and a nose cone (3FNC) models to colorful crayon rockets - you can find a few listed here.

If you are of the category #1 persuasion, you have many, many options. If you are building the rocket solo, or with another family member, the important thing to consider is how much time you want to spend in the build. Messing with wood and paint is rewarding, but it does take time - not good if you want to fly tomorrow morning. Fortunately, there is a whole line of rockets produced by Estes and Quest that feature plastic parts that are easily assembled in 30 minutes or so. The Estes Alpha III is my favorite; their Generic kit is also nice. One of the more unusual kits is the Dragonite, which snaps together, requiring no glue - there were quite a few of these at a recent cub scout launch. Quest has their line of Quick Kits, with the Astra III being the most popular. Any one of these will have you ready to fly in under an hour, and you will still learn the basic parts of the rocket.

These rockets are also good for group builds and you can buy them in bulk. I get many of the Alpha III's from AC Supply, where you can get 12 for $72 ($6 per rocket). Quest also offers several bulk packs featuring the Astra III, Starhawk, and other fast builds.

Alpha III bulk pack (Click to enlarge).
Those of you wishing to take your time and enjoy the full experience of rocket building should choose a level 1 kit. There are TONS of these, the most venerable and well known being the Estes Alpha. Practically every rocket company out there - Estes, Quest, Semroc/eRockets, Fliskits, Aerospace Specialty Products, Custom, Sunward, Squirrel Works, Balsa Machining Service, Pratt Hobbies, etc., etc. - offers level 1 kits. Pick one; you can't go wrong. It'll take you an hour or so to build the rocket, and a few hours for the glue to dry. The painting and finishing is a matter of preference - many rockets are flown "nekkid"for the first time; some rocketeers feel this is a way for the model to earn its paint. I like to spend days getting a nice finish; most models fall in between "nekkid" and "catalog quality".

I have always been partial to the Estes Alpha, as I have built a zillion of these over the years. A new favorite is the Balsa Machining Service's School Rocket.  At $5.25 a model, it's cheap, has quality parts (laser cut balsa fins and slotted body tube, streamer, balsa nose cone), and goes together very nicely. Great for first timers, and also really good for groups who have an hour or more in their build session.

Estes Alpha (click to enlarge).BMS School Rocket (Click to enlarge).
There are plenty of rockets out there - pick the one you like, and have fun!

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