Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Bill's NARCON adventure...

Inert Black Brant sounding rocket in the hotel parking lot. We got a visit from the police - who fortunately had a
sense of humor - when someone reported this to the authorities (Click to enlarge).
This past weekend, I checked off one of the items on my bucket list by showing up at NARCON, the annual convention of the National Association of Rocketry (NAR). This was my first time at this event, and my expectations were at the modest level, set there by so-so reports of past NARCONs. However, I figured it was worth the flight to Dulles and the cost of the hotel to see what one of these critters was like, and so I showed up at the Crowne Plaza Dulles Hotel late Thursday night. The hotel accommodations were ok, not great, but I am pleased to report that the 2017 NARCON exceeded my expectations by a considerable amount - simply put, this gathering of rocketeers was fabulous!

The first event of this year's convention - a tour of Aurora Flight Sciences - occurred on Friday afternoon. Unfortunately, I did not go, hesitant to risk making my injured right knee worse. I was disappointed, for the honcho of Aurora is John Langford, who is an acquaintance from my misbegotten youth. Back in the summer of 1974, John and I attended the Georgia Governor's Honors Program at Wesleyan College - he was an ace rocketeer, readying an Athena scale model for international competition, and I was the enthusiastic pain-in-the-butt sophomore dogging his steps. John was very patient, taking my annoying behaviors in stride, and I learned a lot from him; my sojourn into competition rocketry was fueled by the Governor's Honors experience. Despite missing the Aurora tour, I did get to briefly catch up with him on Saturday. Even though he operates a very successful company, John is still a rocketeer, helping NAR and serving as manager of the U.S. team in international competitions. The success that was evident in 1974 has manifested in multiple arenas over the years.

John Hocheimer presents the 'State of NAR' at the town hall (Click to enlarge).
Friday night was the NAR town hall, where the 'State of NAR' presentation is given. Bottom line, NAR is doing well, but we still need to attract young folk - a significant fraction of the membership are tottering old baby boomers like me. I passed a few minutes before the town hall ogling some rockets from an estate that were being sold by the host section, NOVAAR (Northern Virginia Association of Rocketry). It was a sore test of will power, for there were some mighty sweet deals in those bins!

Matt Steele presents his analysis of the S1 Altitude event at the R&D session (Click to enlarge).
The town hall was followed by the R&D presentations, the topics of which ranged from designing better competition glider wings (done by a high school student!), to analysis of the factors influencing competition altitude (mainly weight), to building a pressure simulator that can be used to investigate altimeter filtering algorithms, to looking at the consistency in the added boost provided by piston launchers (it adds up to 30 meters per second to the rocket's speed). I also enjoyed Tim Van Milligan's presentation on the drag of launch lugs and rail buttons; he used Adobe FlowView as a virtual wind tunnel in his investigations, which showed that a) rail buttons are draggier than launch lugs, b) longer launch lugs are less draggy than short ones, and c) angling/beveling the forward end of the lug reduces its drag. There is quite a bit of research going on within NAR, no doubt helped by the generous cash prizes given to the winners of the R&D competition.

Jim Barrowman talks about the factors governing rocket stability (Click to enlarge).
The sessions started on Saturday at 9 AM. There were four parallel tracks, which forced me to choose which talk I would attend in each time slot. This was not easy, as there were some pretty interesting presentations that made the picking tough. If HARA ever hosts a NARCON, I will push for 2 parallel tracks and a half day longer convention to reduce anguish caused by this choosing of talks. Anyway, I opted to attend the following:
  • The Stine and Desind Collections at the Smithsonian, by Brian Nicklas (one of the archivists)
  • Making Lightweight Fiberglass Bodies, by Tim Van Milligan of Apogee
  • Finishing and Painting Rockets, by Carl Curling of NOVAAR
  • RockSim Design and Flight Simulation for TARC, by Tim Van Milligan of Apogee
  • Model Rocket Stability and Aerodynamic Equations, by Jim Barrowman (who developed the Barrowman equations for calculating rocket center of pressure - this guy is a legend in the community, with good reason)
  • Flight Testing in TARC, by Trip Barber, NAR TARC Manager
  • The New Look of NAR Competition, by Ed LaCroix (one of the folks trying to make rocket competition more attractive, thereby saving it from extinction)
Can you believe this fiberglass rocket weighs only
10 grams (Click to enlarge)?!
One of the TARC rockets used to develop this
year's rules (Click to enlarge).
My brain was about to burst when the last session ended at 5 PM, but I had to jump across the hall to attend the manufacturers presentations. There were nine of these, each song and dance allotted about 5 minutes:
  • Matt Steele, who announced the Hobgoblin (a 29 mm pseudo upscale of the Estes Goblin) and a scale SLS kit.
  • Gary Rosen of AeroTech, who showed off the new Arreauxbee-Hi and Monstra rocket kits (the Monstra can be used to certify level 1 and level 2). The 18 mm composites are coming along, but no release date as of yet (we did get to see some cool looking A3-4's in their packaging though).
  • Randy Boadway of eRockets, who showed off the new Maple Leaf and Jaybird rocket kits. He also displayed a re-engineered Scissors Wing that may also be released later, provided Estes doesn't bring it back.
  • Tim Van Milligan of Apogee Components, who talked about future plans, some of which involve releasing Shrox designs, such as the SkunkWulf (alas, no RockSim update was announced).
  • Wes Oleszewski (the infamous Dr. Zooch), who was promoting his line of "Growing Up With Spaceflight" books. I have read the first one on Project Mercury, and it is VERY good.
  • Andy Jackson of Aerospace Specialty Products, who proudly displayed his line of 29mm scale kits.
  • John Beans of Jolly Logic, who got me very excited about the upcoming Altimeter 4, which is small and incredibly powerful. I cannot wait for its release later this year!
  • Doug Frost of Frost Rocketry, who was promoting his rocket golf kits. He goes around challenging golfers to best his models in rounds of golf - they use clubs, he uses his rockets.
  • Cosmic Vests and Ties, who were modeling their line of space-themed vests and ties.
Randy Boadway of eRockets displays the Maple Leaf and Jaybird (Click to enlarge).
The new Arreauxbee-Hi and Monstra from AeroTech (Click to enlarge).
AeroTech 18 mm composites (uses Blackjack formulation - Click to enlarge).
Matt Steele shows off the Hobgoblin. He is also developing a line of motor retainers that look like nozzles - he's
holding one to the back of the Hobgoblin (Click to enlarge).
I then rushed up to my room to "freshen up" before the banquet began at 7. The guest of honor was Lee Piester, who is the founder of Centuri, one of the big two rocket companies of the 60's and 70's (the other being Estes, of course). My first rocket was a Centuri Javelin, so I was very eager to hear Lee's perspective on those days. His talk was terrific, and he kindly autographed one of my old Centuri catalogs - an excellent end to a good day. I also have to give a shout-out to John Beans, who donated 17 Chute Releases as door prizes for the banquet. Naturally, I got nothing, but Vince, who was seated next to me, won one of those beauties. Some people just have all the luck!

Lee Piester presents his "Centuri Memories" at the banquet (Click to enlarge).
After the banquet, I spend some time at the hotel bar talking with Daniel, the Rocket N00b and one of three hosts of The Rocketry Show podcast. He and one of the other hosts, C. G., were there at NARCON, interviewing the rocket luminaries for the podcast. We spent about an hour discussing various aspects of rocketry, which was the perfect way to end the evening. For those of you who haven't heard an episode of The Rocketry Show, you ought to mosey over there and give it a listen - lots of good rocket stuff crammed into an hour!

Steampunked rockets on display at registration table (Click to enlarge).
On Sunday morning, I joined the other NARCON attendees for a special showing of the Space Station IMax movie and a docent-guided tour of the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum. It was very nice to be back amongst all that aerospace history - planes and rockets in abundance - but we got the extra cool bonus of a behind-the-scences look at the Air and Space archives. Very impressive!

Back at glorious Udvar-Hazy (Click to enlarge)!
NARCON formally ended with the tour of Udvar-Hazy.  I returned to my hotel room and collapsed, very happy to have been part of this year's convention, which had over 200 attendees. Good company, lots of learning, lots of memories - what more can you ask?


  1. I had a great time chatting with you, Bill. We should haven gotten a picture together. Next time...

  2. It was nice talking with you Bill at NARCON 2017. If you ever find those black shaft body tubes from Apogee, I would gladly pay you for them 😊🚀 💰