WRENTHAM, MASS. — Boys tend to put aside their matchbox cars, plastic soldiers, and tiny shovels as they march toward adulthood. But that doesn't mean their toys go obsolete.
They just get bigger.
Check out a recent Frontier Rocketry Club launch at this college field in Wrentham, Mass. Enthusiasts pull up in minivans and unload colorful caches of rockets with names like Sidewinder, Tomahawk, and Sizzler. While one rocketeer with aviation shades and camouflage hat leans back in a beach chair, displaying his robust collection on a homemade rack, others talk shop, set up the launch pads and get ready to fire.
The group's launch controller is seated at a card table, a bag of chips and cooler at his feet, scanning the skies. He's received clearance - from the FAA - to launch a camouflaged V2 model high-powered rocket, the biggest ever launched at the site, but he does a visual check, just in case. A small, wide-eyed crowd, cordoned off by yellow tape, waits in anticipation as he begins the countdown. Three, two, one.... His finger hits the button and whoosh! The rocket rips off its elevated launch pad and soars through the sky.
"It's only going 1,600 feet," shrugs Bruce Spenard, a participant at the launch. "No big deal."
Rocketry is a booming business as more and more adults across the United States are rediscovering a childhood fancy. Movies such as "Star Wars: Episode 1" and "October Sky" have increased sales for companies like Estes Rockets. No longer relegated to hobby shops, it has broken into the world of big-name outlets such as Walmart and Toys-R-Us, further fueling rocket popularity.
But enthusiasts are not settling for the dime-store model approach of decades past. What lures them are elaborate rockets that can stand 26 feet tall, fly miles into the air, and carry a payload of high-tech enhancements.
"Like most of us, I started out with smaller stuff and it just progressed," Mr. Spenard says. "It's like a web. It just sucks you in. I try not to think about it during the week because it makes for a long week."
Clubs attract more members
Hundreds of rocketry clubs like Frontier, an affiliate of the National Association of Rocketry, are seeing an increase in members. Those benefiting are NAR clubs, which fly a mix of smaller model and bigger high-powered rockets, and other organizations, such as the strictly high-powered Tripoli Rocketry Association and the even more hard-core Reaction Research Society. The RRS claims to have sent a rocket 50 miles high last year from its 40-acre site in the California desert, which has a 60-foot launch tower, fueling bays, and observation bunkers.
"We have 300 members," says Dave Crisalli, president of RRS. "We have guys who work in hardware stores, aerospace and computer guys, a tax attorney, a pathologist. We only had 10 to 15 members 10 years ago."
The RRS is small compared with the 4,000 and 7,400 members claimed by the NAR and Tripoli clubs, respectively. And for the main reason rockets are a soaring business, look under the nose cone.
Many high-powered rockets now burn ammonium perchlorate, a substance more akin to a space shuttle's rocket boosters than the black powder used in cap guns. And rockets now contain materials other than just the traditional paper and balsa wood, like fiberglass, carbon fiber, and Kevlar.
In addition, advances in technology have allowed hobbyists to attach video cameras. Computer chips collect flight data to be downloaded and analyzed by the latest software program, which charts and predicts flight trajectories based on acceleration and size. "Adults like me who grew up during the space race have an unleashed desire to build our own stuff," says Mark Bundick, president of the NAR."Technology has allowed us to do so."
Do you have a license for that?
But that increase in popularity has also grabbed the attention of state and federal agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which have held talks with NAR representatives about regulations concerning the hobby. "The smaller rockets are toys, the high-powered ones are low explosives," says John DiAngelo, an ATF spokesman. "Obviously, they have to treat these things with great caution."
For the NAR, high-powered rocket launchers have to pass certification tests, depending on the size of their ambitions. Certified rocketeers oversee construction and administer a written test on FAA rules, fire codes, and physics laws to those who want to advance.
"Rockets have a bad reputation," says Mike Bellino, a Frontier Rocketry officer. "Rocket groups are really sensitive. It's safer than skateboarding."
But safety isn't the reason that the younger generation still grabs for skateboards and video games over home-made rockets. Flyers complain that the high premium kids put on instant gratification often makes rocketry less unappealing. While adult NAR membership has gone up 30 percent in the last three years, children's involvement has declined 25 percent. Many kids who do fly rockets are using already-assembled or almost-assembled varieties, not the ones made from scratch.
"There is a general bemoaning about the fact that rockets are declining towards 'open the packet and fire 'em,'" says Mr. Bellino. "But sometimes kids get interested after their first ready-made [rocket]."
Although rocketry interests all types of people, men far outnumber women. "We have a few women who fly," Bundick says. "But this is still a guy thing, pretty much."
*To hear the launch of the V2 rocket pictured at top, visit the Monitor's Web site (www.csmonitor.com).
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society