Flying things is fun. If your children already enjoy paper airplanes, rubber band gliders, and flying discs and rings of all kinds, this may be the year to try out a model rocket.
First stop, your local hobby shop for a look at rockets with such names as Rocket-Star, Show Stopper and Majestic. The differences among the many kits on the market are the launch method, the size and the types of engines that may be purchased.
The Rocket-Star, made by Estes for children at least 8 years old, is an air rocket set with an air cube and air hose to propel a rocket 50 feet. Other, more sophisticated model rocket kits for older youths are sold without the engine and other essential equipment, such as the high-altitude Solar Scout, which can reach heights of approximately 900 feet or more, depending on weather conditions and engine selection.
Then consider some online research before purchasing some of the more expensive kits and equipment. Two excellent websites for families with older children and bigger projects explain how to make your own rocket, describe each part's function, and much more. Whether or not you buy a ready-made kit, your research will make the project more interesting and educational. Visit http://www.nar.org/pdf/youthprogs.pdf for building tips by the National Association of Rocketry and http://www.jcrocket.com/welcome.shtml, which explains model, mid-power, high-power and experimental rocketry and provides a glossary, information on motors, laws and regulations, and more. For a look at an industry leader's site, visit http://www.estesrockets.com/rockets.
Regardless of the age and stage of your rocket enthusiast, safety is serious. From assembly to rocket recovery, read all package instructions and provide adult supervision. When working with glues, whether for porous or nonporous materials, thoroughly ventilate your workspace. And at launch time, always point your rocket into the wind, says longtime science educator John Colgren, whose Chicago-area classes designed, built and flew more than 10,000 rockets. "Rockets can travel at 200 miles per hour, so launch into the wind, not straight up, stand down wind, use a remote electronic launch device, and wear eye protection." Colgren's students launched from 25 to 30 feet away and never picked up a rocket right away that fell without its parachute open. "The engine fires in stages, so it can still be live for several seconds after it falls if the parachute hasn't opened."
In addition to these precautions, make sure to get permission to use your launch location, select an area completely clear of obstructions, and keep pets and bystanders far away from a wide radius of the launch site.
Model rockets offer wonderful teaching and learning opportunities, says Colgren. "They were some of the most exciting lessons we ever taught. And my students learned algebra and trigonometry, Newton's laws, how a rocket works, great math and great science." Using almost entirely materials from home, his classes' rockets cost just $2 apiece.
Once you've decided whether to buy or to build, enlisted the help of an expert if needed and purchased your kit or materials, have fun, and be willing to try again when adjustments are needed. Enjoy the non-screen time together. Those activities are still the best fun and make the best memories. Happy flying!