Shoot ‘Em Up, Part I

October 17, 2009

Currently, I’m working on a story about model rocketry for an assignment in my Picture Story and Photographic Essay class. Once a month on a Saturday, the Columbia Rocket Club (CRC) arranges a rocket launch on a field near Sturgeon, Mo. Spectators and wannabe rocket scientists watch as the model builders shoot rockets of all shapes and sizes into the sky – up to an altitude of 6,000 ft. From the small rocket kits available in any toy store to full-blown, 6-ft.-and-over rockets – the CRC flies it all. The owners of the big rockets often spend months on building their aircrafts, and the equipment involved in launching and retrieving them reminisces of old science-fiction movies from the Fifties.

Model rocketry as a hobby dates back to the space-race era of the 1960s. It was developed as an alternative to the wide-spread amateur rocket activity that involved dangerous explosives and construction materials and was responsible for countless injuries and even deaths. The new model rockets were constructed from much safer materials such as cardboard, plastic and balsa wood, and they were propelled by professionally manufactured, replaceable single-use rocket motors. Ambitious rocket builders, however, still construct so-called high power rockets with motors exceeding 160 Newton-seconds of total energy contained. As these high power rockets reach extremely high altitudes and are propelled by highly reactive explosives, their use is strictly regulated by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

On Thursday, I spent the afternoon at CRC member Derek Kewley’s house to photograph him preparing one of his rockets. It was pretty interesting, although harder to photograph than I expected. He told me some pretty amazing stuff about rockets that he or his friends had launched. Some of them reached altitudes of almost 100,000 feet. Others reached only 4,000 feet – but did so in a single second.

I’m hoping that I will soon get to see an actual launch. Currently, the CRC members are waiting for the farmers to bring in their crop so that they can access the launch field. With all the recent rain however, this is currently a distant hope. The September launch had to be cancelled and if there is not a serious stretch of dry weather soon, the October launch might have to be cancelled as well (which for me would mean that I can’t make the deadline for the assignment). So let’s keep our fingers crossed that today’s weather was only the herald of a long, sunny late fall…


Derek prepares one of his rockets for launch in the garage of his home…


…which is stuffed with rockets of all shapes and sizes.


Folding the parachute that brings the rocket back to the ground safely.


An electronic altimeter measures and records altitude, speed and duration of the flight and sets off the parachute at the peak.


Putting all the elements of the rocket together requires some patience – and a flash light.


Once assembled, the rocket is an impressive 7 feet plus tall – I can’t wait to see that thing flying.


I’m not sure whether I prefer this shot or the previous one. I like the moment more in the one above, but this one shows a little more of the garage and all the rockets that fill it. I’d appreciate some feedback on this one!

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