Thursday, December 11, 2014

Getting Into Rocketry - How Much Does It Cost?

I recently showed a guy I know some of my rocket videos. He's a retired vet, nice guy, and I thought he'd get a kick out of them - and maybe I'd find someone else to talk rockets with. He thought they were pretty cool.

The other day, we were talking, and he asked when we were launching next. I told him I'd let him know, and hoped he'd join us. Then he said, "So, if I wanted to get into that, how much would it cost?"

Excellent question.

Sometimes, when I tell people I've gotten into rockets, they say "that sounds really expensive."

It can be. But it certainly doesn't have to be.

Advanced Rocketry Can Get Expensive...

If you get into high power rocketry, it certainly starts to get expensive. The kits get bigger and stronger, and are sometimes made of fiberglass, and they require stronger adhesives than mere white glue or wood glue. A lot of high power rocketeers put expensive electronics in their rockets. These are sometimes for fun (cameras or altimeters), and sometimes necessary - a two-stage high power rocket requires an electronic ignition system for an upper stage, for example, whereas a low power two-stage rocket, like my Janus I, is far simpler.

And a lot of high power rocketeers use something called "dual deployment," which is a system where a small drogue parachute comes out of the rocket at apogee (the highest point of altitude in its flight), and a larger parachute comes out much nearer the ground. This stuff all requires special electronics.

And then there's the fact that even the most basic rocketry need - a rocket motor - gets more expensive when you get to high power. Check out this coffee mug:

See Benjamin Franklin?

Actually, the other day, I was thinking "I bet if they'd had rockets back in the 1700's, Ben Franklin would definitely be into HPR." I forget why I was thinking about that... My mind goes weird places sometimes.

I just acquired this from

This is a realoadable casing for composite propellant rocket motors. This is for mid power rockets, larger model rockets with a motor mount of 29 millimeters in diameter - much bigger than a beginner's rocket motor, which is much smaller and uses black powder as a propellant. I got the casing - on sale - for $39. Which is expensive. But the casing is the expensive part. The fuel grain, which is the actual propellant which goes inside, is much cheaper per launch than getting single-use motors. You keep the casing and use it again and again.

Anyway, point is, advanced rocketry can cost a lot. But that's something you build up to.

...But Getting Started In Rocketry Is Quite Affordable

Now, rockets for beginners are really quite reasonable. You can buy lots of fancy tools and electronics - they do make altimeters for model rockets, which cost anywhere from 30 to maybe 80 dollars - but that stuff really isn't necessary, if you're just starting out. Launching a rocket, even a small one, is far more exciting than you'd think it was unless you saw it happen, and even really tiny rockets that use mini motors can go really high and really fast - and they're cheap!

My Estes Star Trooper, for example, is only 5 inches tall, but it goes over 900 feet high - and the kit only cost 7 bucks!

So, what are you gonna need to get started, and how much is it going to set you back? Well, if you go launching with a friend who has basic launch equipment, and you use his or her stuff, then you won't have to worry about that, and all you'd need would be rockets and motors.

But, let's assume you want your own equipment, so you can launch whenever you like.

Here's what you need to start out:
  • Rocket(s)
  • Rocket motors
  • Launch pad
  • Launch controller
  • Recovery wadding
If you plan to build kits rather than simply buying ready-to-fly rockets (which I'm sure you do, because it's much more fun to build them than to buy-and-fly), you'll need a few basics to build your rockets:
  • Pencils
  • Hobby knife (X-Acto)
  • Cutting mat
  • Sand paper
  • Glue
  • Metal ruler
  • Primer and spray paint
That's it! Let's break this down.

Rockets/Launch Pad/Launch Controller

For the moment, we're going to stick with Estes rockets and equipment, because that is the company that's the most prevalent in model rocketry for beginners, and most of the basics are pretty affordable.

I recommend for a beginner that you get a launch kit or launch set. You absolutely need a launch pad - a squat little tripod with a long metal rod coming out the top and a metal plate at the bottom - the blast deflector - to deflect the hot gasses from the rocket motor away from the ground and pad. And you need a launch controller - which ignites the rocket motor and launches the rocket. And you need rockets. A launch kit has all three of these things - for less than you'd pay if you bought a launch pad and launch controller separately, and didn't buy any rockets.

Now, you can make your own stuff, if you're inclined to do so. I made a launch controller, because I wanted something more flexible and powerful than the Estes controller that came with my kit. But that was after I'd been messing around with rockets for a while, so I was already familiar with what these things did. And I'd say it wasn't any cheaper - in fact, if I added up all the parts and tools I bought (I needed a soldering iron, for example, and 40 feet of pure copper wire), I'd probably have been surprised at the price tag. That was a labor of love, however, so I just decided I didn't care.

But to start out, a launch kit is great. One I recommend is the Estes Tandem-X launch set.

As of this writing, it's $22.22 on, with free shipping if you have Amazon Prime. It's also available from plenty of other vendors.

With this set, you get the pad, the controller, and two Skill Level 1 rockets, the the zippy, high-flying Crossfire ISX and the big, slower Amazon. They're both impressive - the Crossfire zooms up to altitude at really impressive speeds, and the Amazon lifts off more slowly, so you can really see it. A slow rocket may not sound impressive, but a lot of people prefer it - there's actually a common launch event called "low-and-slow," where the whole point is to get a slow lift and not get lost from view. Since it's heavier, it looks a lot more like a "real" rocket, in that it starts more slowly and doesn't disappear from sight in 1.5 seconds.

Here, Chad and I race our Crossfires:

Speaking of, I'm sure you know that their prices change often. Sometimes a price will drop drastically for a day. I had the Big Bertha in my shopping cart for about a month. It cost about $21, but one day I happened to be looking at my cart, and the Bertha had dropped to about $9.95. That's less than half price! I bought it immediately.

Stuff to Build Rockets With

Great! You got some rockets, now you need stuff to put them together. Now, if you read my long series of posts on building a Skill Level 1 rocket, you know that there are a lot of extras you can get to make a rocket look nicer - carpenter's wood filler, for example, and plastic putty. But maybe you don't care about spiral grooves or wood grain showing through your paint job, and you're fine with a little bit of the seam showing on the nose cone. The rocket will fly just fine, and for your first few rockets, you can skip the extras. Some rocketeers never use those extras - and their builds take much less time!

A hobby knife, often called an X-Acto knife (just a brand name) will run you between 2 and 5 bucks, depending on what brand you get and where you get it. You can get these anywhere - craft stores, hardware stores, probably even at a grocery store - and they're basically all the same. They (usually) have a metal handle and a chuck you stick a blade into. Most of them come with the #11 blade you'll use for most rocket projects. Get a pack of extras - they dull and the tips break easily.

This knife needs a new blade already - a five-pack costs just a couple dollars.
You should have a cutting mat or board. In the old days of model rocketry, a wooden cutting board was the norm, but now most people use a nice, self-healing cutting mat. Olfa makes the most popular brand, but it's also more expensive. I went with Fiskars, because I recognize the name from my mother's quilting gear - and if anybody thinks I have too much rocket-building gear, I'll just take them to see my mother's quilting room some time.

You could get by with a thick layer of newspaper for a little while - and when I say "thick layer," I mean most of the Sunday New York Times - but don't complain to me if you cut through that and mess up your table. Hobby knives are sharp!

I got my cutting mat for less than $10. It was priced higher, but another money saving tip is that when I went to the local Michael's Crafts, I found I had a 40% off coupon - they email these out regularly, so if you have a Michael's near you, just sign up at their website.

Double-sided self-healing cutting mat
 A bottle of glue - I prefer wood glue, but a lot of people use "white glue" - Elmer's Glue All is one of these (do NOT get "School Glue." Anything "washable" is no good for rockets). A bottle is... I don't know - two bucks? I've bought a lot of glue, so I get a larger bottle now, but Elmer's or Titebond (which I like better) has small bottles for maybe 2-4 bucks.

A metal ruler is a must for measuring and also making precise cuts. Sometimes you have to cut fins out of balsa wood - they come "laser cut," but they're still held in with little tabs of wood. I use the ruler to make sure I'm only cutting the tabs, not cutting into the fins themselves. You want metal, because you'll use this in conjunction with your hobby knife. You can get these all over - craft stores, Menard's, Wal-Mart probably. Get metal. With a cork base - it will keep the ruler from sliding around. I started with a 6-inch ruler, but moved up to a 12-inch, and probably should have gotten 18. I use both of them pretty regularly. Look around, and you can get one for 5-10 bucks.

Sandpaper - I would get maybe 220-grit and 400-grit for starters. The higher the grit, the finer the sandpaper, so higher grits are for finishing surfaces. At the very least, you'll need to sand the fins a little to make them square and even. I get large sheets and cut them to size. I think they cost less than $3 a pack, though bulk packs are probably cheaper.

You can shop around for spray paint - or if you really don't care, you can fly your rockets naked, with no paint job. A bit ugly, but they will fly just fine.

Pencils are basically free. Who doesn't have a million pencils from who knows where?

The basic tools you need to build most Skill Level 1 rockets

A really rough calculation of what I think I'd have spent for this basic list so far tells me we've spent about $60. I don't know what you earn, and I don't need to. Maybe $60 sounds like a lot to you, or maybe that's peanuts. Either way, bear in mind that you don't have to get all this stuff on Day One. First you get the rockets. Then, if you've ordered them online, you wait a couple days. Then you build the rockets - that takes a couple days at least, unless you're in a hurry. I like to take my time. Then you paint the rockets. If you're using several colors, this can take several days, including using primer first and allowing each color to fully dry. So, over one week, if we've rushed out and gotten everything and then built and painted as quickly as we can, we've spent a total of $60 on rockets.

Now, some of that is one-time-only expense, like the cutting mat, ruler, hobby knife (minus the blades - you do need to replace those frequently), the launch controller, the launch pad, etc. You won't have to replace  most of these things until they wear out, or until you're ready to move up to something bigger. And if you're careful launching, you can launch the same rockets over and over - that's kind of the point. You do lose rockets occasionally, of course - to trees, lakes excited children stomping on them, dogs thinking they're a cool toy, etc.. But if you're careful, a rocket can last you years.

Recovery Wadding

Recovery wadding is flame retardant paper which looks like toilet paper. In the old days, Estes actually treated cheap toilet paper with flame retardant chemicals. Perhaps that's what they still do.

Anyway, you stuff this in the rocket before putting in the parachute when you are getting ready to launch. It protects the plastic parachute from melting or burning when the recovery charge goes off, which ejects the parachute so the rocket can land safely. A packet of this stuff is 5 or 6 bucks, and will last you a couple of launch sessions.

However, there's a much cheaper alternative! If you're serious about this, go to Lowe's or Home Depot and get yourself a bale of cellulose insulation. This is recycled paper which has been treated for flame retardancy, shredded, and is used in home insulation. Rocketeers commonly refer to this stuff as "dog barf," because that's what it looks like. A bale of this will cost maybe 7 bucks at most, and can apparently last for years of launches.

"Dog barf" cellulose insulation, used for recovery wadding. This is a tiny fraction of the huge bale I bought for
less than $7. And you can see, I've barely made a dent in this. A giant bale of this costs about the same as a tiny
packet of the "toilet paper" wadding you get from Estes or Quest. It's biodegradable, in case you were wondering.

Motors, or Engines, or Whatever You Want to Call Them

Finally, you'll need motors (Estes calls them "engines," but most rocketeers use the word motors). This is where rocketry can get more expensive, and it's the most expensive part, even though beginner's motors don't cost much. It's just that you'll need new ones each time you launch.

When you start out, you will use motors that use black powder as a propellant, and you'll buy from three motor classes - A, B, and C. We'll get into motor basics soon, but a quick explanation for now is that each letter is up to twice as powerful as the previous one. C is up to twice as powerful as a B, which is up to twice as powerful as an A. There are small rockets that take mini motors, the 1/2 A and 1/4 A.

A selection of Estes black powder motors, with a mini A motor on the left The two on the right are larger,
more powerful (and more expensive) D and E motors - you don't need to worry about those for now.
The more powerful the motor, the more propellant it has, and that's largely what drive the cost.

Here's a three-pack of B motors. This class is capable of launching most of the rockets you'll build as a beginner.

This cost about 10-ish dollars at a local hobby store. A pack of A motors cost about 9-ish, and a pack of C's cost about 12-ish. Mini motors come in four packs, and cost 8-9 bucks.

Each time you launch a rocket, you need a new motor. When I launch with friends, we send up about 8-12 rockets in a 1-2 hour period. So, a launch can cost a few dollars. But I only launch about once every month or so. I'd like to do it more often, but I prefer to launch with friends, and getting everyone together, plus weather, has made it a little impractical.

So, you can see that a launch itself might cost you a few bucks, depending on how often you launch. However, you can buy bulk packs. A bulk pack of 24 Estes C6-5 motors is currently about $57 on Amazon, with free shipping. (If you buy directly from Estes, you get hit with a HazMat shipping charge, which isn't strictly necessary on small black powder motors, I think, because you don't have to pay that on Amazon.) That brings the price of each motor down from over $4 to just over $2. That cuts your launch cost nearly in half! And a "Blast Off Flight Pack" with A, B and C motors is only about $46!

As Chad once remarked to me, "this isn't the most expensive hobby around, but it certainly isn't cheap!" True, but there are ways to cut costs. And if you find rocketry as deeply rewarding as I do - and ask my friends, I've become obsessed - the price tag is worth it.

By the way - the Janus I - the rocket I designed and built from scratch? Very, very cheap. If you want to scratch build some low power rockets, you can find components for very reasonable prices.

But, we'll get into designing and building another time...

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