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What Is a Rocket?

A rocket is a device that demonstrates Newton's third law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Rockets work by pushing matter forcibly out a hole in one side which causes the rocket to move in the opposite direction.

Try this: Blow up a balloon, and pinch the opening closed. Now let it go. As the air escapes, the balloon moves in the opposite direction.
You may have noticed that the path the balloon took isn't very straight. If you were to send a rocket with a combustion engine off in a similar way, the results could be quite dangerous and destructive! Because of this, there are some design elements that are common to most rockets, including nose cones and fins, to help control their flight paths.

Chances are pretty good that even your best model rocket will not be fast enough or contain the proper guidance system to allow it to reach escape velocity and enter into earth orbit. However, you can shoot virtual cannonball into orbit in this game from NASA.

Rocket Safety

There are specific guidelines to be followed for different types of rockets, but for all types, some common sense rules apply:

- never launch a rocket at or near a living thing
- always launch rockets away from buildings or other potential obstructions
- never launch a rocket in or near an airport, flight path, or bird migration route
- ensure the launch area is clear and that everyone in the area is aware that a launch is imminent before launching
- take weather conditions into consideratiion when launching--especially wind directions at all relelvant altitudes
- even for non-combustion engines (baking soda rockets, alka-seltzer, dry-ice, etc.), there are still dangers involved; always launch with a responsible partner (this will usually be a supervising adult)
- review all instructions before starting your launch
- inspect your rocket for any damage before each flight
- never launch a rocket on a windy day
- always check the area for hazards and use a loud count-down before launching
- always gain the land owner's permission before commencing with a launch
- when using any sort of fuel that can expand, never seal it in a container or it might explode (dry ice, baking soda and vinegar, alka-seltzer, etc.)--always allow for pressure to escape in a safe and controlled manner; for water rockets, always perform a safety check first to ensure you do not exceed a safe operating pressure
- when launching a new rocket, start with a smaller amount of fuel or smaller engine size and slowly work your way up to larger ones

For Combustion Engines (any engine that requires burning of fuel) to operate:
- obey local laws and ordinances regarding the purchase of motors, licensing and launching of all rockets; in many places the sale of engines is limited by age
- rockets that use combustion require additional safety measures which can be found on the manufacturers' websites
- it's a good idea to have at least one person tracking the descent of the rocket
- for combustion engines, always keep a bucket of water nearby and immerse your spent engines before transporting them to proper disposal
- when using multiple stages, do not use a delayed charge or you may lose directional control between firings
- remember that model rocket engines are explosives and can ignite even several metres away from a flame (cigarettes, etc.); take suitable precausions when using, storing and transporting them
- always use an electronic controller (NOT a match and fuse)
- if the information provided here is different than that from the manufacturer, follow the information provided by the manufacturer
- test all home-built rockets for stability before launching (see link here for instructions)
- consider joining a local model rocketry club; perks may include use of shared equipment, access to ideal launch spaces, experienced members who can provide advice, assistance with licensing, and the experience of sharing launches with a group of like-minded individuals

These rules are not exhaustive; rocketry has inherent dangers associated with it. For more information about rocketry safety, follow this link.

Paper Rockets and Combustion Engines

By combustion engine rockets, we're refering to engines that require the burning of fuel to fly. The most common versions of these are made by manufacturers such as Estes and Apogee. These rockets generally consist of a tube, nosecone, fins, engine holder, launch lugs and an engine. Inside the rocket (if it is not a tumble -recovery model), will be a parachute or streamer. This is separated from the engine by either baffles (not common) or recovery wadding (flame proof paper or fibre). This keeps the engine from melting or burning the parachute or streamer when the ejection charge (which launches the parachute or streamer at or after the rocket hits maximum altitude) is fired.

The engines vary in size from 1/4 A to E (and higher for those who obtain proper licensing). As you progress through the alphabet, each successive letter indicates a doubling of engine power from the previous letter. There are two numbers listed after the letter. The first indicates the thrust; a lower number means lower thrust and that engine will fire for a longer period than a higher number of the same letter which will fire with the same overall power, but with greater thrust, hence a shorter firing time. The last number indicates the delay between the end of the firing and the ejection charge. A "0" as the last number means it can be used as the initial engine on a 2-stage rocket or in a tumble-recovery rocket.

To fire your engine, you will need an igniter and an electronic launching system. Both of these can be purchased through a hobby store, or you can make your own launching system using the instructions at the links below.

Accessories You Can Build

How to test rocket stability--a safety must for all home-built rockets!

A Simple Low-Cost Launch System (Rocket, Launch Pad, Electronic Controller)--especially suited for group building
Note: the instructions for the controller on this site specify 15 feet of wire; safety dictates that 30 feet (10 metres) or more of wire between the launch pad and controller would be well advised--especially for engines sized "D" and larger

Another Launch Pad Design

Space CAD Rocket Builder/Simulator Software (1-month free trial)

Easy Low-Cost Paper Rocket Plans Paper Tiger Rocket Plans

More Paper Rocket Models to Build

How to Measure Rocket Altitude (Manually):
Easy tracker to make (does the math for you, great for younger kids)
How to Use Trigonometry to Calculate Rocket Altitude

Recovery Systems:
Model Rocket Recovery Wadding: How to make your own (easy)
Easy Plastic Parachute
Mathematical method to determine optimal parachute size for a model rocket
Streamer Recovery Systems for Lightweight and/or High Altitude Rockets

Rocketry Movies and Books to Inspire

The Right Stuff
Apollo 13
October Sky
The Astronaut Farmer

Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam (the book "October Sky" is based on)
Space by James Michener
Mars by Carl Sagan
Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan
Exploring Outer Space (Isaac Asimov's 21st Century Library of the Universe) by Isaac Asimov and Richard Hantula

Back to the Top

The Science of Air Pressure
NASA Model Rocketry Pages
US Model Rockets Science Fair Guidelines
Easy Low-Cost Paper Rocket Plans
Low-Cost Launch System for Youth Groups to Build
More Paper Rocket Models to Build
Estes Rocketry 101
Apogee Rockets
The Rocketman Website (Rocket Competition for U.S. Students)