Boing Boing launches model rockets at NASA Ames

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When asked what we are here for, Beat writer William S. Burroughs famously answered, "This is the space age, and we are here to go." We can't easily grab a seat to orbit but model rocketry is an excellent space age maker hobby that's stood the test of time. For a good time, call the LUNAR hotline! LUNAR is the Livermore Unit of the National Association of Rocketry, the northern California hub for model rocketry enthusiasts. Every month, LUNAR hosts a legal "sport launch" at NASA's Ames Research Center on the Moffett Federal Airfield in Silicon Valley. Everyone is invited to bring their model rockets, engines, and get ready for lift-off! It's a wonderful, supportive scene for new and old rocket buffs and families. One recent weekend, our sponsor Toyota loaned us a Toyota RAV4 EV and we decided the LUNAR launch was the perfect destination for a new electric car. And we're counting down…

The RAV4 EV's cargo hold had ample space for our big model rocketry bin, supplies, picnic basket, and a few lawn chairs. (Sitting right on a cement runway can get uncomfortable after a few hours.) When we left, the estimated range on the just-charged battery was 115 miles, easily enough to get from San Francisco to Mountain View and back. About 45 minutes later, we're inside the NASA AMES complex where we weave through the maze of buildings and immediately spot Hangar One. At 8 acres it's one of the world's biggest freestanding structures. The hangar is no longer used and the exterior skin was removed last year.


Parking for the runway where the launch takes place is adjacent to the air traffic control tower.

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Behind the barbed wire lies the massive runway, closed, where sometimes more than 200 people gather for each LUNAR launch.

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LUNAR brings several dozen launch pads all wired to a central control panel. That means rockets of all shapes and sizes go off all day long, one after another. LUNAR is very safety-conscious and happy to assist anyone with questions about engine size, igniter placement, or the correct way to pack a parachute.

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For more than 50 years, Estes Industries has been the biggest and best maker of model rockets, kits, engines, and supplies. There are literally hundreds of choices for all skill levels. Below is our first model rocket that we of course named the Boing Boing #1.

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Everyone places their own rocket on the pad and wires up the igniter. Volunteers watch closely and offer guidance as needed.

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When your name is called over the PA system, it's up to you whether you press the button or not. The choice is obvious.

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3… 2… 1… Liftoff!!!

The event runs from 9am to 1pm leaving plenty of time for everyone to get in at least several launches. Of course, a big part of the fun is seeing everyone else's creations. The Moffett Field launches are limited to "G" size engines and a maximum altitude of 1,000 feet. That opens the skies to some pretty huge rockets. Here's a video by BB pal, happy mutant venture capitalist, and LUNAR member Steve Jurvetson who designs and builds killer large rockets that are frequently outfitted with video cameras and other electronics:

At the end of the day, there's always time for a quick trip through the NASA Ames Visitor Center. It's small but includes several very cool exhibits and, of course, a gift shop.

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LUNAR also conducts high-power launches at Snow Ranch near Stockton, California. Those have an altitude limit of 15,000 feet and a maximum motor size of M. That is something to behold. Hopefully we'll make a trip out there again soon too!

The official Boing Boing Rocket Club logo designed by Lux, age 7.