Model rocket pioneer, Vern Estes, celebrates his 90th birthday

When I was a juvie nerd, I lived for Estes (and Centuri) model rockets. I slept with my Estes catalog (sometimes literally). I would mow lawns, rake leaves, and save up my allowance to order from the catalog. I would have maybe ten dollars to spend and would agonize over each order, trying to squeeze out as many products as possible from my measly earnings.

I would finally place the order and wait with agonized impatience for it to arrive. I would always imagine a sizable box showing up in the mail. Every time, the box was disappointingly tiny. But I built what I received with whatever tools and supplies we had in the house, mainly Elmer's glue, scissors, Scotch tape, and (at least for my first rocket) house paint. I cut the balsa wood fins out with a razor blade. By the time I left my rocketry youth behind, I had built around 18 rockets and was Vice President of the Chester Virginia Rocketry Club (we had three members).

Several years ago, I unearthed my first rocket (the house-painted one) from the bowels of my basement. It is the only rocket from my childhood that survives. Here it is, in all of its fragile and funky glory:

The first time we launched it — the launch controller connected to the battery in my dad's El Camino — I had glued the launch lug (the small paper tube that holds the rocket to the launch rod) on crooked, so much so that the friction would not allow the rocket to freely travel up the rod. My Astron Alpha rocket sat on the pad, burning the motor until the poorly-glued fins flew off dramatically and the chute comically ejected from the nosecone with a farty little poot. Not the most auspicious admission into the space race, but I was nonetheless hooked.

This weekend, Vern Estes, model rocket god and founder of Estes Industries, celebrated his 90th birthday. People are sharing their memories of Estes and Vern on the company's website.

Thanks for igniting the Earth-bound, star-blind imagination of this child of the 60s, Verne. Ad astra per aspera.

Here are a couple of articles that I published on Make: in 2011 on the iconic 1970 Estes catalog and on the passing of Mike Dorffler, Estes engineer and creator of the much-coveted Cineroc model rocket movie camera.