A long flash back.....then a launch report.
( I'm not a Homer Hickam but I think he'd enjoy this.)
On a very hot Saturday afternoon in late July of 1968, I saw my first
Centuri Saturn V at the local hobby store. I think it was a cluster kit.
I can remember standing there on a sidewalk that you could have fried an egg
on, staring at it through the window with my mouth watering. It Must have
been around 98* and 100% humidity. I lived next door to 2 brothers that
were 3 years older than me, they had been into rockets for about a year and
we had gone to pick up a 3 pack of engines for them. They had let me look
through their dog eared rocket catalog for several days now and I had
decided I wanted to buy a rocket too.
I'd seen them fly what I think was an Alpha III the Saturday before, that I
thought, must have made it into orbit because I saw it leave the pad but it
never came down. The local school playground was only 2 blocks from home and
it made a great place to launch. Recovery however, was another matter. They
had slapped in a C and we saw it vaporize off the pad and I think I saw it
start to arc but then I looked right into the sun and it was all over. Most
likely it came down a block, or 2, or 10 away, but for all I know, it may
still be orbiting the equator.
I couldn't wait to buy my first rocket and blow all the money I had made
that week cutting grass, on something that was going to make me a part of
the Space Race. The kit and a 3 pack of engines was over $5.00! That was a
lot of money to a 12 year old in 1968. It would take a lot more to ever
afford a Saturn V, something like $20! But I knew someday I would buy and
build one. I wanted to get 3, one to learn on, one to cluster... maybe 5
engines, and one to build as a 3 stage. My friends said I was crazy. They
will just crash and burn and you will have wasted all that time and money.
It just can't be done.
They had everything I needed to fly, a pad, controller and most importantly,
the expertise to make it all happen. Even though my dad was working for
NASA, I had little concept at age 12 of how it all worked, much less
get a model to fly.
At that time, my dad was working 14-16 hours per day, 7 days per week and
since we lived in Birmingham Alabama, he was always commuting between home,
Huntsville and the Cape, most of it in a small plane and some times in a
Lear. It didn't leave much time to go flying with me. In that time frame, I
only got to see him a few hours a week, usually for church on Sundays. After
I was grown, he asked me once, if I resented him for being gone most of the
time when I was going through junior high and if I thought going to the moon
was worth the time that I didn't have with him? Without hesitation I told
him yes, I understood they needed him to get there and it was important to
the country. Even though I knew there were 10's of thousands that worked to
see that dream become a reality, I've always known it was MY dad that
actually got us there. With a little help from Von Braun. ; )
I finally built my first rocket, I think it was an Alpha III and got to fly
it Labor Day weekend. We went to the school and set up, only to find the
batteries in the controller were dead. We had no money or any more batteries
but then I had an idea. One of my friends stayed there with the equipment
and the other went with me. Arriving at home and finding everyone gone, I
borrowed a battery... from my brothers car. I didn't realize they were so
heavy. My friend and I took turns carrying it the 2 blocks back to the
playground. By the time we got there our shirts were covered in grease and
dried battery acid. They weren't sure this battery would work since it was
for a car but we decided to try anyway.
We set my little rocket up and did a count down. 5 4 3 2 1 GONE! We were
astonished to say the least. All the other launches had a brief delay from 0
to launch, but not this time. It was gone almost before it was there. It
streaked into the sky on a C and looked like it would go forever. It arched
beautifully and had only begun to start down when the chute came out, too
far away to hear it. Then it drifted.... and drifted ... and drifted
completely out of sight. It was gone. I was happy and sad at the same time.
Like I said, the playground was a great place to launch, not to recover. It
probably landed on a nearby roof. I don't remember how their flights went
that day, just watching my first rocket float away but I was hooked and have
been ever since.
Over time I assembled my own equipment, built and flew many rockets. Decades
passed but there was never a time I ever really abandoned the hobby or
forgot about building a Saturn V, several Saturn V's. I grew up, went to
school, got a job, found I liked girls. I liked girls a lot. Finally married
one that loved rocketry. Now she builds and flies too.
30 years later, 1998, on line, I picked up the last Saturn V Hobby Linc had
and carefully build it. Built it stock and flew it on a D12-3! What guts!
What glory! I had been told a D12-3 was suicide. The wind will rip it to
shreds. It will crash and burn, everyone will die! All will be lost! It's
madness! Sheer madness! It did have a close call or two but even with the
bad delays back in 1999, it's still flying and still looks ok after a dozen
2000, Verna picks up 3 Saturn V's from a local hobby shop. A couple for me
for Christmas and one for a son. In time, we build a second Saturn V, a 5
engine cluster, later named Rocket Babe and she's a 5 engine cluster. It's a
long build in unknown territory but as we from the Civilized Tribe always
do, "we endeavor to persevere" and it's completed. The painting is a chore
but it turns out ok.
Finally we find a few hours to fly and head out to our secret field and get
set up. I'm e***d but a little concerned. We've got a whole new launch
system with a heavy duty pad, leads, control box and 12 volt power source.
The wind isn't too bad, about 8-9 mph and it's over cast and cool. My main
concern is about all 5 igniting together. The cameras are ready too. The
wind dies down and the count is 5 4 3 2 1 and off it goes! The first flight
liftoff, is flawless. All 5 light and it lifts straight up on a D12-5 and 4
C6-0 boosters. Unlike the single D engine that seems to fly like molasses,
Rocket Babe jumps off the pad without hesitation, with lots of noise and
smoke, rising to about 200'. All seems to be going great but then, right at
burn out of the boosters, the rocket separates early, while it's still
climbing at a pretty good clip. It looks like it broke in the middle and I
cringe watching it, praying the chutes will voluntarily open.
Screaming down in a severe arc, the 3 ounces of lead in the nose seem to be
leading us into that predicted fiery crash and burn, as the chute and sling
look like a streamer. I'm getting sick as the larger booster tumbles toward
the ground but then just as suddenly, my fears subside. The ejection kicks
out the 2 chutes of the booster, just as the upper stage chute frees itself
deploys about 50' off the ground. Both come down intact and for the most
part undamaged. Only a couple of chute lines on the upper stage have pulled
through the plastic. There is a ding or two on the paint but over all,
Rocket Babe is fine.
We decide not to fly it again until we can figure out what went wrong and
hope the video and still photos will tell us. We had a partial success,
because the new pad and launch system worked fine and the lift off was
fantastic. Back at home watching a very good and detailed video, it appears
that everything was going well until there was a pressure build up from the
C6 boosters burning through, causing an early separation. If that is true,
it's a simple matter of using the same delays on all 5 engines but it will
be a while before we can try again.
August 2001... in the mean time, we find out my dad, now 79, has stage 5
stomach cancer and suddenly, flying isn't so important. He chooses not to
under go all the radiation and chemo and recovers quickly from the operation
to remove the tumor from his stomach. We soon forget about flying all
Knowing he has less than 6 months to live and time is short, we prepare as
best we can for the inevitable. The man responsible for my love of rocketry
is not going to be with us much longer.
He does well until New Years Eve and we decide to take him to launch Rocket
Babe again. We set up and prepare to go. It's late afternoon and cold about
40* but the wind is dead calm. I'm concerned he'll catch cold and in his
weakening state, I don't want a family outing to cause pneumonia. He insists
he's fine, cameras are in place and we continue to prepare to launch.
Finally, as the sun sinks behind the hill and we're running out of daylight,
the key goes in and the red light burns brightly, indicating the pad is hot.
We're ready to go. He counts it down, 5 4 3 2 1 and pushes the button.
Rocket Babe responds instantly, and we watch as she burns into the twilight
sky. This time we hear the engines shut down but she continues to coast
upward and then I can hear the 35mm clicking away.
As she begins to arc, the ejections go in rapid fire and we hear all 5 go.
The rocket separates and the crimson nylon chutes open with a snap, as we
watch both sets of chutes float gently to the ground. Rocket Babe IS a
success. Everyone is jumping up and down and the look on my dad's face was
priceless. I asked how he liked that and he just laughed and said, "Son it
was great, I bet they felt it at the Cape." It was his reference to the
ground shaking for miles when a real Saturn V lifted off.
He got to witness three.
2002 was upon us. It was 34 years later but we finally got to enjoy
launching a Saturn together and a cluster at that. He joined his friend Von
Braun, March 25, 2002.
With so many things to wrap up from taxes to final arrangements, it was
about 6 months before I began to think about flying again. After stopping by
rmr to lurk ...
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