And Lo, It Flew!

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Example of a soda bottle rocket.

I was once voted “Most Likely to Become a Famous Rocket Scientist”. I never became one. I wasn’t that interested in rockets. I was trained as a rocket scientist, though. It all began in elementary school when I was introduced to the soda bottle rocket. It’s a simple rocket built with a 2 liter soda bottle. The fuel is a combination of air and water. They work by using a special launch platform that allows you to pump air into the bottle. Upon launch the air and water is released in an explosion that propels the rocket into the air. In my elementary school most of our rockets had a major technical flaw where the fins would fall off upon launch.

In elementary school it was all fun and games, but in my middle school science class things got real, we had a competition. We were put into teams of two, our goal was to create a rocket that would not only fly the highest or longest, but that would also carry an astronaut. The astronaut was an egg, and it had to survive the flight to win the competition.

My partner was this guy Travis, and Travis wanted to be all technical and so he drew up so blueprints. Since he did most of the design work. I decided to chip in by building the thing. When I went home to build it I realized something that most middle school students wouldn’t realize: That luck, and not design or engineering, would determine the winner. Therefore my goal was not to build a winning rocket, rather it was to make the most noticeable rocket. I threw out Travis’ blueprints and set to work. I had this really cool telescoping sword that I’d gotten on a family vacation. It was a generic blue and white one that resembled a jousting lance more than a sword. The perfect fit for a rocket nose cone. I removed the hilt and put it on top of the soda bottle. This made my rocket approximately four feet tall. With a four foot tall rocket, I knew I’d need a wingspan to match, so I found a piece of cardboard and cut it into two triangles and put those on the sides of the soda bottle. I then had a three foot wingspan on my rocket. I also put some wings on the tip of the sword for stability.

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Compare the standard student made rocket (left) with my rocket (right).

For some reason or other there were two rounds for the competition. I think all you had to do to pass the first round was have the egg survive. In any case I showed up on the first day of the competition with my rocket, and that’s when I realized I’d accomplished my goal: My rocket stood out more than any other rocket. There were a bunch of 1′ rockets and one 4′ rocket, mine.

I never counted on my rocket flying, it never even occurred to me that it would. Mine weighed significantly more than all the other rockets, but because it stood out so much everyone was watching intently as the launch countdown commenced. The first launch was a disappointment to say the least. The telescoping nose cone collapsed upon takeoff and it went maybe three feet into the air and spun to the ground. The egg survived though, so Travis and I were on to round two.

I had a whole two days to modify the rocket for round two. I didn’t do much with it. I just put some duct tape around the sections of the telescoping sword so that it wouldn’t collapse again, and figured that was good enough for round two.

A couple days later I loaded my rocket onto the launching platform for the second time and crossed my fingers as I waited in anticipation for the launch. Like every other rocket, there was an explosion of water and air and I looked up and lo! It was flying. It went straight up into the air, then tilted onto its side, and glided. It glided like a hawk. It glided above my head and I had to turn all the way around to continue to watch its flight. It glided through the air onto the top of the school. It was honestly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life. This thing that I built flew! Also keep in mind, we were launching these rockets from the parking lot next to the school, at least forty to fifty feet away from the school. So my rocket flew forty to fifty feet at least (possibly a lot further since it went out of sight). It was honestly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. Majestic, graceful, perfect, awe.

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My rocket’s trajectory.

I didn’t win the competition. The school was only one story tall and there were plenty of rockets that went higher than that. Mine did fly for a long time, but they disqualified any that landed on the top of the school since it was impossible to tell if the egg had survived. I didn’t care. The beauty of that flight was more satisfying than any prize.

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