During the 1960s, boys my age were fascinated with America’s race to beat the Soviets to the Moon. Practically every magazine published had articles about the brave astronauts who ventured into space during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Those boys, and some girls!, often built model rockets to channel their enthusiasm. These were not static rockets, they were powered by small solid propellant engines. The two model rocket companies at the time making kits were Estes and Centauri.

The Mercury program used the single stage Redstone for the first two suborbital launches. The Atlas ICBM was converted and man-rated to take the remaining Mercury astronauts in Orbit around the Earth in the same Mercury capsule. For the Gemini program, a larger capsule was designed to take two astronaut’s on long duration orbital flights, powered by a converted Titan ICBM booster and upper stage.

The Apollo program  employed the Saturn IB (pronounced 1 B) and the massive Saturn V. The Saturn IB was used for Earth orbital tests of the Apollo capsule. For model rocketeers, there were two companies that offered model rocket kits: Estes and Centauri. The kits were offered in several different levels of skill, from 1 to 4. Estes had the marketing audacity to offer a 1/100th scale version of the Saturn V; this was naturally a Level 4 kit! It was the largest and most difficult model rocket kit when first offered in the 1960s.  Estes still offers its Saturn V kit today for under $100.

The Saturn V kit was too much for me to handle, so I looked for a less ambitious kit for the Saturn IB. Neither Estes nor Centauri offered the kit. I had made many scratch-built model cars before, so I decided to make my own Saturn IB. The simplest model rocket kits employed a strong, smooth paper tube just slightly larger than the common model rocket engine about 80 mm in diameter. I would cluster these tubes around a larger center tube, just like the Saturn IB to make the first stage.

The rest of my scratch built Saturn IB was made using dimension drawings that were readily available in order to fabricate the second stage and at the top, the Apollo capsule and the service module. This kit took me about a month to build, but when it was completed right down to the black and white paint scheme, it stood about 70 cm high. If I used all seven exterior tubes for engines to power the model, it would be overkill. I ended up using four engines.

Model rockets can be flown many times because they employ one or two parachutes that are deployed by a carefully delayed small charge and the top of the model rocket engine. This small charge is enough to pop off the nose cone and eject the parachutes so the model rocket can return to land gently on the ground.

My Saturn IB had to be designed so the engine charges could be channeled up through the hollow second stage to the parachutes which would push out the model of the Apollo capsule, made from balsa wood. I did not want to add too much delicate detail, like the Apollo capsule launch abort motor, so I left this off my model

Model rockets are launched using one or two small guide tubes that slide over a one meter metal rod anchored to the launch pad. I built a custom launch pad–of course–so the ignitors to each of the four engines could be wired so they would all ignite at once–hopefully.

Launch day arrived with blue skies and just a few clouds. My  mother drove me over to the nearby high school with its large outdoor sports field. One of my friends came along. The rocket was ready to go, I slid it down over the launch rod, connected the igniter wires to the small alligator clip from my launch control pad, and walked back about five meters. We counted down, I pushed the button, and my Saturn IB launched with amazing speed.

We all craned our necks as it rocketed into the sky, getting smaller. I saw the saw puff of smoke and the parachutes deployed. It slowly came down and landed on the grass. I was elated, Mom was impressed and my friend could not stop talking.

These days, boys and girls are not interested in such things. They are too busy staring at their phones, texting messages, complaining about one thing or another, but rarely are they sitting down to create something that gives them real joy.

Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC
direct email: anthonyhyoung@gmail.com