A few years ago I was invited to take a tour of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida. It was quite an experience. As a young boy growing up during a time when the space race began, I was completely taken by the notion of space flight and what we may find once we arrived on the moon or the planets beyond. Every news tidbit was watched as the first manned spacecraft under the Project Mercury program neared its launch date in May of 1961.
My home town, Clearwater, was almost directly across the state from Cape Canaveral, a mere 150 miles away. We soon discovered that the launches of the 83-foot long Mercury Redstone and Atlas rockets could be seen from any open area if you looked east just after the launch time. We’d watch it live on our Admiral black and white television and then run outside to witness it rise into the sky and leave a huge vapor trail behind.
As the next few years passed, the rockets got bigger and much more noticeable. When the Gemini Program began launching in 1964 they grew to 109-feet in length and could carry two space explorers instead of only one. Then came the Apollo program.
The Saturn V rocket designed to take three men to the moon was over 363-feet long. It had a three stage booster with five enormous engines at its base with exhaust nozzles that measured 19 feet high with a diameter of 12 feet. It would have been possible to park a car inside each one. Not only could we see those launches from Clearwater on a sky blue day, we could see the first stage separation. It was amazing.
On my tour of the space center I was absolutely blown away by the sheer size of the Apollo rocket. It’s in a display building lying on its side so you can walk its entire length. Just imagine a building slightly longer than a football field being rocketed into space. I still marvel at the fact that it ever got off the ground.
While my growing up in Florida involved mostly beaches and fishing, it took a focused turn toward model rockets in the ’60’s. As a matter of fact, for my brother and myself everything became all about rockets. The toy stores were full of plastic ones that you could pump-pressurize with water, pull a trigger and off they went. Next were the ground rockets where the fuel was a volatile mixture of vinegar and baking soda. The two ingredients were placed in separate chambers and then a pin was pulled via a string to start mixing. We soon learned to use a long string and find a safe hiding place.
We then discovered the Estes Rocket Company. Their models were made of plastic and balsa wood that could be built and launched with an honest-to-goodness rocket engine and safely returned to earth with a parachute. It doesn’t get better than that!
Of course boys will be boys, so we had to create our own rockets out of both paper towel and toilet paper tubes. We fashioned our own nose cones and fins out of balsa and then placed as many rocket engines that would fit in the bottom of the tubes. Besides almost catching the roof of the neighbor’s house on fire, the launches went pretty well.
While writing this story I made a quick check online for “Estes Rockets” and sure enough they are still in business. I’m calling my brother.
Captain Rob Modys is a lifetime Florida outdoorsman, retired spin & fly fishing guide and host of REEL Talk Radio on ESPN 99.3 FM every Saturday morning. He is past president and board chairman of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and serves on the board of the Florida Guides Association. Capt. Rob also shares his fishing knowledge in a series of fishing classes at Bass Pro Shops.