Is four too young for model rockets?
August 22, 2006 10:07 PM   Subscribe

My four-year-old boy is crazy about rockets. We have already done stomp rockets and compressed-water rockets and baking soda + vinegar rockets, and now I'm thinking of getting a small Estes model rocket to build and launch with him. All the kits say something like "ten years and up with adult supervision," so just how dumb of an idea is this?

I have never launched a model rocket before. I assume that I would do most of the rocket construction and all the launch-time assembly stuff, and my son would stand a long way from the rocket, do the countdown, and press the ignition switch.

Are there dangers that I'm overlooking in having a preschooler present at such a launch?

And if this isn't such a bad idea, would anyone care to suggest a suitable beginner's rocket?
posted by bevedog to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is a great idea. Since you'll be doing most of the hands-on assembly and launching bits, the risk is minimal -- and I think your son will love the experience.

It's pretty easy to put together an Estes rocket. Start off with a one-stage kit; your local hobby shop will probably have a few to choose from. If I remember correctly the kits are clearly labeled as to relative difficulty of assembly. As I recall, the most time-consuming and messy part of the construction process is the spray-painting -- make sure to do that in a well-ventilated area. You may also be able to find a kit that doesn't require painting; if so, go for that to start with.

Good luck!
posted by killdevil at 10:15 PM on August 22, 2006

My son's Cub Scout den shot off rockets for a Space Derby and used Estes Alpha IIIs. The youngest boys in the troop were in Kindergarten, all were assisted by their parents. No one put an eye out.

The assembly of the rocket itself was pretty simple (no glue, it more or less snaps together and then there's a great applying of random stickers). The launching is done with a remote igniter and happens a very good distance away from the rocket. I thought the only dodgy part was then the rockets came back down; they tend to separate into a few parts which I suppose could bonk someone in the head but the force at which they landed wasn't something that couldn't have been deflected by the average rain umbrella.

The neat thing was the rocket is reusable for a few flights (unless it blows up midair, which has more to do with where you put the stickers than anything else).
posted by jamaro at 10:23 PM on August 22, 2006

Recounting my days shooting Estes rockets, I'd say there's nothing wrong with this plan. As long as the rocket doesn't snag on the launch line and become a horizontal missile you ought to be safe. I'd also teach tykes not to touch rocket cartridges unless a grownup says it's ok.... I recall a couple of times I couldn't get a cartridge to go, and they had to be disposed of carefully.
posted by rolypolyman at 10:25 PM on August 22, 2006

Oh yeah... it also might pay to plan for taking cover, as many times the parachutes don't deploy. I suppose that tilting the rocket launch might minimize this risk, but I recall a few times having to hoof it on foot as what is basically a toy ICBM comes out of the sky.
posted by rolypolyman at 10:29 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

have you concidered home built water rockets? These can perform as well as Estes rockets, are cheaper to build (often being made from trash), and rather than having to buy and run out of motors. they can be launched until people get tired of pumping them with a bicycle pump.

I've seen some cool launches of a backgliding one made from FTC (flourescent lite tube covers), like the one shown here
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 10:44 PM on August 22, 2006

Just wanted to reinforce that this is a fantastic idea, and will be something he'll remember forever.

Occasionally there might be flying debris so if you're really worried, some kid-sized safety goggles could be in order.

About the rocket kit, they're graded on engine size. Pick the second-smallest to start, and look for one with easy assembly (it will say on the box).

Almost all rockets are electrically ignited from a distance, and this makes everything very safe. Have fun!
posted by fake at 10:46 PM on August 22, 2006

The only problem I had with launching a model rocket was finding the damn thing in the trees afterwards!

You and your kids will be far away from the rocket when the engine is triggered, as the Estes kits include a failsafe electronic trigger with a long firing cord.

Just make sure you're not in a heavily wooded area wherever you launch it and that there isn't much of a breeze — other than that, being with your kid to build and fire off a rocket on a sunny afternoon is quality time you should not pass up lightly.

You'll all have a blast — enjoy!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:50 PM on August 22, 2006

Excellent! Lawsuits all around if anyone loses an eye! (I kid, I kid...) Thanks for the encouragement.
posted by bevedog at 11:04 PM on August 22, 2006

No problem whatsoever if used safely. Safety tips. 1. Most kits that come with a launch pad will come with a brightly colored cap to place on the end of the launch rod. This is to prevent you from bending over and piercing your eyeball. The cap is removed to mount the rocket, and launch. 2. Go to the local home center and buy an empty aluminum paint can (quart size should do). Use it to store engines and igniters. Not because they'll blow up, but to prevent dampness. 3. the standard 10...9..8..7.. countdown is usually too long for most four year olds. Try '3...2..1.... Have fun.
posted by Gungho at 4:14 AM on August 23, 2006

Oh, I almost forgot. Most rockets are light enough that you can replace the parachute with long streamers. This will prevent a large number of tree-bound rockets. You may experience a broken fin or two, but a little glue is easier to deal with than a lost rocket.
posted by Gungho at 4:16 AM on August 23, 2006

+10 Cool Parent

Go for it. Just letting him push the "launch" button will thrill the crap out of him.

Just be prepared for losing a rocket. Those parachutes can drift a *long* way. I lost quite a few as a kid. This type of loss can be unexplainable and devistating to a four-year-old.

You can buy rockets with cameras in them, ones with attached gliders, and even allready-assembled ones.

This is a great idea. I might try it with my own four-year-old.
posted by bondcliff at 5:39 AM on August 23, 2006

Absolutely, I did this with my 6 year old son this year a few times. A couple of tips:
1. You will lose rockets, unless you're in a wide open field.
2. Make sure your rocket is pre-built or an easy to build kit. We started with a pre-built, and then my son was very disappointed when the next rocket came as just a cardboard tube and plastic pieces that you had to carefully glue and paint, which meant waiting and waiting.
3. Check out the mini-rockets as well (The Mini-Meanie on this page). They are cheap, easy, and not the end of the world if you lose one. Make sure you have the regular kit so you have all the launching equipment.
posted by shinynewnick at 5:58 AM on August 23, 2006

Yeah, model rockets have a very low risk factor. Start with the simple, small ones with small engines. The launch area should be a wide open space, not near an airport, with as few trees and powerlines and buildings nearby as possible. Pay attention to their instructions for wrapping the parachute, as proper wrapping greatly increases the odds of the parachute actually working. :) Suggest you prepare at least two rockets, as you will lose some.

Though the kit will undoubtedly include some spiffy instructions for painting, you can also just let the kid have at the rocket with non-toxic paint. *shrug*
posted by jellicle at 6:06 AM on August 23, 2006

Here are some notes in no particular order:
Estes rockets last about 3 flights before they need to be rebuilt.

Building an Estes rocket is probably beyond the attention span of a 4 year old. Make sure he gets to help with the fun stuff (paint, decals).

You don't need all the Estes gear for setting up a launch site. Really, all you need is a metal rod (hardware store, $1), a lantern battery, and a spool of speaker wire with alligator clips soldered on the ends. You stick the rod in the ground, put the rocket on the rod, spool out the wire, clip the leads on the igniter, then touch the other ends to the poles of the battery to launch.

However, if you do buy into all the safety gear and special launch pad and so on, and follow every step carefully, you will probably help forestall your son making his own shoulder launched RPG (not that I would know from direct experience or anything like that).

Stick to simple rockets to start. It looks like Estes has discontinued the Scout, but the Alpha or Alpha III are good first timer options. You might also choose the featherweight rockets like the Sprint or Quark, which use tiny engines and no chute.
posted by plinth at 6:19 AM on August 23, 2006

Also not speaking from experience, you'll want to doubly and triply reinforce the "don't touch the rocket engines if there's not an adult around." Because all manner of wackiness will ensue... like an engine blowing up ten feet off the ground (the largest part of my Big Berta left after that was half a cardboard spacer). Or your youngster might get the bright idea that it'd be fun to strap an engine to a toy car. While entertaining, it does have the potential for pretty serious problems.

The first thing that I'd worry about as a parent is a rocket launched indoors :)
posted by jdfan at 6:39 AM on August 23, 2006

Sounds like a great idea to me. I'm not a parent, but my parents had me building and launching Estes rockets when I was 7 or 8 and I survived alright. Supervision is in order, and you should probably do most of the construction itself until he's a bit older, but the thrill of pushing the button will be good for him.

One tip to reduce tree-ings and drifting away: cut the black center out of the plastic parachute, leaving you with a ring. This'll speed the rocket's decent, but not so fast as a streamer.
posted by Alterscape at 6:45 AM on August 23, 2006

The real problem is that kids take their training and apply it when unsupervised.
Status amongst brutally important to children;
younger kids want to show how cool they are,
older kids encourage younger ones to do stupid things.
posted by dragonsi55 at 7:11 AM on August 23, 2006

From personal experience, make sure the launch rod is secure. I still have quite vivid memories of my friend showing off his new rocket at our school. A stiff breeze came along just as he hit the launch button, tipping the rocket to almost horizontal and straight into a crowd of screaming kids. As a father, you do NOT want this to happen, although your son's opinion would likely be the opposite.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 7:13 AM on August 23, 2006

From personal experience, make sure the launch rod is secure. I still have quite vivid memories of my friend showing off his new rocket at our school. A stiff breeze came along just as he hit the launch button, tipping the rocket to almost horizontal and straight into a crowd of screaming kids. As a father, you do NOT want this to happen, although your son's opinion would likely be the opposite.

posted by rbs at 7:28 AM on August 23, 2006

bevedog, you may want to hook up with the COSROCS group and take your son to some of those launches first. I'm sure the people there would help you and your son out and provide you with lots of helpful information. There are other groups around Colorado that may be worth checking out but that looks to be the closest. Amazingly you are very close to the Estes corporate headquarters and you can even take factory tours there.
posted by JJ86 at 7:31 AM on August 23, 2006

1. You will lose rockets, unless you're in a wide open field.

And even then, it's amazing how well a rocket can hide in even knee-length grass. As a kid, searching for the damn rocket was definitely the least fun part of the whole thing.
posted by smackfu at 7:44 AM on August 23, 2006

Sorry, I misread the Estes website. They do not offer factory tours.
posted by JJ86 at 8:02 AM on August 23, 2006

Also resist the urge to customize...many years ago a friend and I got into a rocket building phase and launched and lost dozens over the course of a few months...along the way we decided that we could add cool stuff like extra fins and antennae to the kit designs. I don't remember the fateful model but it was a big one with a "D" class engine that we had hung all sorts of garbage on. We hit the launch key and just as the rocket cleared the launch rod it wobbled and did a very tight spiral before falling to horizontal and screaming through the five or six foot gap between us. It sailed roughly parallel to the ground for almost half a mile then curved slightly upward and popped the chute. We watched the latter part of the flight from our fetal positions in the dirt...lesson learned...
posted by cyclopz at 8:11 AM on August 23, 2006

I'll chime in as a contrary voice. I don't understand the rush to move up to Estes rockets at this point. Your son is only 4 years old. There are going to be aspects of the safety demands that he is simply not old enough to understand.

The fact that Estes rockets would be fun for him doesn't mean that NOW is the right time to have that fun. As you've found, there are lots of other kinds of rockets you two can play with for a few more years, and you can learn a lot from them (about chemistry, water pressure, air, etc).

I'd recommend telling him that when he is X years old (where X is 7, 8, or whatever you decide) you two will build and launch some Estes rockets. That will give him something to look forward to, and it will create an age-appropriate boundary, which he might also actually appreciate (once he gets past the immediate disappointment).
posted by alms at 8:18 AM on August 23, 2006

Thanks all for the tips.

There is little chance that he would start customizing, firing indoors, etc. at this point. I intend to keep the rocket (or at least the engines) somewhere out of sight and reach, perhaps not even telling him where they are. His participation would be a little decorating, counting down, and pushing the button.

JJ86, thanks for the links. My concern about going to a club launch is that he would realize there are model rockets much bigger and more powerful than the one I'm thinking about! Of course, we have been looking at this guy's photos and videos, so I guess the cat is already out of the bag. If our interest in rockets keeps up, we probably will check out the COSROCS group.

alms, I appreciate your chiming in. The "rush" is that he is really into rockets right now. In six months he won't be. Can you be more specific about the "aspects of the safety demands" he wouldn't be able to understand? He already stands far away when we do the baking soda/vinegar rockets so he is used to that.
posted by bevedog at 10:18 AM on August 23, 2006

And I guess the other reason for the rush is that I am now really excited about this...
posted by bevedog at 10:31 AM on August 23, 2006

You can also use the green waterproof fuses instead of the igniters. More reliable and less delicate than the igniters that come with the rocket motors.
posted by electroboy at 11:21 AM on August 23, 2006

Just be careful when he starts mentioning putting liquid nitrogen in a water-bottle rocket.
posted by hatsix at 12:37 PM on August 23, 2006

Tangent: Build some match and tinfoil rockets. Great fun:
posted by killThisKid at 2:29 PM on August 23, 2006

Build them, send them up, no problems; definitely don't let them play with the "engines" themselves, but there is no problem launching with your help. I remember dogging the bull in the neighbors field looking for my rocket at that age. This experience didn't make me an engineer, but then again, my wife is happy I'm not (a friend of many). Best luck, the sky is almost always blue, and this gives you and understanding of that for sure.
posted by sled at 5:31 PM on August 24, 2006

Bevedog, it sounds like you have it handled. My concern was just whether a four year old would understand the difference between a toy and something that is dangerous. Given how you're handling it, where it is mostly you doing the rockets and him watching and putting in some touches during the construction, etc, that shouldn't be an issue.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by alms at 8:27 AM on August 26, 2006

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