A rocket for the holidays

So you want to give someone a model rocket, or something rocketry related, as a holiday gift, but don’t know what to look for?

Well, of course you could just ask them what they want, or give them an Amazon gift card, or tell them to go shop for themselves and you’ll go buy your present “from them” yourself. That seems to be the way it’s done these days, at least by a lot of people. But I like to give and receive actual things, stuff the giver put some thought into, and maybe you do too. But maybe you don’t know what kind of thought to think?

If they’re already into rockets

If your intended recipient is a rocketry hobbyist already, though, picking out something for them is going to be a tough one. The hobby’s pretty broad — MMX to advanced high power; competition to sport rocketry; ready-to-fly to skill level 5; odd-rocs and scale models and science fiction models and good old three fins and a nose cone. If you don’t know which corner of hobby rocketry your recipient likes, you’ll have a hard time picking out a kit for them.

You could get them something they can use for almost any kit — like glue — that’s it, get some yellow wood glue or white glue or cyanoacrylate or 5 minute epoxy or 30 minute epoxy or Gorilla Glue or spray adhesive or glue stick or plastic glue or… you know, maybe don’t try to pick out glue either.

You know what you can do? FInd out what rocket they like flying most… and buy them another of the same kit. Because sooner or later that rocket’s going to come in ballistic or float off on a thermal or get stuck up a tree. And they’ll want to build another one. You’ll be a hero!

(Unless of course they only do scratch builds, not kits, in which case you’re back to the glue again.)

If they’re new to rockets

All right, so that may have not been that much help. But if you have someone on your gift list who isn’t a rocketeer, but would like to be — whether they know it or not — now you’re in a much better position. A child who’s never flown a rocket? An adult with too much job stress who could use a fun way to relax? A retiree looking for a new hobby? You could change their life for the better.

The first thing to get a new rocketeer is (duh) a new rocket. But which one? There are lots of rockets on the market. But some are better for newbies than others, and it’ll depend too on the person who’s getting it.

Estes is by far the biggest name in rockets, at least in North America, and if you can’t find something suitable in their catalog (what’s a catalog, you ask? Never mind, young whippersnapper, just browse their site.), you might not find something anywhere. Start there.

How skilled and interested are they in building and painting? Some kits consist of a bag full of cardboard tubes, wood fins, a plastic nose cone, and various other parts, and you have to glue them together, do some sanding, do some painting, maybe apply some decals to get a nice looking finished rocket. These come in different skill levels (from 1 to 5), and even if your recipient is a master craftworker, they’ll probably be better off starting with a skill level 1 or 2 for their first rocket.

On the other hand, if it’s for a child or just someone more into doing than making, you can look for the letters RTF — “Ready to Fly”. Those are assembled rockets, no gluing, sanding, painting, or decaling required. You do have to tie a parachute onto a shock cord. No biggie. They’re the despair and heartbreak of many experienced rocketeers, who feel if you didn’t build it, you don’t get it, but ignore them. If an RTF rocket or three incites a real interest in rocketry, they’ll be building their own before too long. If it’s what it takes to get them into the hobby, it’s fine.

In between are a couple other TLAs*. ARF is Almost Ready to Fly. These are like RTF but you also have to do something like slide a plastic fin set into place. Might take you a minute or so. E2X is Easy to Execute and is a nice compromise between RTF and skill level 1. Generally it means you have to glue it together, but the parts are pre-colored and decorated so you can skip the sanding, painting, and decals. An E2X kit can be put together in an hour or less (or more, if you want to be more meticulous than average.)

Understand, though, that a rocket is pretty useless by itself without a launch pad, a controller, and some rocket motors to fly it with. You can buy all those separately, but you also can get launch sets that include everything (except, generally, motors, which still have to be bought separately). Start by looking at them, especially if you’re looking for RTF/RTF/E2X. Only a couple of the current Estes launch sets are based around skill level 1 or 2 rockets, so if you want to give the full building experience, you may need to go the separate components route.

Among the launch sets, the E2X Alpha III has been a classic starting rocket for decades. Go to a rocketry club and tell them “My first rocket was an Alpha III” and they’ll all nod sagely. You can’t go wrong with that, unless your recipient hates orange. This is a fairly small rocket, good for small flying fields. On the other hand, currently at the same price point, the Tandem-X launch set comes with two rockets — an E2X to start with, and a skill level 1 to follow that up with. Good deal. For someone who can’t be bothered unless it’s big, the RTF Eliminator XL stands almost 4 feet high. It takes larger rocket motors, and Estes estimates flight altitudes up to 1400 feet, so it needs a larger field to fly from. Shorter but fatter is the E2X Prowler set which uses even bigger motors; throw in a booster (sold separately) and it’ll go to 3000 feet. This is probably not for the beginning rocketeer, though. Unless they have serious masculinity issues, but if they do, the hot pink color scheme might be a deal killer.

So one of those launch sets, or another one, plus some motors, will give them what they need to get flying. But if you haven’t maxed out your budget, or if your ex-spouse beat you to the punch and bought the launch set already, what can you supplement it with?

Another rocket? Maybe complement the E2X launch set with a skill level 1 or 2 builder’s kit. Probably best, if the launch set rocket uses “standard” motors, for the additional rockets to use them too. Big motors generally require a different launch setup.

More motors! You need one per flight, so more motors means more fun before having to go spend more money. Just make sure they’re one of the kinds recommended for the rocket(s) they’re getting.

If we’re talking nerdy adult here, I’d give a book, specifically G. Harry Stine’s Handbook of Model Rocketry. The newest edition is more than a decade old, and some of the thinking in the book has been regarded by some as out of style longer than that, but it’s the standard text on the subject. Ten year olds probably wouldn’t go for it, though. Another, more recent book I haven’t read but have heard good things about, and which might be better for some readers, is Make: Rockets: Down-to-Earth Rocket Science by Mike Westerfield.

After that? Well, they’re a bit intangible, but if you have a recipient who’s just gotten hooked on rockets, two of the best things you could buy them are memberships in a local rocket club and in one of the national organizations. These are great resources for a new rocketeer, putting them in contact with people who can give them assistance and advice, give them new ideas to pursue, provide them with fun events to attend, and maybe most importantly, have access to a good place to go fly! Use the search box at rocketreview.com’s clubs listing to look for a nearby club. If you find one (in the U.S.), see which national organization they affiliate with: the National Association of Rocketry or the Tripoli Rocketry Association. (Some do both. The sole Canadian equivalent is the Canadian Association of Rocketry.) Then you can take your gift up another level with a year’s membership in that.

With any luck they’ll get bitten hard by the rocketry bug, and next year you can try to figure out which kind of glue to give them!

* Three Letter Acronyms


2 thoughts on “A rocket for the holidays

  1. The Westerfield book is great, especially if they already have The Handbook. The thing I really liked about it is that it starts off with projects involving no kits.

    When I read The Handbook, I noticed there was a lot of stuff to consider when designing your own, but I thought that was only something for advanced rocketeers with lots of skills. I figured I’d never end up doing that.

    But after having already built a few kits, and reading Make: Rockets, I realized that I didn’t need a kit to build a rocket. One day, I had it in mind to try a two-stage model rocket, but I didn’t have a kit. But I did have some spare parts, and OpenRocket. So, I decided to design my own. 13 days later, it launched. I don’t think I’d have done that without the Westerfield book.

    Other ideas for gifts might include accessories. For example, the Odd’l Rockets Adeptor is great, because you can turn a camera tripod into a launch pad that will hold a rod up to 3/16 inch. Nice stocking stuffer.

    Or what about a NAR membership? If they’re new-ish to rocketry but don’t belong to NAR or Tripoli yet, maybe you could get them that. A half million dollars of insurance plus a free rocketry magazine subscription isn’t bad at all for just over sixty bucks.

    Or maybe get them a kit from a less-known vendor. 3-D rocketry has some great kits, but I don’t see them very often. I bet even a rocketeer who usually builds their own would still appreciate a nicely-designed but less ubiquitous kit from a smaller company.

  2. Pingback: Rocketry goals review for Nov/Dec 2015, and for the year 2015 | Rich's Rockets

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