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For the 22nd year in a row (well, not counting COVID), I was one of 144 volunteers at the American Rocketry Challenge, the oldest STEM event in the country. 750 teams applied, were narrowed down to 100 for the finals, and flew three times. The top 12 teams divided up $100,000 in scholarships, and Raytheon will take the first place team to the Paris Air Show. NASA and the aerospace industry recruit from these events. A young fellow who was a contestant at the very first event, Woody Hoburg, is on the ISS right now.
Yesterday I wrote to the people in charge and told them it would be my last year.
My job is Safety Check-in, one of eight grumpy old men who are experienced enough to tell whether the rocket is safe to fly. We fill out pad assignment paperwork and flight cards, measure and examine the rocket, and send the kids back to correct anything we don’t like. There has never been an accident or injury at the flyoff, and we take safety very seriously.
This year I made some paperwork mistakes, one of which almost cost the team their chance to fly in the first round. As the day wore on I realized that I was getting very tired, and it was harder to answer questions. Fortunately there were plenty of other experienced people around to make sure everything was OK, but I was not performing up to the standards I expect of myself.
The main side effect of the therapy I’m on for prostate cancer is loss of energy and cognitive impairment. I’m not complaining; it beats what so many of my friends have gone through to control their cancer, and mine is well controlled. But I will be on this therapy for the foreseeable future, and I have to accept that there will be some things I will have to give up.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but now that it’s done, and I have resisted the attempts to talk me out of it, I’m relieved. I would rather bow out while I can do it with dignity than after committing some major screw-up. These kids have worked hard to get to the finals and do their thing, and they deserve a well-run, fair and safe event. I’m glad to have been a part of making that happen, but it’s time to pass the responsibility to someone else.
I’ll attend next year, since Valerie and her husband are long-time volunteers, but I’ll be on the sidelines. Not sure how that will feel. But I have decided that the best contribution I can make is to drive them to the field.Published in General
Thank you for your involvement in this great event. I hope you can take some comfort from your efforts in the past and some comfort in the present as you continue to observe your contributions that helped so many youngsters learn, achieve, and set goals for themselves.
I’m so sorry, Doug. You made an important contribution for many years. And you’re a good man to decide to step back.
Beautifully said and I second it – outstanding accomplishments and you played a very important role for so long. Now take care of yourself and God bless.
Model rocketry was such a wonderful memory from my middle school years. Probably was part of the path that lead to my working for NASA for 40+ years.
I also understand the sadness of departing a volunteer organization after 21 years of Boy Scouts, well after my boys had Eagled out, and I no longer recognized even the younger siblings of my sons peers.
I figured for the comfort of the newly rotating in parents that a Scout Master with no children in the game might make them feel uncomfortable, and all of the “safe youth training” was disturbing me.
It great that you hung in there as long as you did, so enjoy being just a spectator.
My hat is off to you, Mr. Douglas Pratt.
What I was thinking, too. You can look back with satisfaction at what is done there.
Thanks, y’all. This was supposed to be an “awareness of the passage of time” sort of thing, but I’m delighted to see how many of you have fond memories of model rocketry.
In late 1959 I answered an ad in Popular Science (“Real flying rockets! Send 10 c for catalog!) and have been making little paper tubes (and big fiberglass ones) go up in the air ever since. I joined the National Association of Rocketry in 1968 and wrote my first book, “Basics of Model Rocketry,” published in 1980. That led to eight more books on various modeling hobbies, all long out of print. I started Pratt Hobbies in 1992, mail-order selling a few gizmos and a shirt that said, “As a matter of fact, I AM a Rocket Scientist.” I had overheard someone behind me in a supermarket checkout line whisper, “get a load of the rocket scientist,” so I made a shirt out of it. I have to say, it’s a little frustrating to run your numbers at the end of your first year of business and discover that your best-selling item was the damn shirt.
It’s a real thrill to see kids taking model rocketry to new heights, pun intended. We have a lot of stuff available now that was only dreamed of in the Sixties and Seventies. Tiny little circuit boards that measure adiabatic lapse as the rocket goes up, and beep the altitude to you when you recover them. Slightly larger ones that fire a drogue parachute at peak altitude, count back down to 1000 feet, and fire the main chute there so you don’t have to chase the rocket into the next county. Larger still gadgets that talk to your phone and use GPS to map the flight and provide acceleration and velocity data. Rocket motors that use rubber-based composite propellant like the Space Shuttle SRBs. Hybrid motors that use solid fuel and liquid oxidizer, PVC or rubber fuel grains and nitrous oxide. You can launch in your backyard with your kids, or spend a few years building a full scale Patriot missile and fly it at a launch with FAA clearance. Several groups have made it past the von Karman line into space and recovered the rocket, flying from the Black Rock Desert in Nevada… that’s a wild ride for a GoPro camera. It’s a versatile hobby with a wide range; whatever your tastes and inclinations, there are rockets you will enjoy building and flying.
And I still have that first Estes catalog.
Doug, I’m very sorry to hear about your prostate cancer. As mentioned above you should really enjoy being a spectator next year. I’m sure everyone knows you will be pulling the strings from the sidelines anyways.
Thank you for the kind words. The prostate cancer is not really that big a deal; I’ve been expecting it, as every male on my father’s side of the family has gotten it. My oldest brother has beaten it for years. The therapy I’m on is a minor inconvenience compared with what many of my friends, including @susanquinn, have been through. It’s pretty much my choice to self-medicate with caffeine rather than antidepressants. Besides, coffee has become another hobby.
Being of a certain age, and a traditionalist by nature, I find that certain things get value just from being around for a long time. I’m reminded of a line from Animal House: “But we have a long tradition of… existence!” So deciding to let things go is probably more of a wrench for me than it might be for younger folk. Such are the times.
I need to remember that line! Haven’t seen the movie other than several clips here and there.
Getting older is no joke (even if you don’t have the understandable side effects of certain medications). We all have to be aware and make responsible choices. Better that we see the changes and respond than either having others insist or suffering the effects of poor decisions.
Sounds like your critical thinking is in good shape.
Thanks. It’s flattering that several people have tried to talk me out of it, but I still feel like it was the right thing to do. I’ll attend next year and be ready to fill in if they need me, since I’ve had several jobs over the past 22 years.
Thank you for your years of service to American Rocketry Challenge.
My school participated and did very well.
Which team? I may have checked them in.
Notre Dame academy.
I remember them, although I didn’t check them in. Glad they did well!
I’m so happy you remember them. We are a small school and our students work so hard.
In all of your check in duties did you ever meet Herb Desind? He was my 8th grade Science teacher and my introduction to my later identification in the geek’s tribe. He was a bit of an abused soul by the cool kids (playfully and respectfully since he was an adult, but clearly it was the beginning period of click identification and losing respect for teachers)
I believe he was a bit of a known rocketry guy in the DC area, but he passed at a tragically young age.
He was passionate about rocketry to the extent that he did research and activities that got him noticed by the Smithsonian
Our little rocket club back in the early 70’s at Eisenhower Jr High in Laurel MD met every Wednesday, weather permitting, to launch our current projects that the 15 or so of us would build from the Estes and later Centuri catalogs. Mr D would also launch at least one of his Cineroc super 8 mm motion picture camera Omega vehicles. About once every 6 weeks or so he would splice the films together and show them during science class for a few minutes. Somewhere in this amalgamation of his 3 minute flights, I can be often seen standing there, in one of athletics fields, behind the school with our group of nerds.
This was also the period in my life where I was beginning to understand the divide between the “in crowd, which includes the Jock’s” and us nerds. One occasion this was revealed during one of our afternoon launch sessions. So I need to set the stage. We were experiencing a bad batch of first stage “D” engine failures. They would lift the vehicle to about 10’ to 15’ and explode before starting the second stage. Estes was aware of their buggie manufacturing situation, and was readily replacing the lost rockets, engines, and most importantly the Cineroc payload. These events were random in there occurrence, but we were getting blasé and thought it goes with the territory and was part of the exercise.
Well one fine spring day the soccer team decided to come over and watch what the not so cool kids do (note they were multi year county champs, and had all the bravado that goes with the accomplishment).
We told them we were launching motion picture camera’s on the top of our rockets, they were aware of Mr D’s occasional video showing of those events, so this sparked their desire to get in on the recordings. They all circled around the launch pad about 15’ back, so that they would be imaged as the vehicle took off.
Karma had her moment to decide that today, as Space X would call it, we had a “Rapidly Unscheduled Disassembly” moment which had every member of the soccer squad leaping to quickly, in a very undignified manner, to become flat out on the ground, while us nerds standing right next to them and stood laughing since we were accustom to the exploding events.
Such lessons do not come often in life, but they are memorable when they do.
I knew Herb, but not well. We were both members of NARHAMS and I would see him at meetings. He was well known for his love of the Cineroc, and the clips you remember were highlights of club meetings. When I got into the kit business I sent him some of my early bulk-pack designs that eventually led to my best-selling school product, the Class Act. 12 rocket kits, 12 engines, a launch pad and a launch controller, even a bottle of glue. Essentially, everything you needed to conduct a rocket build and fly session in one box.
Great story. I think we all have somewhat similar ones. In 1967 when Estes introduced “the mighty D13 engine,” I modified an Orbital Transport to fly on a D13-5 and set up the launch pad on the hood of my dad’s pickup, so everyone could see it easily. That was before we knew that the first production run of D13s exceeded the burst spec of the engine casing. It smithereened all over Dad’s truck. He didn’t say anything, but I’ll never forget the look he gave me.