Rocket Science

“I’m not sure we should do this.” Dwight and I shared a love of model rockets, but he always wanted to do things by the book. And the book said that we shouldn’t launch model rockets in the middle of a subdivision.

I, on the other hand, thought that the book shouldn’t be taken literally. It was a guideline. It was intended to make things safe and predictable. Following the book was fine for our first two launches. But I wanted to branch out. I wanted to see what we had learned.

Our first rocket exploded on the launch pad. It was disappointing, and I actually shed a few tears. But it was also pretty cool to see the hole the explosion made. Fortunately, we were in the middle of a vacant field across from my house and nobody would notice the hole.

Our second rocket actually flew. It arched high into the sky—at least it seemed high—and then began a rapid descent to earth. The parachute didn’t deploy, and after searching for twenty minutes we found the mangled remnants. We took it back to my basement and did our version of CSI. Realizing what we had done wrong, we were convinced that our third rocket would work as planned. Actually, I was convinced. Dwight wasn’t so sure.

Our first two rockets had been models of Mercury rockets. They were small and designed to go about one hundred yards into the air. Dwight stood looking at me with a model of an Apollo rocket in his hands. It was five times larger than our previous models. “If this goes wrong,” he said, “my dad will bury me in the hole it makes.” He didn’t have a problem making holes in the field across from my house. He wasn’t keen on making holes in his back yard. “Why don’t we do this at your house?” he asked for the tenth time.

“We need electricity for the launch,” I explained for the tenth time. Our previous launches had involved a single “engine.” We had been able to ignite it with a match. Today, we needed to ignite three of the solid “engines” simultaneously. That could only be done electrically. To do that in the field across from my house, we’d need 800 feet of extension cords. We could in Dwight’s back yard with a 20 foot extension cord. It was a simple matter of doing the math. Besides, Dwight’s mom was volunteering at the hospital that afternoon.

If everything went right, nobody but us would know what we had done. And if something went wrong, I’d be on my bike and heading home. It would be Dwight’s problem then.

Reluctantly, Dwight set the 3 foot tall rocket on the launch pad and connected the wires. “Mission Control to Pad 1,” I said. “Status update please.” I wanted to make this sound serious and official.

Dwight turned to me and gave me a single finger salute. He wasn’t enjoying this as much as I was. Oh well, that was his problem. When this went as I planned, he’d relish our success.

He stepped back and looked at me. “Really, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Did you hook it up like we practiced,” I asked.

He nodded. “Do you want to check?”

“Mission Control acknowledges that all systems are go. Countdown will proceed. Ten, nine, eight…” When I got to five, I pressed the fire button. The book said that it would take five seconds from pressing the button until the actual launch. The book was wrong.

When I got to two, the ground shook and an immense flame shot out only ten feet from where we stood. For a moment, I thought that I had made a very big mistake. And then the rocket smoothly lifted into the air. It sounded like a lawnmower, but the noise lessened as it rapidly rose.

Dwight turned to me and smiled. I wasn’t sure if he was happy that the rocket was flying or that he wouldn’t have to explain a large hole in his back yard. I shook my head and pointed at the rocket.

I have to admit that I was a very optimistic kid. Despite the failures of the first two rockets, I was convinced that I could launch a rocket and have it land within ten feet of its launch site. So my plan was for the rocket to fly 1,000 yards into the air and then land in Dwight’s back yard. The whole event would last a few minutes, we’d pack everything up, and nobody would be the wiser. Maybe Miss Sara—Dwight’s senile neighbor—would report a UFO to the police, but that would just be a funny story for us to tell.

We stood there admiring the flight of the model rocket. The parachute deployed and the rocket began its slow descent. Dwight was giggling. But I realized that the trajectory was wrong. The rocket wasn’t going to land in Dwight’s yard. It was headed for Miss Sara’s yard. I had never met Miss Sara, and I didn’t want to do so now. “Dwight, it’s going to land next door.”

Dwight was not a fast runner, but he beat me to Miss Sara’s back yard. He stopped abruptly in front of me. I ran into him, knocking us both to the ground. I was trying to gain my senses as the rocket finished its descent and settled to the ground. “What are you doing?” I shouted as I scrambled to my feet.

Dwight just lay on the ground and whimpered. He pointed behind me.

I turned slowly and saw Miss Sara sitting in a rocking chair. She had a cigar in her mouth and a shotgun across her lap. Maybe, I thought, Dwight was right. This was a stupid idea.

Miss Sara sat there looking at me through the narrow slits that were her eyes. Slowly, she raised her hands and began to clap. “Bravo, young men. I want an encore.”

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