This isn’t supposed to be a typical article. I’m not going to tell you about politics or protests or why you should be volunteering more on Saturdays – this isn’t really one of those. This is a long winded, rambling anthology about firing off homemade, solid fuel rockets high into the sky out near Bicester, and all the stuff that went into that. And it’s an open invitation for all of Oxford to follow us in the great adventure. So, you know, it’s supposed to be whimsical. You’ll have to let me know how I’ve done.
Finding a suitable rocket range anywhere near central Oxford turned out to be unexpectedly difficult; funnily enough, colleges that don’t let you tread on their lawns don’t take too kindly to your launching missiles off them either. Huh. Magdalen lets you play croquet off theirs, though, or so I hear. On that front, we actually got pretty lucky; our society president’s family has a farm out in East Bicester. It’s big enough to launch rockets up and descend them back by parachute safely, it’s out from under both Oxford and London/Luton flight restrictions during the weekend – and no tourists or thousand-year-old buildings we might accidently hit. We have special rocket insurance now, but early on, our events caused the clubs office insurance people at the uni some chagrin.
Of course, if you’re reading about rocketry, you want to hear about the launch days. That’s what it’s all about, what it all adds up to. Push a button, and the full sum of your hopes, dreams and fears leap, scream, and hiss into the air, all at once going 200 m/s. You swing your head back, watching the thing soar up with this awestruck, gaping smile automatically smacked onto your face. It’s glorious, even when it isn’t a big launch. Our “Launch Zero”, where the president and I launched one on our own rockets to test safety systems, resulted in a series of pinwheels, side to side loop the loops, and a lot of ‘wishing the fins had stuck on in there properly’. On the bright side, people seem to like loop the loops. On the downside, you don’t go very high up doing loop the loops, which is why I assume NASA tends to shy away from those sorts of maneuvers.
“Launch One” was an extraordinary endeavor, an auspicious day. I began, in the appropriate spirit, by waking up twenty past my alarm, and dressing like crazy person before flying out the door. We’d been up late into the night putting finishing touches on the rocket and trying to solve a computer error our Arduino avionics chip setup had been throwing – all to no avail, so we would be launching with no computers. It was alright, we had a 3D printed nosecone and fins to test, so we still had a mission to justify the launch.
We met at the train station, where I could see our fuelless rocket sticking, noticeably, out of a just-barely-too-small bag, back end out, with the fins clustered around. They were bright pink, stark against the body. The pink was for visibility, but the body was painted by a fine arts student who agreed to help – the thing looked gorgeous, black backdrop, all sorts of gold lines like circuits and wires dancing across it, it felt electric just looking at it. Dangerous, almost. Excellent, definitely. It’s a shame what happened to the thing, it would’ve been fabulous in a case. The OXS ‘Run Faster’, we’d named it – because if you were close enough to read it, that’s what you needed to do.
There was a lot of staring at the station, and a little pointing, but we were all too excited to care. I grabbed a desperately needed coffee, and we headed on through the gates. One of the guys working the gates actually stopped us to ask some questions about the spunky group of kids trying to carry a pretty conspicuous rocket onto a train. Is that a rocket? Yeah, it is, we built it. Are you going to, you know, launch it? Yeah, we are, we’re pretty excited about it. Oh, alright then. And then he waved us through.
Our taxi pulled in and we finished the third or so recap of the safety procedures. There would be a camera drone whizzing overhead, water buckets placed at particular distance intervals, people behind ‘safe zones’. One of the many things we’d learned from ‘Launch Zero’ was that we wanted more launch cable than the minimum required – in fact, we’d added twenty meters onto the minimum so we would be very comfortably far away. With everything set up, everyone ran out to their respective distances as we did a final check in over the phones. The countdown began, from ‘ten’ down the line. We hit two, breathed in to count one and then from nowhere a physicist yells WAIT over the comms. Pretty much everyone jumped or fell over, exasperated, frustrated, laughing. An instrument to measure altitude had been fumbled at the last second, of course it had. We yelled ‘stop’ at the final second, of course we did. What a trope, always happens in the movies. We figured that was our only goof up for the day.
We got through the count again, and hit the button. Nothing. The launch ‘idle’ light was on, which meant current was flowing out of the batteries, down the dozens of meters of cable, into the blast caps in the fuel slugs, and back out to the controller. The light would flicker correctly when we punched the button over and over again, which meant it was pretty sure it was working, despite the evidence to the contrary. Cursing, pacing, head scratching. Now that we’d punched the button, it wasn’t safe to approach the rocket for a good long time and not without taking all sorts of precautions – some of which call for discarding all the fuel that failed to ignite. How boring, how wasteful, how very much not what we came for. Eventually it dawned on us, flicking on like the idle light across the team, one after the other; looking to the extra cable, back to the remote and sighing. Finally, someone said it aloud, one word, ‘voltage’. There was extra cable, lots of extra cable. Lots of extra voltage drop. Meaning there was enough power for the test light to come on, but not enough juice to set off the blast caps. ‘We’re going to need a bigger battery’ came next.
For the record, we did some quick mental maths beforehand to make sure we weren’t going to melt any faces, and it looked good. The homeowner on the property had a riding lawn mower which ran off of a car battery – he was more than happy to loan it for a quick jump. Yes, we would be jump-starting our first brazen foray into the wild unknown, our precious rocket, like an old jalopy off of a car battery. And what a sight to behold, I tell you. Our intrepid president stepped up – ready to lay down his life in the noble pursuit of science (well I certainly wasn’t going to do it). Insulated garden gloves adorned, jumper cables held wide apart in either hand, with a steely-eyed-missile-man look that said I cannot believe what I’m about to do, he announced: we have a go. The countdown began. One way or another, it was going to be the last one. Three, two, one. Then, the Run Faster did just that.
Our team’s physicists keep telling me it couldn’t have gone any higher than 400, 500 meters at maximum, and that I’m being melodramatic on purpose, but I’ll swear until I die it soared for miles and miles into that great blue yonder – long after we saw the smoke trail off. Be that as it may, our physicists will die trying to prove me wrong. It might have gone as far as Mars for all we know. We never saw it again. We looked, and looked and looked and looked. All the adjacent fields were cow pastures, meaning manure, cow herds and all. Now that was one way to spend an afternoon. Splitting into teams, we went searching. It was supposed to have come down by parachute (and it may very well have) but we couldn’t see any evidence either way. Team one had more bodies, but team two had the camera drone, so we split the ground evenly. At first, when the cows got curious and the herd started rambling slowly and methodically towards us, some of our rocketeers became worried for a stampede and bolted right back over the fence. “Southerners” as one, I assume northern, physicist put it.
The final danger was the electric cattle wire all around the fields. Despite many warnings to the contrary, some rocketeers asserted it must be inert and would be fine. On team one, I was the liability, and had to be grabbed by the collar and yanked back from running into a cable about chest high. Wasn’t looking where I was walking.
We rode home that day cold, tired, our rocket missing in action, us literally covered in s-, and, heck, one of us even electrocuted (but oddly enough, not the one who handled the car battery). And yet, we were smiling, beaming with this giddy, ear to ear glean that must have made us look like an odd bunch on the way back. Hoots, hollers, the works. Yes, it could have gone better – but we launched a rocket. We. Launched. A. Rocket. I wouldn’t trade that train ride back home for anything.
We have fun, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. The fuel, flight permissions, planning safety – no kidding around. But each other? Not a chance. Rockets are cool. Building the best rockets possible is gratifying. Doing it with the a brilliant, joyful, collaborative team – that’s a privilege and a pleasure. And, an invitation.