My Summer Project, Circa 1991: A Shoulder Mounted Rocket Launcher

My Dad has been in the hospital this week and I’ve been going through some of the things in his/our/my family’s garage. Said garage is a mess and we pulled out about 500 pounds of junk that we hauled to the dump and threw away, marking an ignominious end to a lot of projects I started back around eighth and ninth grade out there. However, there was one project that worked – and worked well.

One afternoon I went over to my buddy Mike’s house (He called himself DamageInc on the BBSes in Columbus, if that tells you anything about him) and he showed me a project he was working on. It was a shoulder mounted rocket launcher. His used a small PVC tube connected to a box and he built an Estes rocket with a freaking broadhead arrowhead on the tip. Obviously his model was a bit dangerous, especially considering he was using higher-powered rockets, but I was smitten. I had to make one. I don’t think he ever shot his, but it was pretty impressive.

Truth be told I’m not very handy. My Dad was always the tinkerer and his garage is a testament to this fact. It’s stacked to the rafters with junk or, more correctly, stuff he collected in order to make other stuff. He is also kind of a hoarder. There are pipes, old typewriters, office phones, boxes of books, and this summer I pulled out about ten milk crates of LPs in various states of decay that we sold to a vinyl obsessive for $30.

My Dad gave me some of these flat 9-volt cells that he found and I was trying to figure out a use for them when I realized they would make a good battery for model rocketry. I then found a few pieces of wood, a long metal tube, and some wire. I found an old switch and rounded up some wire and began.

The handle itself is not a masterpiece. It’s basically an open box with notches cut out to hold the pipe. I used a piece of thick rubber to hold the pipe down onto the handle and taped the battery to the handle. Wires leading to the switch and then to a pair of alligator clips completed the basic design.

I probably used B-class engines in this thing which warrants a bit of exploration into what I was actually dealing with. The B-class engines have an exhaust velocity of about 2550 lbs/second and an average thrust of 6 newtons so you’re looking at about 47 feet per second of speed coming off the launching pad. In this case, however, the launching pad was horizontal and my face was right next to it.

Knowing that I was a damn fool, my dad gave me a moped helmet with a fishbowl face mask. I also put on a long-sleeved shirt and what I recall was a chain mesh vest from a meat packing plant. I made a small wooden rocket and a wooden plug for the rear of the tube. I obviously drilled a hole in the plug to run the wires through and also, presumably, to vent some of the gasses onto the back of my head. Again, I’m glad my Dad thought to give me a helmet.

I took the kit out to the back yard and wired everything up. I took aim and stood there for a second, wondering what went wrong. Nothing. No pfft. Nothing.

Then, suddenly, whoosh. The igniter took a few seconds to heat up and my rocket was off, whizzing down the yard at the shed like, well, a rocket. It hit the shed and in a second it was gone, shredded on impact. I don’t actually think we found most of it.

I only shot my rocket launcher once and I just dumped the thing yesterday so I’ll never be able to relive those moments with the same device. However, I doubt my son would ever be able to relive those experiences. It’s hard enough finding a place to shoot rockets anymore let alone shoot a DIY RPG. I don’t even know if I’d let him do it now, considering I don’t really have all the same junk my Dad always had lying around. This is partially because of where I live and partially because the tinkering spirit seems a bit moribund. Guys like Bre Pettis and Phil Torrone are doing amazing stuff to keep the dream alive and I hope that my son, too, will want to make a shoulder mounted rocket and won’t be turned over to Homeland Security on first launch.

My Dad’s illness has made me think a lot on what our parents gave us from the eras in which they lived. He, for example, gave me the idea that anything can be fixed given enough parts and a schematic. It’s this DIY spirit that’s driven me to program and putz around on the Internet and I hope against hope that I can instill the same spirit in my own kids. We’ll see.