Monday, 26 July 2004 09:41

Rocket Camp Review Featured

I attended Junior Rocket camp in Casper, Wyoming, July 23 and 24, 2004.  The camp was taught by John Wickman at his company, Wickman Space Craft and Propulsion Company (  This is the first in a series of classes that John teaches for students interested in designing and building rockets and rocket motors. 

The class is intended for people ages 9 to 10 who want a hands-on experience building a model rocket from scratch.  The class comes with a hefty dose of smoke, fire, and loud noise.  The class provides 2 full days of instruction.  The fee for the class was $95.00.  The more advanced classes may be longer in duration and cover more advanced subject matter, including mid or high power rocket motor construction, dual deployment recovery systems and construction of large rockets.

{akreserv,Range Duty}

Day 1 ? We met John and my fellow student, Dallen from Logan, Utah at 9:00 a.m.  There were only two of us registered for the class.  John?s facility is located in a warehouse-like building at the Natrona County airport, in Casper.  The large building looks like it used to be used for vehicle repair and is packed with all sorts of cool stuff ? rocket projects in the making, destroyed rockets, tools, etc.  We started off learning about how a solid-fuel rocket motor works.  We examined the insides of many spent motors that John had cut open, and then we started work on our own motors.  John made sure to demonstrate to us several times how the propellant burns.  With John?s help, we used the band saw to cut 1-inch PVC pipe.  We used water putty to construct a nozzle in a PVC fitting.  We baked the nozzles most of the day in an oven.  While the motor nozzles were baking, we started to work on our model rockets.  These were made from some kit-bashed parts, and we designed our own fins.  We cut the fins from plastic on the band saw and filed the edges smooth.  We used epoxy and super glue to put them together.  The last thing we did in the afternoon was to paint our rockets any color we wanted.  We also had to finish our motors.  John had some home-made composite-propellant grains ready to go and we fitted them into our motor casing.  We first drilled holes in them to match the hole we drilled in our nozzles.  The shavings from the propellant burned nicely in a coffee can outside.  In the end, we each had a nice big motor ? about a G size.  John also showed us how to make igniters from long pieces of wire, soldered with nichrome wire.  This we dipped in the pyrogen that he mixed from smokeless powder and magnesium.  John was careful to show us how burning pyrogen differs from burning composite propellant.  Not that we were interested in seeing stuff burn or anything.  Now we knew how igniters worked and that the igniter had to reach all the way to the front of the motor.

Day 2 ? We met in the morning and took our rockets out to the field next to the building.  John has an unusual arrangement ? he has integrated model rocketry into the air traffic control pattern at the airport.  We were launching rockets only a few hundred feet from the airport runways.  We set up our rockets on Estes-type launch pads.  We were using C6-5 motors.  After talking to the control tower on the radio before each launch, john got permission to launch, and both rockets flew very nicely and recovery was perfect, except for a snapped fin on my rocket.  My fin design included a very pointy swept-back design, so it was not surprising that one fin might break on landing.  Dallen did one more nice launch of an Estes Cosmic Cobra, and then we went back to the building to test fire our big motors.  John then helped us mount our motors in the test stand.  This is a big metal container that you can walk around inside and where John can hook up all sorts of motors for testing and he can make a variety of measurements in order to characterize the motor.  John showed us the control center for testing and all of the safety measures that he has in place to make sure that everything goes well.  Dallen?s motor went first.  It made an incredible noise, smoke and flame.  The igniter worked perfectly.  My igniter failed twice, and so John made a new one by wiring some cannon fuse into the end of the igniter.  This worked like a charm and my motor roared to life.  We had some pizza and then cleaned up and camp was over.

Summary ? John runs a series of camps (classes) for students who want to make their own rockets and motors.  Part of the motivation in doing so is to reduce the cost of big motors, and to learn how to make better motors that better suit one?s needs.  There are no ?commercially available? rockets flying in John?s classes.  Students learn to use power tools such as drill press, band saw, lathe (not in junior camp).  This is the true hands-on experience.  The Junior rocket camp teaches students right from the start that they will not rely on someone else?s design to make their rocket fly ? they will do it themselves.  John is a patient instructor who encourages creativity.  He does not do all the hard stuff for the student, he expects them to figure out how to do things on their own.  I thought it was a great class.  I can?t wait to go back and learn more about mixing propellants, and designing and building bigger motors. 

If you go ? There is plenty to do in Casper.  Other family members have several museums and a planetarium to choose from if the weather precludes outdoor activities.  There is also a whitewater kayak course on the river, there is a bike path along the river, and a variety of outdoor activities nearby.  On the way back to Salt Lake we spent the night in Lander, then went to Sinks Canyon State Park and South Pass City for some hiking and exploring.  There is no shortage of places to go and things to do in Wyoming.

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