Saturday, June 27, 2009

Storms and Rockets


We run our son's Cub Scout Pack's rocket launch every year (although next year will be our last, as our youngest isn't so very young anymore). This year the event was a bit less organized than we would have liked.

Normally, the night before launch is prep time. I get out the launchers and check everything with a voltmeter, recharge the marine battery I run everything from and do any other maintenance. My dear wife and I get the rocket engines and supplies, count out the appropriate number for each den, and bag them individually to save time the next morning.

This year, we didn't have the launcher control panel until the last minute. The son of the gentleman who was storing it had crossed over to Boy Scouts, so we weren't in contact with him, and by the time we got a hold of him it was last minute. To make things more hectic, my youngest had a friend of his staying with us for a few days, and had decided he would rather have his friend than finish building his rocket.

So a lot of things were left until "the night before". And what a night it was! I got home about 5:45 and the most incredible electrical storm began. The sky got black. The temperature dropped from about 80 to 65ish. We had a few minutes of violent rain and wind, followed by about 20 minutes of nearly continuous lightning and thunder. We stood on the deck and watched. I tried to show the kids how to count seconds to tell how far off the lightning is, but it was hopeless because there was so much lightning there was a continuous rumble and we had no idea what noise was associated with what bolt of lightning.

Of course the power went out immediately, and came back on, and off, and on...more than once a second. I raced to the basement and threw the master breaker for the house, with visions of fried computers. Since we are about the only family in the neighborhood that still has a "classic" telephone we elected ourselves to notify the electric company. Their system said it would call us back when the power went on (I'll save you the suspense - they never called).

So we sat in the deck and watched the display. It was like the grand finale at a fireworks show! The sky turned various colors, including blood red (which was very eerie). After about an hour the sky mostly cleared, but we still had lightning bolts going almost from horizon to horizon across the now clear sky.

By 9 PM the storm was over, but we could still see the sky and trees lighting like strobes in a disco (OK, I'm old). The lightning flashes went on until at least 11 PM. Well, here we are with a house full of kids sitting in the dark. No easy way to check out launch equipment or charge batteries.! Those of you who live in the city may not realize the enormity of being without power. Not only do we have no light or electronics, but we have no heat or air conditioning (not a big problem this time of year) and NO WATER. That means no cooking, cleaning, or FLUSHING.

So we went to bed, figuring the electric company would either call us when the power came on (I had to switch the breakers back on before we could enjoy electric power) or else we would have no power in the morning (in which case we really had to figure out how to run the launch).

Fortunately something woke me around 1 AM and I peeked out the window to see lights in the neighbor's window. I went downstairs and hastily set up the battery charger and did what I could in my sleep addled state to prepare for the morning.


Of course the next morning arrived early and beautiful; the proverbial calm after the storm. I drove the car to the local park to set up the rocket launcher, and was surprised to see cars in the parking lot. I figured they were probably leftovers from an early morning soccer game or something, and drove past them to the end of the field where we launch.

As I unloaded the car and began setting up, a park employee in a golf cart began driving towards me. "Checking permits" I thought to myself. As suspected, the gentleman, Sean, asked if I had a permit for the use of the field. I produced the paperwork.

"There's a problem," he told me. "They scheduled a soccer game on this field this morning at the same time. You'll have to move to the north end of the park." What else could I do? He invited me to hop on the golf cart, and showed me where we would be able to launch. a very long walk from another parking lot. He dropped me back at my car and drove off. Grrrr!

I drove my car past the "park vehicles only" sign and down the walking path to unload. That way it was only 50 mils to carry all the equipment instead of 100. Immediately golf carts converged on my from every direction (Sean went back to his end of the park) telling me I couldn't park there. I must have looked annoyed because they swiftly drove off after delivering their message.

Meanwhile, a cadre of scouts had assembled, (presumably directed there by Sean, since we hadn't had time to notify anyone of the location change). Several parent's pitched in and we got the launcher assembled.

My life from the next 2 hours consisted of placing rockets on launch pads, connecting wires, and doing countdowns. My mantra became "is the safety on?" The sun was hot, but the sky was blue for the first time in weeks, so I didn't mind (at first). Life was good as I watched the rockets, four at a time, soar into the sky and deploy parachutes and streamers.

We lost one nose cone, when a rocket separated from it's parachute and nose cone. No doubt it came to earth somewhere, but the last we saw it was hundreds of feet up and traveling south. Another rocket had a balance problem and embedded itself in the ground down range before deploying its chute on the ground. Other than that, we had well over a hundred successful launches.

Of course (it happens every year) someone showed up just as we were putting away the last of the gear. We hastily assembled a makeshift launcher, found a hand-held controller that still had life the batteries and pulled off 3 more launches.

Next year will be our last time running the launch, since our youngest will be crossing over to Boy Scouts. I'm gonna miss it, and I guess that's the whole reason for this post; to remember the fun.

[images by computerhotline and Sacha Grant]


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