Talk of the Town - Rocket man June 26 2003

Dad, we have a problem

"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.

-- Tom Lehrer

Combustible propulsion has never been easy. Pioneers in the field occasionally got blown up in said field. Later researchers were damned as amoral tinkerers in nuclear genocide.

The discipline itself enters popular lexicon as a synonym for complexity: "After all," we say of some dumbbell chore, "it's not rocket science!"

Now there is fear the government will crack down on a pastime long the domain of kids mocked as asocial doofi: model rocketry. The Feds wants to know who is buying rocket- making materials. Homeland Security regs require fingerprints, a background check and permit if you want to buy a rocket engine that, well, rocks.

This scrutiny has rocketeers hotter than a launching pad at T-minus zero. Adult proponents say the fuss will disenfranchise a generation of budding scientists: "Kids love things that make noise and go whoosh," said one. Trouble is, so do terrorists.

As a former model rocketeer/current nervous American, I have sundry feelings. Freedom is wonderful, but if a crackdown prevents al-Qaeda from lobbing WMD- garnished missiles into The Ted, sign me up.

And yet, as a seventh-grade nerd whose textbooks were marinated in l'eau de toilette by psychotic ninth grade bullies, one of my few avenues of escape involved model products from the Estes Rocket Co. of Estes Park, Colo.

Even the address provided a sense of power. By Jupiter missile, Estes owned that town! Kids in their catalogs were nerds of the first chop: crew cut, flood pants showing white socks and, in winter, hats with earflaps. They made me look like Cary Grant.

Being one of the few humans ever endowed with two left hands, I was a disaster at model building. Not the pastime for a kid whose role model was Don Knotts as "The Shakiest Gun in the West."

But model rockets? Simple. Plug the nosecone into the payload compartment, add engine tube and fins, attach to wires from a dry call battery, and you were ready to blast off.

True, there had been missteps. Like the time a model Minuteman missile smoked, guttered and toppled over on our driveway, veering off to graze the pristine Buick Skylark that was the pride of Old Man Flood, crankiest human being since Ivan the Terrible.

Then my father got involved — about the time he paid Mr. Flood $95 cash to avoid an insurance claim. My missiles had been no-frills. But Dad got us into two-tone Day-Glo spray-paint jobs with decals neatly applied.

By the time America put a man on the Moon and returned him safely to earth, we were ready to launch the Estes Saturn V, a three-engine behemoth and star of the company's 1970-'71 catalogue. Several bugs and worms from our bug-and-worm-ridden vegetable garden would serve as crew.

But just like the real space program, we had problems. Spring monsoons caused the launch to be scrubbed. Pop went on a business trip, lengthening the delay.

Then the weather broke, Dad still wasn't back. What if I went ahead and ... .

I can recall the exact moment when I knew the Saturn V wasn't returning safely to earth — at least on the same continent. It wasn't with my dawning awareness of the still-powerful wind. It wasn't when the recovery parachute got caught in an updraft so powerful that the skybox bug condo lofted even higher than its rocket-propelled apogee.

No, realization hit home the same time as Pop, who pulled in the driveway at the conclusion of a weeklong insurance seminar in Columbus, Ohio. If that wasn't enough of a soul-killing event, what little surviving spirit died in his eyes as the Saturn V sailed toward Cuba.

Fixing me with a look first patented by the long-suffering Oliver Hardy, Dad withdrew from the scene — and our weekend space program. A week later, I started collecting rocks.

Ever since I've had what Brazilians call saudade — a sentimental longing — for model rocketry. Bring me your goofy, your tempest-tossed geeks, yearning to break free of an Earth that worships 20-20 vision and clear skin.

Because nerds never get respect. Even the most famous one of all: Wehrner von Braun. The man who personified the genius of America's space initiative, he was dogged by one resume item:

1939-'45 — The Third Reich

Technical director of Nazi Germany's rocket program. Used slave labor to build V-1 and

V-2 missiles that rained indiscriminate death on the civilian population of England.

Even when von Braun came to the U.S, people still held the past against him. When his life story came out in the biopic, I Aim for the Stars, some Hollywood wise guy suggested a subtitle: "But Sometimes I Hit London."

I sympathize. It could just as easily have been Mr. Flood's Buick.


Glen Slattery is smoking and guttering in Alpharetta.