Daniel and I had the week off. It was spring break for him, a “stay-cation” for me. We went to one of our favorite haunts the first evening we had off, the Chinese restaurant at the edge of Belvidere. I asked him what he wanted to do. He came up with the following:
1) Eat at the Sonic Drive-In.
2) Take the Metra train to Chicago.
3) Launch the rocket that was out in the garage.
I built model rockets when I was Daniel’s age. I even launched a few (rocket motors being more expensive than the rockets that surrounded them). I had a Mosquito, a Wizard and a Star Streaker to name a few. However, the one I wanted more than anything else was the Astrocam. It had an Instamatic camera built into the nosecone and could be set to take a picture while the rocket was in the air. My friend Greg had one. I remember he had a couple of dim prints looking down at the farm field we used as a launch site.
Years later, I was on my lunch break at work. I had to stop in Wal Mart for something and noticed a complete Astrocam rocket kit by the check out lines. I don’t make many impulse buys, but my co-worker noticed the nosecone sticking out of the plastic bag as I put it in the trunk.
“What are you going to do with that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’ll save it for my kids.”
So, here we were, thirteen years later. I blew the dust off the box and was happy to see it was in perfect condition. I had never even taken the plastic wrap off. We set up the launch pad, put batteries in the launch controller and put an engine in the Astrocam. There’s a big field not too far from where we live. We drove out there and planned to set it off.
Unfortunately, thirteen years in the garage had taken its toll on the glue holding the rocket together. The launch lug – the piece that holds the rocket on the launch pad – fell off as we tried to set it up. Later, we noticed the engine mount was loose. If we had launched, the engine would have flown off without the Astrocam. We took it home and put it back in the garage. Daniel was disappointed, but we took a trip to the hobby store in Rockford (after lunch at Sonic) and bought some new model rockets. By the fall, we were launching rockets every other day. By the winter, we started building rockets from kits. In February, I finally felt we might be able to repair the Astrocam. It took us the better part of a day to finish up, but we were ready to go in March.
Things have changed since we first planned to launch Astrocam. Daniel and I have more than a hundred launches under our collective belts. Our launch controller doesn’t rely on feeble AA batteries. We have one that plugs directly into a car battery. We don’t have misfires anymore. Multiple cameras cover the launch pad, including a high-speed camcorder aimed at the engine to catch the first flames at ignition. Daniel and I both were able to follow the rocket in flight. Once it landed safely, we stayed in contact via a pair of walkie-talkies. The flight itself was a complete success except for one thing. The Astrocam didn’t take any pictures in the air as they stopped making 110 film back in 2003.