For many decades, boys occupied themselves building model airplanes.
Starting in the 1960s, the more forward-thinking could turn to model rockets, a hobby which seemed exactly in tune with the Space Age.
The premier model rocket company was Estes, founded by the son of a fireworks manufacturer. Estes rockets were, in fact, glorified fireworks cloaked in scientific jargon and romance. They were aspirational totems for serious-minded 12-year-old boys who were not yet into girls and other hobbies.
Kids met at model rocket clubs in high school football fields, having first spent hours cutting, gluing, painting and applying decals, to launch their latest creations in flights that were literally over in less than a minute. (Unless the rocket went higher than expected and was lost to sight…forever.)
With model rockets you could feel you were a step away from being a NASA Astronaut. Even Estes’ Model Rocketry Code, which did make you sound like a boy scout, still impressed upon the the reader the seriousness of his endeavors.
The prices in this 1972 catalog now seem extraordinarily low – rockets as cheap as 60 cents, complete launch kits for under $9. But it was a razor-and-blades situation: the rockets were cheap, but the single-use gunpowder-driven engines were a constant drain on the allowance.
Only a few well-heeled or financially-supported kids could afford Estes’ ne plus ultra model, the Cineroc, which packed an actual 8mm movie camera into a rocket nosecone. $22 – plus more for film and processing — seemed an astronomical sum, if you’ll pardon the pun. But this primitive predecessor to drone photography was heavenly, and remembered fondly by a lucky few decades later. (This Youtube video captures the era nicely.) The rest of us made do with humbler pursuits such as launching small frogs and evaluating their health upon their return to earth 30 seconds later.
The Estes company is still around, still launching rockets and budding scientific careers. Even more amazing, founder Vern Estes is still with us, and just turned 90 years old. Which also is pretty out of this world.