This past Memorial Day weekend Alice & I took some tiny rockets to one of the East Coast’s largest amateur launch ranges, the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, NY (very near Rochester), for the annual NYPOWER event hosted by the Monroe Astronautical Rocket Society (MARS) and the Syracuse Rocket Club (SRC).

This was my first trip to a MARS launch at Geneseo and it did not disappoint. That’s an amazing site to launch rockets, and a really nice group of people. Alice and I managed to spend some time here and there hanging out with the organizers and she got more out of it than just Memorial Day cupcakes—though those were indeed a true highlight for her! We showed up late, but she really enjoyed the Sunday night campfire. I was particularly moved by how excited and engaged she was when everyone spent a few minutes pointing out and watching the ISS traverse the night sky overhead.

The ceiling for the event was 8000ft, and you had to go through extra review if you expected to go over 6k. The clubs running these high power launches get waivers from the FAA for given altitudes and time periods, and sometimes have to call in particular launches. The recovery area at this launch site is absurdly generous, like a square mile of primary and then a lot of surrounding open space as well.

A standout for the weekend, in multiple ways, was the giant rocket above from the Spring Grove High School club. Unfortunately its motor fractured and the 17ft long, 12in diameter, ~76lb aircraft broke up wildly not far above the launch pad, burning out of both ends and spinning around with parts ripping off. Alice’s chosen metaphor that she told everyone excitedly was that it “SNAPPED LIKE A FLYING GRAHAM CRACKER!!”

The huge silver retro-scifi moon lander below was beautiful though, at rest and in the air. Big enough for Alice to walk under the legs without ducking, it flew just high enough to be well up there but totally visible, and then floated back down on multiple parachutes for a very stately, graceful flight. For both its launches I saw this weekend it nearly landed on its legs, juuust tipping over at the last second. At one point it was set up on display with an American flag waving in the background and even 7 year old Alice realized and remarked on how evocative it was of scenes from the moon landings.

The vendor row for the event was packed: Us (low power kits, parts, motors); Ken / Performance Hobbies (high power kits, parts, motors); Ray / FlisKits (lots of unique kits, we stock a bunch); Rick / Wildman CT (high power motors). As always I had a fun and informative time hanging out with Ken, interesting discussions with Rick, and it was nice to meet Ray in person. Alice thought Ken in particular was a hoot. From a retail perspective the crowd here had the most interest I’ve seen so far in basic parts, including one youngish guy who over the course of the weekend bought & assembled all the parts and supplies for a new ad hoc scratchbuilt BT60 mid-power rocket!

We stayed in a tiny cabin in one of Lechtworth State Park’s campground areas. This worked well, and it seems like a great park. At about a month out though I had reserved one of the last remaining spots for Memorial Day weekend without realizing it was on the southern end of the park, about twice as far away from Geneseo as the northern camp loop I had been researching! Fortunately it was a really pleasant and still very reasonable ~25 minute drive to & from the airfield. In any event, Alice sternly refused to even consider taking a shower despite the facilities being available…

In an effort to keep Alice—just short of 8 years old—engaged with rocketry overall and to sell her on this trip specifically, I had planted the idea of hosting an activity table for kids. She immediately latched onto this and began making lists & plans of what we could do and what we’d need. In the end we brought some kits for kids to assemble, complementing the fly-it/take-it tent run by SRC, and a lot of stuff with which to decorate rockets: Stickers, markers, and lots of tapes—color masking tape, washi tape, and variously colored flagging tape for streamers. Also on hand were space and rocket themed coloring books, reading books, and a couple games. Put it all under a shade tent with a couple kid-sized folding tables and chairs, and you’ve got a party!

There weren’t a ton of kids around for the launch, and it can be hard to get little kids to socialize outside of well understood scenarios like playgrounds. But we had a lot of fun, built a handful of rockets, and decorated a bunch more with a small but steady succession of new friends. Notably, Alice enjoys being at launches, but she’s usually pretty blasé about actually launching rockets herself. She likes running around outside, being goofy with the people we know, going on expeditions to recover wayward rockets, etc.. But here she was motivated and eager to launch a bunch, especially late one day as the pads emptied out to do a 3-way launch of her rockets… and then spend a long time walking patterns looking for the third one (somebody else eventually found it nestled in the grass right next to a mid power pad). It’s been said often, but moral of the story is once again that the best way to engage kids is to engage kids, plural.

Although facilitating easy on-site construction has been a big focus of mine, increasingly I also wouldn’t worry about kids building their own rockets. I believe the Syracuse club also hold to that philosophy in their frequent kids events—they’re quite specifically fly-it/take-its, not make-it/take-its. If the kids are into building that’s great, but otherwise they’ll come to it if you get them hooked. Put a rocket in their hands, let ’em fly it, and they’ll adopt it and love it just as much as if they built it. Enable them to decorate it and they’re making their own thing and being creative and you’ve got an easy stepping stone toward building. Again, not a new insight. Lots of clubs have “rocket buckets” and so on for kids, and the hobby thrives on devotees giving rockets to newcomers to go launch. But for me personally it’s somewhat of a shift I’m making.

Lastly, get a cheap pair of walkie-talkies. Those are always fun no matter what, but also give cautious kids a way to wander a bit on their own without getting too nervous about being away from you, e.g., to go watch launches, look for kids, or wait in line at the food truck and then call over dad & his wallet to order…

Highlights in Alice’s reports to everybody at home:

  • Saturday’s night launch, which was short but sweet and involved being out launching rockets until way past bedtime;
  • The cupcake flag at the organizers’ cookout Sunday night, with inch thick icing;
  • The giant rocket that BLEW UP just off the pad (the ~16ft brown one in photos here disassembled itself maybe 75ft in the air);
  • That Erik Hansen from PARA gave her glowsticks after his dad Jim said Erik is too old for them, which she found to be riotous.

Long story short, NYPOWER was a great weekend for us as a holiday trip as well as a fun launch. Alice has been talking about rockets unprompted all week since. Pretty good return for a small investment in a box or two of stickers, tape, and markers.

That’s Jimmy, who Alice found on the prize table at her school’s spring fair a couple weeks ago. We are currently in the requirements gathering phase of building a rocket for Jimmy. The list so far: #1 is that Jimmy be totally isolated from the ejection charge. #2 is that we must get Jimmy back!!!