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In speaking with aerospace engineers about the roots of their love for launch, many mentioned an early inspirational “toy”: the model rocket.

Cover of the 1966 Estes Catalog

Estes Industries, established in 1958 by Vernon Estes, has manufactured a variety of model kits. Now the Estes-Cox Corp., the company presently offers more than 300 rocket-specific products.

Michael Fritz, director of product development for the Estes-Cox Corp., spoke with Tech Briefs about why, more than 50 years since the company’s founding, he thinks we still can’t resist launching an object to the sky.

Tech Briefs: What was Estes like in its early days?

Michael Fritz: In the early ‘60s, Estes was really a mail-order company. Kids would see postings of model rocket ads in different magazines and contact us through the order form.

The late ‘50s and early ‘60s were the beginning of the space race, when Sputnik launched and captured the attention of the world; that’s when budding rocketeers of any kind got the urge to launch their own small versions of these things.

Tech Briefs: When did the popularity of model rocketry begin to grow?

Fritz: Estes set up distribution through various hobby retail distributors. Once the rocket got to a model hobby shop, where you had airplanes and plastic models and trains, you had a new addition where it didn’t take the skill that flying a model airplane did; yet, you could enjoy some kind of flight activity that required assembly and finishing skills.

And you got to launch this thing 200 to 2,000 feet in the air!

That was pretty attractive to the average consumer going into a retail hobby shop. I think that was the really big driver for the activity.

Tech Briefs: How are sales today?

Cover of the 1977 Estes Catalog

Fritz: Probably our current best growth market is in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)-related education. Estes has been involved in the school systems; about 30,000 teachers across the U.S. are using our product in a classroom setting, for either STEM curricula or just education of science and math in general. We talked to numerous people, with kids of their own, who were first introduced to model rocketry in the classroom setting.

Tech Briefs: Do you hear from a lot of engineers who used the model rockets as children?

Fritz: I probably receive half a dozen phone calls per week, usually with questions from people who used model rockets when they were younger. Many recall those days, and now they’re coming back as what we call a “born-again rocketeer,” or BAR for short, and they’re introducing their kids to the fun. It’s a very hands-on, family-oriented activity.

Tech Briefs: What kinds of questions are you getting from these “born-again rocketeers?”

Fritz: Usually, the questions range from “If this is the model I had when I was a kid, is it still available?” to “My part is broken. Can I get it fixed?”

Many of the engineers that we come in contact with, who are in the space industry, have passed through model rocketry. They all have interesting stories of how they experimented with model rocketry when they were kids. Many of those activities we couldn’t condone these days!

Tech Briefs: Have you heard from others who have said that model rocketry specifically led them to a career in engineering?

Cover of the 1998 Estes Catalog

Fritz: On occasion, we have contact with people who say, “I did model rocketry as a kid, and that’s what led me down the path to become an aerospace engineer, or some type of aeronautical engineer.”

Many times, the exposure also led to an interest into just science in general, which led them into teaching or some other discipline.

There’s a long history. It’s ongoing. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA), 4-H, and the Y program have all contributed to the growth of model rocketry. It’s rewarding to think that you can have such an influence on youth.

Tech Briefs: What do you think is special about the model rocket, particularly in its ability to inspire soon-to-be engineers and rocket scientists?

Fritz: There is something exciting and fascinating about pushing an object vertically toward the sky — the ability to ignite a model rocket and launch it to 1000 feet, 2000 feet, and then recover it.

Within model rocketry, there’s an attractiveness in multiple categories. Sometimes it’s the math, sometimes it’s the science, sometimes it’s the interest of seeing how things work, the physics, that can lead people down a path to an educational discipline that perhaps they had not considered.

Did you grow up with model rockets? Have you given one to a budding engineer? Share your stories below.

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