How do I build a model rocket? (Intermediate)

I am 15 years old and saw people make a rocket on TV. I want to make one too. Can you please tell me if it is possible for me to make a rocket (given that I have limited resources), and if it is possible how I can build one?

DISCLAIMER: Model rockets can be dangerous! If you want to use model rockets, you do so at your own risk. The information on this page is provided in good faith, but without any warranty, express or implied. For more information on model rocket safety, please see this NASA page.

Additional disclaimer: This page was written by non-experts. Astronomers, in general, do not have special expertise on model rockets - those are not part of our work. Interested readers are strongly encouraged to seek additional information from more knowledgable sources.

Well, I don't know much about making rockets from scratch, but it's very easy to make a model rocket from a kit. The largest provider of model rocket kits is Estes. For more information on model rocketry as a hobby, you can look at the National Association of Rocketry (NAR). The Apogee Educator Page also has some links with interesting and helpful information about designing and building rockets (and ideas for teachers), although some of the instructions are based on products sold by Apogee, so you may want to consult more than just this source.

The rocket kits come in a variety of sizes and types, and they can often be relaunched if you replace the engine. They come with complete instructions, but you will have to buy a launch pad separately.

As for making rockets (not-from-a-kit), the kind I've seen before are bottle rockets, the type used in Science Olympiad. These rockets can be extremely dangerous, however. We recommend that you buy your rockets from an established model/kit company, and not attempt to build bottle rockets, which are unsafe and have less performance anyway.

Also, keep in mind that most places have limits on the height to which you can launch anything. So if you make a rocket that's too powerful (from a kit or from scratch) you might end up in a large amount of trouble. To launch anything that goes higher than small model rockets with approved engines, or smallish bottle rockets, you will need to get permission, and I'm not sure how to go about doing this or what the restrictions are. You'd have to ask around. Anyway, if you're still interested in bottle rockets, you might want to check out the following web sites:

I have to build a model rocket from scratch, with only an engine provided. I need to know the steps in order to build this, some ideas of what to use, how to use them, and the assembly. I have no idea what to do!

As I said above, I've never tried to build a rocket from scratch, but I did find some designs online when I searched. You'll definitely need to know how big in diameter the rocket engines that you will be using are though, because you'll need include an "engine block" in your rocket to prevent the engine from pushing up through the rocket. Also, the engine needs to fit in tightly so that it doesn't fall out as it's moving upwards. It would be best if you had a couple of used engines to use while making your model.

If you have never made a rocket before it might help to look at a simple rocket kit, just to see what all is involved. At least, I think that would help me! You might be able to locate an inexpensive one at a Hobby Store near you. You might also be able to find books about building model rockets at your local library. I know there are some available that have designs and suggestions for building with various materials, for example Model Rocket Design and Construction and 69 Simple Science Fair Projects with Model Rockets, both by van Milligan. I haven't read these books myself, so they may or may not be helpful, but I've found them suggested on a few websites.

As for designs, one very inexpensive one, the Paper Tiger, is located at the National Association of Rocketry teachers site. They also have instructions for an inexpensive launch pad. This site doesn't have detailed information, so you'll have to use some thinking to figure out how to go about building it.

A site with lots of information about the physics of rockets is this NASA website. It includes diagrams of model rockets and the forces that are acting on them at various times.

There are a few other sites I found that have plans for simple rockets using paper towel rolls, PVC pipe and the like, but I don't really want to endorse them here since most of them suggest unsafe things, like including fireworks in your rocket tube, or holding the engine to the inside of the tube with tape. They may have some useful suggestions though. Do a search for "Model Rocket plans" to find quite a few sites with plans, or diagrams of model rockets.

I can't really provide any more help than that since I've never built rockets from scratch before. If I were you I would spend some time looking at various rocket plans until I had an idea what typically goes into one, and then work out a design on paper. And finally, be very careful with rockets you design yourself! Always be sure to check that they are balanced and follow the NAR safety code when launching them.

I have read from NASA's website that you can make multistage model rockets. Is it possible that you could tell me some instruction on how to do so?

From things that I've read about model rockets, it looks like what happens in most cases is that two engines are placed next to each other, or attached with something, and then the hot gas from the upper explosive material in the first stage hits the bottom of the second stage engine and ignites it. When the second motor ignites, the first stage will be pushed off and fall to the ground. In this method you don't need any complex electronics inside the rocket to light the second stage, which makes it simpler.

There's a good web article at Apogee about how multi-stage rockets work, and there's a bibliography there with more information. Some of the sites listed at the end describe how to make a first stage that will tumble back to Earth. Another suggestion is to purchase one multi-stage kit rocket, just to see how that one works, and you might get some ideas for building your own. It might actually help to look for a couple books on model rockets at your local library too.

Page last updated on June 25, 2015.

About the Author

Lynn Carter

Lynn uses radar astronomy to study the planets, especially Venus. She got her PhD in Astronomy from Cornell in Summer 2004 and is now working at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. on the Mars Express radar.

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