Some years ago I wrote a film script that follows the shenanigans of a gang of men who steal an Apollo spacecraft from a display in a Vegas casino in broad daylight. Here’s a memory from my boyhood that says something about a guy who would write such a story three decades later.
As thirteen-years old Houstonians, my next door neighbor Ned and I built a piloted rocket ship. I use the word piloted loosely. Our astronaut had no control over his spacecraft, but then neither did Yuri Gagarin, who earlier that year became the first man to orbit Earth. Not being funded by a national space budget, we constructed our capsule from a shoe polishing kit and a three-foot mailing tube we filled with homemade gunpowder.
Yes, homemade gunpowder.
We tried using commercial launch vehicles. The Space X craft of its day was the Estes Astron Scout, a slim three-finned dandy that weighed in at a third of an ounce. Clearly one rocket was not enough to lift a piloted payload, so we tried taping several rockets together. We set the result on our launch pad (a 2×6 hemlock board with a 1/8″ rod drilled into it). We ignited it using the wire-and-battery-powered version of the plunger that we’d seen in the cowboy movies. The motors did indeed fire, but asynchronously. The instant our rocket left the rod, it swerved, looped and crashed like the ones we’d seen in the early Air Force films.
I recall, perhaps mistakenly, feeling pleased at our first failure. There was fun to be had in model rocketry, but not a lot of glory.
Back to the gunpowder.
Why we chose a material that was known more as an explosive than a propellant, I’m not sure. But I can only guess that we weren’t the first or the last. Sensibly, thirteen-year-olds were and are unable buy to buy the stuff. We made ours from materials that I won’t mention in this article out of respect for my granddaughters who might have no more sense than Ned and me. Most of the materials were readily obtained, except for saltpetre. Who would have such stuff, we wondered? Quite sensibly it wasn’t listed in on my chemistry kit order form. We were very nearly stymied, until I thought of our friendly druggist who my father always addressed him as “Doctor,” which gives you a window into my father’s sense of humor. (More about that in future articles.) Standing on tiptoes before his high counter, we asked him if he carried the stuff. He gave us a mild stink-eye and told us to come back next week. When we did return, he supplied us at no charge with a bottle of white powder bearing a label upon which he had typed “Saltpetre.”
We made the gunpowder in my brother Grainer’s mews, an outbuilding he had constructed in a corner of our forested lot. A future biologist, he had previously kept hawks and poisonous snakes there, which gives you another window into my parents’ habits. With Grainger off at college, the mews was empty. Why we didn’t blow ourselves up grinding the ingredients and packing them into the tube can only be attributed to our poor technique, the high humidity of Houston and perhaps the authenticity of the pharmaceutical component. (I suspect the druggist, and perhaps my father, were onto us.)
After inserting an Estes rocket motor into a cavity in the black powder at the base and attaching balsa fins to the booster, we moved on to the second, piloted stage of our spaceship. Having seen films of multi-stage rockets, we understood the need for a second rocket motor to propel the capsule stage upward as the first stage tumbled back to Earth. For this function, the Scout’s motor was ideal. We packed one inside the upper reaches of the gunpowder which would ignite it thermally. In the cavity above the propellants, would go the shoe shine kit-space capsule.
In assembling the image at the top of this article, I used a photo of the clear Kiwi brand version to show you what, more or less, was inside. We actually used the Johnson’s metal version shown below. (Such a kit was quite useful in ordinary life, by the way, as the luster of one’s shoes was broadly commented on.) The base was a can of paste wax. Snapped onto this was the brown and tan cylindrical metal cap. Inside that sat a gray metal cylinder open at the top. Glued to the bottom of the inside cylinder was a foam applicator. Inside this cylinder itself was a soft polishing cloth.
Ned and I considered our design superior to both the Soviet and American spacecraft, though admittedly ours lacked windows. Our competitors’ had single-wall construction, whereas we had double walls for complete hull integrity. And neither had an equivalent amount of foam to absorb the force of acceleration pressure of gravity (E=mc2). Though they used a deeper layer of foam, their astronauts weighed hundreds of times more than ours. As to stabilizing the capsule in flight, we had no gyroscope to control capsule spin as the American’s did. The stability of the Russian’s vehicle depended on the cosmonaut shifting heavy equipment around the spherical ship. This method seemed somewhat ridiculous and far beyond the capabilities of even the most able of our candidate.
As to our pilot, clearly cabin volume was a key factor in our choice. We considered a member of the readily available species of cockroaches, but they were far too quick, willful and hideous to wrangle into the launch vehicle. And frankly, the East Texas variety was simply too long. We needed a tough-skinned, stout and somewhat circular vertebrate with a high degree of insouciance.
A toad was collected.
The day came. The launch site was chosen: an empty ball field amid the piney woods of Memorial Park not far from home. Visibility was 100%. The temperature and humidity were over ninety. We almost certainly wore white (pre-logo) t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. We set the pad down on the infield, taped a line of straws along the main booster and slid the rod through the straws. We gave our frog a thumb stroke, wished him well and sealed him inside. We then taped a homemade parachute securely to the capsule lid and eased the vehicle into the cavity atop the gunpowder and rocket motor. Finally we slid a carved, fitted balsa nose cone into the top crowning the assembly.
After attaching the wires to the motor embedded at the base of the rocket, we unreeled the coil until we were fifty feet away from the pad. We crouched and prepared ourselves for the rumble and roar we had heard from televised launches.
Ned touched the wires to the battery.
The Estes motor did fire, but the tiny engine failed to heave the husky rocket off the pad. The gunpowder, as it were, simply burned. Ned and I discussed a rescue, but having scorched our fingers many times on little firecrackers, the idea of removing the capsule from a three-pound column gunpowder seemed sadly unwarranted. But as the flames neared our astronaut, there came a pop from the upper rocket motor, which sent the nose cone and the capsule flying. Both landed ingloriously on a bare patch not far from second base.
Over the years, Ego has provided me with two scenarios: One in which we discovered the toad dead and buried him with honors. In the other we released the animal happily into the wild. Both seem equally murky. If I can find Ned, I’ll ask him what he remembers.
More later on the film script and the resultant Hollywood Story that ensued.
Here is an early, sketch of the rocket using liquid propellant. Note the use of “alumin” and the lack of concern about grinding “aspestos.” The capsule was a safety improvement over the cotton and the asbestos. It insured that our frogronaut would be baked and not fried.