Rocket Man

Late Friday afternoon, I strapped a keychain camera to an Estes model rocket and sent the mother up:

Not bad.

Incidentally, I used some music from Gustav Holst’s The Planets as a nod to a great sequence from The Right Stuff, the part where John Glenn is lifting off on his orbital flight. They used footage of a camera aimed down the fuselage of a rocket, just like mine was, switching from “Mars” to “Jupiter” at that point. I’ve loved that clip since I first saw it 30 years ago:

Anyway, here are the specs for my flight:

Rocket

  • Estes Riptide model
  • Price: $29. Includes launch pad and launcher. Battery and engines not included.
  • B 6-4 engine (Pack of three, $10-ish)

Camera

  • Agent Spy 007 Sniper Mini Spy Camera
  • Price: $25
  • 8 GB memory card
  • HD Video High Resolution (yeah, no—cpb)
  • PC and Mac compatible (yes, probably on the PC part; “quirky” on a Mac—cpb)

My results:

Not a bad way to videotape a rocket launch. I tried the old Estes photo rockets long ago, two, in fact, and never got a single useable frame out of either. Twenty years later, yet another miracle of the age: $25 will get you a lightweight, almost indestructible video camera. Frankly, i’m surprised that the whole thing worked as well as it did. I’m surprised not just because the camera worked in this rather unintended use **, but also because I attached the damn thing to the side of the rocket with masking tape. I didn’t affect the flight in any way that I could see.

The video quality was less than ideal. But given that the thing weighs about three ounces (and that’s the shipping weight, including the box and the cable). I wasn’t expecting GoPro quality. You could use the head of a pin as the lens cap.

That doesn’t mean I was 100 percent satisfied with the experience. The two-button setup, plus one tiny LED light, made it tough to know what the thing was doing. It took about twenty tries to figure out that steady light, followed by blinking, followed by the light going out meant that it was recording. (Then you have to follow that up with two quick button presses to end the session. Not easy to do with a device taped to a smoking piece of rocket.)

Even before that, though, getting the thing to record—and knowing that it was on at all—took a lot of practice. It’s a little inconsistent, and mine didn’t work the way I’d seen in the instructions or on several YouTube clips. Two flights before this one, the thing apparently didn’t record at all, which was really disappointing. I was on my last B engine when I got everything squared away.

Also, the interface with a Mac takes some getting used to. Sometimes the Photos app recognizes it when you plug it in and immediately converts the videos to something usable. Most times, though, you need to use a third party website to convert the .avi format to Quicktime.

I might fly again later using the three C engines I bought originally before chickening out and going with the B’s. C’s would give me a longer ascent and a better view of Gorham and its surroundings. As I wrote in the video, though, altitude = risk. One, I’m a stone’s throw from Mt. Washington. The winds here are as constant as they are unpredictable. Higher flight means longer descent under a parachute which could mean my rocket landing somewhere in Maine. And two, I just don’t have a large enough launching space here in Gorham. My school’s playground is about as big as it gets, and it really needs another three hundred feet or so on either end to be a good idea.

Oh, and the flying part: The Riptide is the perfect base rocket for something like this. You don’t need anything fancy to make a rocket video. The Riptide was essentially a three-piece deal. No gluing of fins, no cosmetic parts interfere with the camera. Plug and play.

Final verdict: I’d recommend this set-up. If you’re already into rockets and you haven’t videotaped yet, do it. Model rocketry is interesting the first few times you do it, but you get diminishing returns after a while. You can only be entertained by a whoosh and a flash of smoke two or three times before it all gets a little repetitive. I’m still dubious about the benefits even to education, other than as a “motivating” feature.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a great way to liven up your next launch, give this a go. Cheap thrills.


** I don’t want to know what most people use miniature keychain cameras for.

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