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:


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


  • 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.


Speech for Veterans Day Assembly (Nov. 10, 2014)

Students, my fellow staff members, parents, and of course our special guests, our veterans. Thank you for being here today for our Veterans Day assembly. This one’s going to be a little different, judging by last year’s program, but I think we did a pretty good job of putting this together. Thank you to our teachers, and to the students and my new friends in the community who have helped us along the way. And of course, thank you to our veterans for their sacrifices, big and small, that they have made in our name.

I also have to say that one of the many things I love about my new home is the strong but quiet patriotism I have seen since I arrived in July. Every New England town that I visited on the way in, I saw American flags hanging from most homes and businesses. I wasn’t expecting this. Back where I’m from, people sometimes fall into two categories: reflexive, self-hating anti-Americanism—or if they are patriotic, it’s chest-thumping, fear-mongering, and a little scary. Not much in the middle. Here, regardless of our politics, the patriotism is everywhere, and it’s confident. It’s quiet. New England is where this country began, New England is proud to be American, and New England has nothing to prove. That character is reflected in the men I’ve met so far: Gilles Laravee, Larry Robarge, and Bill Adams among them.

So honored veterans, if you’ll permit me, the rest of my message today is to our students. Students, you have two jobs.

The first one is easy. If you’re out and about tomorrow on Veterans Day—or any other day—if you see one of these nice men and women and you know they served, and they’re wearing their cool veterans stuff, not busy doing something important, simply walk up and say, “Thank you for serving.” It’s important that they know you appreciate what they’ve done.

The second job I have for you takes a bit more effort. Starting now, I’d like each of you to think about social studies—also known as history, politics, geography, government, that stuff—here at the Ed Fenn, and later in the middle and high school, and in college. Don’t just take these classes because adults make you take them. Pay attention. Learn something. And then, read up on them on your own. History and geography and so on are important things. In the context of today’s assembly, they are the most important.

We are surrounded by our special guests, the veterans. And our veterans, whether they wanted to or not, lived social studies. And yet, for every standardized test we make you take for reading, math, and even science, we do not test for social studies. In fact, American principals and teachers don’t discuss them in any kind of systematic way, the way they talk about reading, math, or even science. We need to know about how we interact with our friends and enemies around the world. When we have used our military correctly, it’s because we were smart. We knew where the fight was and what it was really about.

When we have made mistakes in going to war—and we have made mistakes, like any country–it was because we did not understand other cultures. We didn’t know the land, the people, or why they were fighting us in the first place. We didn’t appreciate the history of where the fight took us. For example, we have been at war now for 13 years, in Iraq and Afghanistan, two far away countries. And yet by 2006, five years after we went to war, sixty three percent of American adults could not find Iraq on a map of Asia, or could tell you that it’s even in Asia. Nine out of ten could not locate Afghanistan.

That survey was given eight years ago, but I would bet that the results today would be largely the same. And if you can’t do that simple thing, locate a country on a map where are men and women are dying, possibly as I’m speaking today, you probably cannot understand the ancient, complex cultures in those places. Far more important than any map is the human story of the world, which you have to learn, so that maybe one day we’ll stop fighting wars at all. And that starts here. With you. So learn about your history, the globe, and other people around the world. Don’t wait for there to be another war to learn these important lessons. And I hope our veterans would agree with me.

That’s all I have to say about that. For now.

Now, let’s start our program. …