Model Rockets are essentially cardboard tubes stylized after the larger, space-faring rockets. You can either build your own or purchase fairly inexpensive model building kits, such as the ALPHA III.

The model has several basic parts: the body is a cylinder usually made of cardboard or plastic. At the base it has fins (usually three, pointing out at even intervals from the body), and it has a nosecone (usually styrofoam or plastic) at the other (top) end. There is also a device to attach it to the launch rod, like a piece of drinking straw or some fancy plastic loops, on the outside.

Inside the body is a parachute, a space for the rocket engine, and some kind of buffer between them.

To launch the rocket, you take the launch pad (basicaly a stand of some kind with a metal blast plate at the base and a guidance rod sticking upward), and insert a rocket engine into the tail of your model rocket. You insert an ignition wire into the rocket engine, and slide the rocket down the guidance rod. Then you stand back, and press a button that completes a circuit with the ignition wire. It rapidly heats up and ignites the solid fuel in your rocket, hurling it skyward.

Once the fuel is expended, a small blast in the top of the engine explodes, forcing the nosecone off and the parachute out. The parachute then expands and brings your rocket slowly back to earth.

In theory, this all works very well. However, a lot of things can go wrong. Ignition wires frequently don't work properly, but this is a fairly minor concern. More often you have problems like the parachute ripping off, your rocket being carried thousands of feet away by high altitude winds, slight imperfections in the tail fins causing it to take a sharply curving trajectory and smash into the ground, the parachute not deploying, the whole rocket blowing up because the parachute deployment blast went wrong somehow, etc., etc.

That's the whole fun of them, though.

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