07/12/2019

The (Model) Rockets’ Red Glare

6:14 minutes

five kids in hard hats and safety vests stand in a grassy field with a row of model rockets
Kids stage a dry run for Tuesday’s rocket launch in Huntsville, Alabama. Credit: Charles Bergquist

Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. But before astronauts could take that one small step on the moon, they had to take off from Earth. On Tuesday, July 16, in commemoration of the 9:32 am launch of the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew, model rocketeers from around the world will conduct a global launch event—by firing off thousands of rockets planet-wide. They hope that the launch will nab a Guiness Book of World Records entry for the largest number of simultaneous model rocket launches.

And you can take part, too. Dr. Deborah Barnhart, director of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, joins Ira to discuss the upcoming celebration of rocketry and how listeners can get involved. Below, you can watch Science Friday’s director Charles Bergquist try his hand at launching a model rocket at a dry run for Tuesday’s launch when Science Friday visited Huntsville, Alabama last May.

Credit: Johanna Mayer


Further Reading

  • Learn more about how you can take part in Tuesday’s historic rocket launch.

Segment Guests

Deborah Barnhart

Deborah Barnhart is the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in
Huntsville, Alabama.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: People are looking ahead to next week’s big anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. 50 years since that one small step on the moon. But you know, before you can step on the moon, you have to step off of the Earth. 

And that’s why next Tuesday people around the world will be celebrating another anniversary. And that is the anniversary of the launch of the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew. And how better to celebrate one rocket launch than with another? Or 5,000 of them, all at once. Joining me to talk about it is Dr. Deborah Barnhart, director of the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, also the Rocket City. Welcome. 

DEBORAH BARNHART: Hi, Ira. Welcome. Happy 50th anniversary, Apollo 11. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you very much. When we were out there, Charles Bergquist, our director, was actually practicing launching one of those rockets. 

DEBORAH BARNHART: Everybody needs to launch a rocket, especially this coming launch day, Tuesday the 16th. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. Give us the event and the plan. 

DEBORAH BARNHART: So here’s the deal. Huntsville is the Rocket City and of course it’s home to Space Camp. And every day we launch rockets at Space Camp. So we thought what better way to celebrate the landing of mankind on the moon than to have people around the world launch rockets. We thought we would kick that off here at Space Camp by setting a Guinness World record to launch 5,000 rockets simultaneously from one place, at one time. 

IRA FLATOW: And how many people around the world do you hope do it at the same time? 

DEBORAH BARNHART: Well, immediately following our Guinness record, we are asking all of our almost 1 million Space Camp alumni and anybody who wants to join us– museums, schools, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, churches, anyone– to grab a rocket and launch it with us. And we’ll also set a global rocket launch record for the world in that 24 hour period. Looks like so far, Ira, we’re going to have about 80,000 participants from around the world. 

IRA FLATOW: 80,000 launching at the same time, or whenever they want to? 

DEBORAH BARNHART: We’re going to launch 5,000 at one time, in Huntsville, to kick it off at 8:32 AM in celebration, in honor of Apollo 11. And then those 80,000 people will launch them around the clock in their own time zones during the next 24 hours. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. OK. So let’s say you don’t know anything about model rocketry. Is there still time to get ready for Tuesday? 

DEBORAH BARNHART: Shoot yes. This is easy. We’re going to be launching rockets that have little engines, Estes Pathfinder 15 Ninja rockets. But anyone can launch any kind of rocket– stomp rockets, bottle rockets, green rockets, air rockets– and our website has all of those things from NASA about how to launch water rockets and all different kinds of rockets that almost anyone can do almost anywhere. 

IRA FLATOW: So you can go into one of the– you can go one of these stores, a hobby store, and buy yourself a rocket kit if you don’t have one. 

DEBORAH BARNHART: You absolute– you can. You absolutely can. It’s never too late to do it. You can go to rocketcenter.com/globalrocketlaunch and all the different kinds of rockets that you can launch are listed there. And there are ones you can make for yourself at home. 

IRA FLATOW: Right. So let’s say I want to do it the same time you guys over there in Huntsville are doing it. Is there a website I can go on and actually press the button at the same time you’re pressing your buttons over there? 

DEBORAH BARNHART: No, not exactly. But if you do sign up at rocketcenter.com/globalrocketlaunch and share it on social media, then we’ll count you as part of the global rocket launch record. And we will send you a certificate. If we can get your social post at #globalrocketlaunch, we’ll count you in the numbers, and you can be part of setting a world record. 

IRA FLATOW: And are the Guinness Book people involved in this to certify? 

DEBORAH BARNHART: Oh yes. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah? 

DEBORAH BARNHART: Absolutely. The rocket launch from here in Huntsville, the 5,000 that we’ll do to start it off, will be certified. We’ll apply for Guinness certification. And in order to do that, Guinness requires that the type of rocket that we’re launching be commercially available, which it is, that we will surpass 100 feet of height with our launch, and of course we have to have independent judges. And we have about the best judges in the world because we have more rocket scientists per square inch in Huntsville, Alabama, the Rocket City, than anywhere else on the planet. 

IRA FLATOW: And how are you collecting your 5,000 participants? 

DEBORAH BARNHART: Well, we have them already premade. We’ve had people working for weeks, in the evenings and on Saturdays, building and constructing the Rockets. And we have them all laid out. It’s kind of cool. We’ve got them laid out to look– in five different engine shapes– just like the original Saturn V F1 engines. So they’re all set. They’ll go on grids. They’ll start with an electronic starter. We’re not using matches on 5,000 rockets at once. And they’ll all go at one time with the flip of a switch and the press of a button. 

IRA FLATOW: And where exactly, what spot, will you be launching them from? 

DEBORAH BARNHART: We will be launching them from the Space Camp rocket launch pad on the premises at 1 Tranquility Base, Huntsville, Alabama, US Space and Rocket Center, home of Space Camp. 

IRA FLATOW: Are these mostly kids in Space Camp who are assembling them and launching them? 

DEBORAH BARNHART: We’ve had actually a lot of volunteers from the aerospace companies in Huntsville. We’ve had Northrop Grumman and Boeing and Lockheed and all kinds of actual aerospace engineers who just wanted to be kids and come over and help us build the rockets. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. Give us the exact time and date where this will happen. 

DEBORAH BARNHART: The exact time and date will be Tuesday, the 16th of July, at 8:32 AM Central time. That’s the Guinness World record launch. But anyone can launch a rocket anytime during the 24 hour period of Tuesday the 16th. And if they’ll register or go on social for global rocket launch, then we’ll count them in the world record. And we’ll send them a certificate of thanks. 

IRA FLATOW: Thank, thank you very much, Dr. Barnhart and good luck to all you folks. 

DEBORAH BARNHART: Ira, come on back to the Rocket City and happy Apollo 11 50th to everyone. 

IRA FLATOW: Same to you. Dr. Deborah Barnhart is the director and CEO of the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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