The Great Rocketry Kerfuffle


I was a kid when what was known as the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union began. Rockets were built, satellites were launched, dogs and monkeys went into orbit, all with the idea of eventually landing a man on the moon … and to gain an advantage over the other nation.

Lots of youngsters, including myself, were enthralled with the idea of rockets. A friend who lived four houses down, Steve Duncan, became interested in rockets too. So, not having the money to buy one, nor knowing if one could even buy one, we decided to construct our own. It seemed like a simple task.

A rocket has a tubular body, fins, a nose cone, and a power source. So, we took tin cans out of the trash can that had previously held corn, peas, and the like and soldered three or four of them together. We had our tubular body.

Next, we took the tin can lids and cut them into the shape of fins, These, we also soldered to the body of the rocket. The nose cone was problematic but, being creative kids, we surreptitiously took a fair portion of my mom’s aluminum foil and shaped it into a rather nice nose cone and fitted it to the top of the tube.

We still needed a power source. Going back to the trash can, I found an empty rubbing alcohol bottle, glass of course, that would serve well. We filled it with gasoline from a gas can Stave found in his grandparents’ garage, screwed the metal cap back on and punched a hole in the cap. We had all the elements for our first launch.

We went to an open small field in our neighborhood with our prize and dreams of glory. Word spread and several other kids gathered to see what would happen. At the last second, we turned the bottle upside down, shoved it into the rocket, ran back a few steps, and threw a match at it. It is only in retrospect that I realized that we created not a rocket but a primitive Improvised Explosive Device. An I.E.D.

The match hit the ground and immediately ignited the gasoline rapidly dripping through the hole in the cap. There was a “WHUMP!” as the glass exploded and the rocket rose ever so slightly and then fell on its side engulfed in flames that seemed to spread everywhere. Fortunately, the tin cans stopped any glass fragments from going anywhere. As the field caught fire, we did what kids do … we ran around in circles screaming because we had no idea what to do.

The kids watching began to do the same thing. All this caught the attention of adults inside the nearby houses who then rushed to grab water hoses, corral the kids, and douse the flames. It was over quickly. Thankfully, no one was injured, and the owner of the field was not vindictive.

When I returned home, my mom, having seen the heavy smoke, asked what was going on. I told her someone lit a match and the field caught fire but that it was out now. It was the truth. Just not ALL the truth.

So ended the great rocketry experiment, for the moment, at least. In a couple of years, when in the sixth grade, Steve and I would be exposed to model rocketry as a fellow classmate launched a single stage rocket, powered by solid propellent engines, and carried a passenger — a large insect — in the payload section.

The rocket returned safely to the playgrounds of Dickson Elementary School by parachute, and a whole new world opened up that, for us, would be much safer and would see more responsibility on our part — mostly.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King ( Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South ( He may be contacted at]