THINKING ABOUT EXPERIMENTING WITH ROCKET POWER ?
Robert Goddard (he invented the first liquid-propellant rocket, in 1926) was an "amateur" rocket scientist. So was Wernher von Braun (he designed much of the German V-2 rocket, and later directed America's space program). In fact, Aerojet, Thiokol, Reaction Motors, Rocketdyne, and many other pioneering rocketry companies were founded by amateur rocket engine experimenters. If you're thinking of building your own rocket engines, you're among good company. Welcome to the world of rocket science and reaction propulsion engineering. You can learn a lot from the experiments of these pioneers.
For instance, Goddard documented his experiments with some fine books, originally published by the Smithsonian Institute. (We've republished them, and you'll find them in our eBay Store.) His Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes has long been a classic text on the subject of leaving the Earth and reaching the Moon using staged rocket power. Goddard's Liquid-Propellant Rocket Development describes and shows how he built these high-powered rockets in his home workshop near Roswell, New Mexico during the 1930s. Books like these are an excellent introduction to both theory and practice of rocket engineering and technology. An excellent selection of Goddard books can be seen here: Goddard Rocketry Books
Perhaps you're interested in something smaller and simple, just a little rocket motor to power your models. Maybe you're thinking of building your own Estes-type black powder motors. Or you want to know about how to build a motor that uses "candy propellant" (made of sugar and saltpeter). Or considering a zinc dust and sulfur "micrograin" powered motor. Many do-it-yourself projects like these are described in a few excellent textbooks, manuals, and handbooks.
Of course this is rocket science, and you must know what you're doing to avoid disaster along the way. Rockets are powered by high-energy chemicals, and successful rocket engines operate with a continual explosion, at high pressure and temperature, in a strong combustion chamber. You'll need a shop, and safe place to do these experiments legally. Think carefully before you begin mixing any chemicals, and know exactly what you're doing all along the way. Learn from experienced rocketeers. Experiment safely and legally. This hobby isn't really suitable to be done in the home, or in most residential communities.
All rockets--even the smallest--are potentially dangerous, and we do not advocate building your own unless you have the necessary knowledge and experience, plus a safe place to do it legally. A small error can lead to disaster, so "do-it-yourself" rocket science demands accurate design information, careful planning, and great attention to detail. Beginners do well to first join a local rocketry group or pyrotechnics organization before making anything. Experienced rocketeers and fireworks craftsmen are usually happy to provide good advice and helpful suggestions.
Rockets can be built of simple materials and use simple propellants, but it is not easy to build one that works. Get started on the right foot by learning all you can about the fundamental physics and chemistry involved. Learn about propellants and nozzles, find out how to calculate thrust and chamber pressures, teach yourself the basic formulas, calculations, and math involved. Learn some rocket science before you begin building your first rockets.
The very first rockets (black powder packed in bamboo stem tubes) were made in China more than a thousand years ago, so rocket science can begin simple. Simple fireworks-type skyrockets (they use black powder type propellant, packed in rolled paper cases) remain among the easiest to make. In fact, the popular modern Estes-type model rocket motors are almost identical to standard pyrotechnics skyrocket motors, though built to higher quality standards and often fitted with delay-burn fuse trains and parachute ejection charges. If you're interested in the techniques used to make fireworks-type skyrockets, there are detailed instructions, drawings, and propellant formulations in the pyrotechnic manuals of George W. Weingart, W.H. Browne's Art of Pyrotechny, and James Cutbush's System of Pyrotechny.
In the 1950s and 60s, several small rocket societies sprang up, and some published little handbooks that explained how to design, build, test and fly small rocket engines. Some of the advanced experiments used zinc dust and sulfur ("micrograin") solid propellants. Others burned liquid oxygen with gasoline or alcohol. A few tested hypergolic mixtures, including red fuming nitric acid and aniline. We have republished several of these small handbooks and manuals that provide excellent details about home-built rockets with solid or liquid propellant engines.
Successful experimental rocket engines require good design and engineering, and there are several excellent textbooks to guide the beginner. Usually it's best to begin with solid propellant motors. These may burn black powder, "candy" propellant made from sugar and saltpeter, "micrograin" made of zinc dust and sulfur, or any of several alternate formulations. You'll find an excellent selection of books about solid propellant propulsion design here: Solid Propellant Rocket Engine Design
The most notable of these guidebooks is Guide to Amateur Rocketry, published at the U.S. Army Ft. Sill Artillery Training Center in the 1960s. This book covers some theory, design, construction, and testing details, with illustrations. The focus is on very simple solid-propellant motors, including zinc-sulfur "micrograin" powerplants.
Another handbook from the same period also covers zinc-sulfur rockets in more detail, and will more detailed illustrations and plans. This one is called Amateur Guide to Building Rockets and Motors, by United Propulsion Technologies.
Thiokol published a book called Rocket Basics: A Guide To Solid Propellant Rocketry, another good introduction to the art and science.
The single best book we've seen on building your own solid propellant motors is Amateur Rocket Motor Construction. David Sleeter's thick, heavy, and comprehensive text covers every aspect of designing, building, and testing high-performance rocket motors propelled by black powder or "candy propellants." When in doubt, by all means begin here if you want to build successful high-performance engines from simple chemicals and materials.
If you're considering more advanced solid propellant engines, look to our NASA chemical propulsion series. Here are detailed design engineering textbooks that cover every aspect of the subject: igniters, motor cases, case insulation, nozzle design, static testing, grain design, propellant chemistry and characterization, propellant processing, thrust vector control, and much, much more. We stock all the NASA solid propellant engine design series.
If you're going to build advanced rocket designs, you'll want several books that cover the math, physics, and chemistry of rocket science and engineering. Look for Dr. Zucrow's The Rocket Motor, and Design of Liquid Propellant Rocket Engines (SP-125) by Hunzel and Huang. The latter is a most comprehensive textbook originally published by NASA. A variety of these and other exceptional (and mostly out-of-print) General Rocket Science Books are also in our eBay Store.
There's no substitute for experience, but it's certainly helpful and prudent to learn how others have build successful experimental rockets from simple materials. The Safety Manual for Experimental Rocket Scientists covers just about every aspect of working with energetic chemicals and mixing propellants. You'll also find this unusual Safety Manual in our eBay Store.
A closing word about experimental rocketry, life, and limb. Don't even think about ordering any chemicals or mixing propellants until you've made yourself an expert on what you intend to do. Know everything you can learn about each and every chemical you'll be using. Get copies of their MSDS sheets (handling and toxicity advice), they're free and easy to find on the Internet. Study every detail, and commit the essentials to memory and procedure checklists.
If you first learn all the ins, outs, and caveats about what you intend to undertake (and remember all of them, without exception, every time), and if you follow all the traditional rules about safety with propellant chemicals, and if you work in a safe and legal place, and you proceed with great attention to detail and great diligence, you might be able to build a successful rocket engine the first time. It our opinion, the rewards of the hobby are unsurpassed.
And we've maintained both eyes, all ten fingers, and some of our hearing by doing things "by the book." Just be sure you use the right book! There's an abundance of deadly advice freely available on the Internet about how to make experimental rockets. We strongly recommend that you work only with well-know guidebooks and texts that tell how to do it safely and successfully.
That's why we're here. We're confident that all the books we offer are professionally written, contain useful and practical information for the "amateur" rocket experimenter, and are among the best reference resources for every new experimenter to begin with. And they're also very reasonably priced.
Sooner than later, perhaps you'll be looking for a copy of Sutton (Rocket Propulsion Elements, the most respected university-level book about this subject). We hope so.
We'll continue to extend and expand this Guide in the next few days. Thanks for reading.