Rocket Build: The Alpha

A rear view of the Alpha rocket. Three white fins and a white body tube.

As a kid, I built a ton of model rockets as part of a 4-H club that my dad ran. A few years ago, I got back into the hobby briefly as part of the “College Hill Space Program”, during which my friends and I built rockets with our kids. We had one big launch at a nearby park, and then we were done.

Recently, while helping to clean out my parents’ garage, I came across a collection of my dad’s unbuilt model rocket kits. There were some true treasures among the kits:

  • The space shuttle with a detachable orbiter glider
  • The U.S.S. Enterprise and Klingon Battle Cruiser from Star Trek
  • A Mercury Redstone
  • An X-Wing from Star Wars

And many more. Rather than let them continue to gather dust, I plan on building and launching them. Model rocket skill levels range from Level 1 (“Some experience helpful”) to Level 5 (“Master”), and many of these rockets are Level 4 and above. While I’ve built a ton of rockets in my life, I’m not ready to jump right to the advanced kits.

Thus, the Alpha – a three-finned, Skill Level 1 rocket that’s easy to build, has basic decals, and a rudimentary color scheme.

Goals for the Alpha

  • Refresher Build: Given that it’s been years since I built any model rockets, I wanted to re-familierize myself with.
  • Test the materials: These rocket kits are 30-40 years old, with much of that time spent in an garage closet that regularly fell below freezing in the winter, and probably got pretty warm in the summer. How would the materials hold up?
  • Experiment with painting techniques: The Alpha is a simple rocket, but it’s recommended color scheme featured a white body with a red nose cone and a blue fin. That would require masking the body in order to paint the fin.

The Build

The Alpha build was straightforward. It’s a simple rocket, and it went together quickly. My muscle memory kicked in, particularly when it came to glueing the fins on.

The aged materials worked just fine. The cardboard body tube and balsa wood fins didn’t care about the temperature extremes, the plastic nose cone was fine, and the water-based decals (soak them in water, then apply) went on without a problem. The most problematic components were the sticker discs used to attach the shroud lines to the plastic parachute; not all of them stuck well, so I needed to improvise with some tape.

I used a solution of Elmer’s glue and water to seal the balsa wood fins, as I did when I was a kid. I didn’t get the solution thick enough, so the fins still feel a bit rough, even after repeated sanding.

Painting proved challenging. Traditionally, you use spray paint on rockets, and I took that approach this time as well. I painted the body and fins white, which worked out fine. I painted the nose cone red, and had some issues with the paint pooling and running down the nose. I sanded it flat and re-painted; the end result was ok, but not great.

The hardest part was painting one of the three fins a different color. I chose to paint it red (the suggested color was blue, but I had red on hand). I masked the body tube with masking tape and newspaper, then painted but unfortunately I had some bleed through under the masking tape. I touched it up as best I could, but you can still see a bit of the bleed.

Future Improvements

  • Improved masking: My masking tape + newspaper approach led to minor paint bleed through. Many of the more advanced models have equally advanced paint jobs, so I want to research and try some better ways of masking my rockets.
  • Balsa Sealant: My Elmer’s Glue and water mixture didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. There’s a ton of advice and suggestions out there for sealing balsa wood fins; I need to take some time to read through them and then figure out which techniques I want to try.

Final Analysis

The Alpha remains a fun, easy build. If you’ve never built a rocket before, it’s a good place to start.

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