“As a matter of fact, I am a rocket scientist,” reads a popular T-shirt among hobby rocketeers. If you don’t build and fly model or high-powered rockets, you may think it’s not that complicated, that it’s not really rocket science. But it’s much harder than it looks. To do everything correctly, to build the rocket so that it is aerodynamically sound, where the ejection system (even the simplest kind) performs correctly; to fly the rocket under the right conditions, aimed the right way, with the proper-size chute on it, using the correct motor(s) — all of this is harder than it looks. And when you scale up to high-powered vehicles, with sophisticated electronics on board, multiple ejection charges for the recovery systems, expensive launch rails, very large and expensive motors, things can get very complicated and prone to error fast. Lose a model rocket and you’re out a few bucks and a few hours of work. Lose a high-powered bird and you could be out thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of effort. And there can be real danger in a critical failure of one of these larger rockets. Frantic cries of “heads up!” and “incoming!” are not what you want to hear at a rocket meet.
Hobbyists use such colorful terms as CATO (Catastrophe At Take Off), lawn dart (for a rocket that plows into the ground), spontaneous disassembly, and a fishing orbit (landing in water), to describe such unfortunate mishaps. Here is a collection of YouTube videos showing particularly dramatic rocket wrecks. We end with a “unicorn chaser” of a few seriously impressive and successful flights to remind us all how it looks when everything goes according to plan.
Amazing 42′ Tall Rocket Drills for Oil in Nevada Desert
At the FireBALLS 5 amateur and experimental rocketry gathering of “large and dangerous” rockets in Nevada, Chuck Sackett launched his pet project, named Project 463. The rocket was 42 feet tall and weight 1200 pounds. The liftoff was beautiful and the rocket soared into the sky… and then came down. Hard! Project 463 failed to deploy its parachutes and became one of the world’s largest lawn darts when it plowed nose first into the desert floor. The rocket was destroyed and smashed into hundreds of bits and parts that scattered the area. The motto of this story: ALWAYS double-check your recovery system.
Run for Your Lives! Live Rocket on the Ground!
Rocket malfunction and crash caught on video at the 1998 Springfest Rocket Launch near Henderson, Nevada on March 15, 1998. It was an Adrenalin-laced moment for spectators and the launch control crew.
The Rocket’s Name was Even “Safety Rocket”
A 22′ tall, 16″ diameter, ~400 pound rocket takes off on a P motor. 2.3 seconds into the burn, it loses its motor in a spectacular CATO.
V2 Returns to its Origins as a Bomb
A gorgeous high-powered V2 “craps its grain,” as its motor casings shoot out the bottom and burn on the ground.
Successful Test of the Fire
An impressive-looking 14′ amateur rocket bursts into flames and explodes on the pad at LDRS 23 in Geneseo NY. As the builder says, “the launch was short and expensive.”
Watch Fins Deform via On-Board Camera
The fins Shred off a 12′ tall high power rocket flying on an N motor. It exceeds the fins ability to hold up. The fins waive at you, bend around, and then fly off in real-time as the rocket continues to thrust away.
Huge Pershing Missile Becomes Missile
Watch an absolutely huge model of a Pershing missile, flying on a Q motor, completely eat dust. Amazing and sad to think how many hours and dollars are dashed in that crash.
Supersonic Shred at Mach 2.5
Going Mach 2.5 at BALLS XX, this carbon fiber Mongoose98XL, flying with a AMW Blue Baboon motor, and dual flight computers, CO2 parachute-deployment cartridges, and a real-time GPS streaming system, shreds a fin and ends up in tatters.
Compilation of More Impressive Fails
If you haven’t gotten enough CATO for the day, here’s a compilation of some more amazing rocket wrecks.
Flying an Upscaled Estes X-Ray
I am absolutely in love with this 7x upscaled Estes X-Ray, launched upwards of 3,000′ in a potato field near Manchester, MI. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more perfect flight. And I love the fact that the rocket is flying an original-scale Estes X-Ray in the larger rocket’s clear payload bay. Priceless.
Getting Everything Just Right
Ground-based video of the first flight of my Supreme Endeavour, a scratch-built 7.7 inch diameter 12.5 feet long rocket built for my Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA) Level 3 Certification. The motor load for the flight was a central Aerotech L2200G and two Loki Research J320R’s which were air-started. The flight occurred on June 6, 2009 at the METRA range in Pine Island, NY.