The Making of a Maker: A Tribute to the 1970 Estes Model Rocket Catalog

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The Making of a Maker: A Tribute to the 1970 Estes Model Rocket Catalog

Stefan Jones sent us this wonderful backstory on how he got involved in model rocketry. It really brought back memories for me because I was introduced to model rocketry through the same year’s Estes catalog and had a similar reaction. I’m sure many makers of our generation had similar experiences. -Gareth

I was set up to become a maker in the last hour on my last day of summer camp when I was eight years old. I was sitting on my duffel bag amidst a sea of duffels, killing time until my mother arrived to pick up me and a friend from school. The other, more athletic kids were across the road, getting in a last game of baseball. I spotted, on the ground between two bags, what looked like a paperback book with a winged spaceship on the cover. I picked it up. It was a catalog, not a book. I recognized the name — Estes Industries — from advertisements in the back of Boys’ Life. While I was a big fan of the then-roaring space program, I was also a big fan of MAD Magazine and thus primed to be very dubious of the claims in those ads. Build your own rockets? Multi-staging? Cameras? Yeah, sure.

My cynicism was cured by the time I’d reached page seven. Besides some gorgeous pictures of sleek rockets being built and flow by kids about my age, there were explanations, clearly written and accompanied by beautiful graphics, of how it all worked. These weren’t clunky plastic toys powered by vinegar and baking soda, or a rubber slingshot; they were actual rockets that ascended on a pillar of smoke and flame.

After the earnest introduction and assurances of the safety of the hobby, there was page after page of kit descriptions. Simple, elegant ones offered for beginners. Goofy models like a flying badminton shuttlecock and the Man In Space. Scale models of the Titan and Apollo spacecraft, plus others I’d never heard of. Fantasy spacecraft like the nuclear powered Trident, the Mars Lander, and the Orbital Transport. And cameras! You could buy a nosecone with a danged Super 8mm movie camera in it!

Then, the Technical Manual, a thirty-page guide to the hobby. It told you how to build a rocket, how to give it a nice finish, and how to get it ready to fly. There was a technical section explaining stability, and how multi-staging worked. There was a section on the parts of a rocket engine, how they operated, and how to pick the right one for your model. The line-art illustrations in the Manual were simple but gorgeous, copiously labeled and accompanied by clearly written blocks of text.

And after the Technical Manual, still more. Tables listing two dozen types of rocket motors. Parts to build rockets of your own design. And a treasure-trove of sci-tech wonders: Electrical gear, drafting supplies, hobby knife sets, tracking theodolites, scales and wind gauges, slide rules, and four pages of books, newsletter collections, and technical reports. It was baffling and wondrous. Imagine the thoughts of a farm boy reading through the Sears & Roebuck catalog after years of thinking that the general store down the road contained the sum total of what you could buy.

Revelatory wouldn’t be too strong a word for what that catalog was for me that day. I’d built models before, and read plenty of books about science and technology. Model rocketry combined the two, and so much more. Craftsmanship, engineering, and high-flying thrills, all in one. And you were specifically invited to invent stuff; the Design of the Month contest offered a $50 prize to rocketeers who came up with something new and amazing.

Being an honest kid, I put the catalog back where I found it, but ordered my own as soon as I got home. I have no doubt that the marriage of technical depth and the hands-on challenge of model construction that rocketry offered got me started as a maker.

The entire 1970 catalog is scanned in and available online.

Stefan Jones is a software QA engineer, freelance writer, gamer, and maker. He lives in the “Silicon Forest” west of Portland, OR

40 thoughts on “The Making of a Maker: A Tribute to the 1970 Estes Model Rocket Catalog

  1. Sean Lavery says:

    My original Orbital Transport ( 1976 ) did not stand up to the ravages of time. Using scanned plans, Autocad, a laser cutter and a couple of “donor” kits I’ve rebuilt it. It still has the original nosecone too. Estes (and Centuri ) rockets = awesome.

  2. Andy Callaway says:

    We never had any luck with our rockets. We never got one off the ground. They’d just sit there making a lot of smoke, then all the other kids would laugh at us.

  3. Timothy Gray says:

    I miss those days,  I had that exact catalog that was so well worn that most of the corners were worn off.

    Today, everything is dumbed down as kids dont need to know all the science behind it.  I really hate the trends to idiotify kids and people.   Give me the schematic to my TV!

    1. Peter Simpson says:

      My son (now 29) and his friends used to build and launch Estes rockets in our front yard. A few years ago I spotted a nosecone still hanging in one of the oak trees.

      He’s now a Captain in Field Artillery…not sure if there’s a connection or if he was just destined for it :-)

  4. Halfvast Conspirator says:

    I built that orbital transport on the cover and flew it a few times, it might still be in a box somewhere.  It actually worked quite well, the shuttle would glide back while the booster had a parachute.  Had the Saturn V and Saturn 1 too, and a bunch of others, including some I cobbled up myself.  And a rocket car that ran on a string and was extremely fast.

  5. Anonymous says:

    we appear to be the same age… I built that one but my favorite flight of all was a disaster.  I built the delta winged glider that ejected it’s engine pod releasing the elevator up.  The only engine I had for it’s maiden flight was already friction-fit into a different model.  I cracked the nozzle removing it with pliers.  The engine lit but the flame was a wide yellow fan rather than the correct blue jet.  The model lifted slowly off the rod, and paused, hanging ten feet up, while the flames spread to the wings…

    1. John Bramfeld says:

      I built that one also, about 1963.  My first one was ordered directly from an ad in Boys’ life.  It was called the Scout. The motor ejected itself backwards into a metal bracket which put the center of gravity farther back.  The Scout then tumbled down without the aid of a parachute.  Cheap but effective.

      1. Stefan Jones says:

        Before my time, but remarkable: The Scout was first packaged in the same heavy cardstock tube that Estes shipped motors in. The fins, tube, retaining wire, cone and all fit nicely in it.

        On Estes’ 50th birthday, Semroc sold a special “Golden Scout.” If you launched it on the anniversary date, and sent Semroc a report, you’d get a certificate signed by Vern & Gleda Estes! (Still alive and attending hobby events!)

  6. Stefan Jones says:

    Semroc sells a “clone” of the Orbital Transport . . . and I believe of the “SST Shuttle” by Centuri. And the Saturn Ib and more. An amazing resource for nostalgia relief.

  7. jimofoz says:

    I got into Estes back in the late 60s. I especially remember the X-Ray with its unfortunate grasshoppernaut among others. I got back into in the late 90 when I was about to retire from the USAF and then a couple years later when I did a multi-media CD on building model rockets for my Master’s degree. That project got me a grant from NASA.

    Model rockets have been very good for me. 

  8. stevepoling says:

    This brings back fond memories of going thru the Estes catalog. Same goes for the Heathkit catalog. But did anybody else ever go thru the Allied Radio catalog?

    Our kids are blessed to have Maker Shed catalog. I hope some of them realize just how freaking cool these times are.

    1. Wile E. Coyote Jr says:

      Allied, Lafayette, Healthkit, and Radio Shack all had great electronics and stuff back in the 60’s and 70’s. Not to mention ACME

    2. Anonymous says:

      I believe I still have an old Allied catalog here somewhere. Nothing but a wish book my family was what they call the working poor nowadays.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Brings back a lot of memories.  I got into estes just slightly later, around ’74 I think, but I do remember drooling over the catalog on into the night.  

    I loved the original X-15 mini-motored powered rocket, it was a basically indestructible piece of plastic, but man it looked cool…  Every time I’ve tried to get one on eBay I’ve been outbid.  Hmm… I’m getting a 3d printer this year, so maybe I can print one!  

  10. Andrew Wasson says:

    Ahhhh the 70’s…. Estes was the best!

    I had an Alpha III, an Atom, a space shuttle type rocket, a Star Wars ‘Proton Torpedo’, which actually looked pretty lethal and I also had a space station type rocket along with some of my own designs. I probably had a dozen rockets in total but I don’t know what ever happened to them after I left home. That was a lot of fun. 

    * I also packed my own engines with a gun powder like mixture of charcoal, sulfur but with Sodium Nitrate instead of Potassium Nitrate. It burned a bit hotter and faster. I only made a few of my own engines though as even as a 13 year old, I knew it was pretty risky and I didn’t know how to make the little parachute ejecting load.

  11. restifo says:

    I used to build and launch rockets all the time as a kid, and I remember thumbing through Estes catalogs until they fell apart. I returned to the hobby some years later after some friends and I discussed the hobby at work. We had all built and launched rockets as kids. I went out that evening and bought a kit for the weekend. Everyone who had talked about it came out to watch. It was one of the funnest times I’ve ever had.

    I’ve been in it ever since.

    We have a rocket day for our Cub Scout pack. It’s one of the most popular activities for the boys. I try to console those who lose rockets that you’re not a real model rocketeer until you’ve lost one or had one spectacularly crash. I think for this year, I’ll have some patches made that say, “I Lost My Rocket!”

  12. Stefan Jones says:

    Here is my Rocketry Flickr set. New stuff, old stuff, recreations of old stuff:

  13. John Sheehan says:

    Wow, I learned so much from the content of those catalogs and even more from the experience of building and launching the rockets contained within.  I still remember the excitement I felt when after looking at that cross section of the rocket engine so many times, I FINALLY understood how it worked.  I think I was like 8 at the time.

  14. Jim McCorison says:

    Thank you for a trip back to my childhood. I can remember reading the Estes catalog cover to cover, every word. Unfortunately I came from less than financially flush circumstances so I could only dream. But oh what dreams. I managed to scrape up enough money to buy one of the cheaper rocket motors from the local hobby store dreaming that it was the first step towards a grand rocket. In reality it never flew as I didn’t have the money for any other parts, but in my mind that simple rocket motor had flight after flight. I used to hold it and image the heights that it could attain. It must be 40 years since I thought about that. Thank you.

  15. Gareth Branwyn says:

    The 1970 catalog was my entry into the hobby, too. And like others here, I read it cover to cover. I spent countless hours pouring over it, drafting up fantasy orders. I’d tell myself: You have $25 to spend (or whatever) and then I’d go through and figure out how to get the most merch for the moolah. When I did have money to place an actual order (maybe $15 or so), I’d do the same thing — test ordering and reordering, trying to figure out the max value for my money.

    My favorite Estes rockets (which I flew over and over again) were the V2, the Astron Drifter, Big Bertha, and the Cherokee-D.

    1. Bruce A Johnson says:

      I never did figure out how they got Big Bertha to lift off sooooo slowly before it accelerated like, well, a rocket.

  16. Robert says:

    My favorite was the Big Bertha. I learned so much about spray painting, sanding and sealing, wood finishing from building those models.

  17. Mike McGurrin says:

    Oh yeah! I got involved in the late 60’s and built that rocket! It was very nice. The shuttle portion also featured in a (very bad) SF film we did for high school freshman English class. I still have a few old rockets, and my son built a fiew but never got into it as much as I did. Remember the Camroc and Cineroc? The former took one round black and white photo, and the latter used a tiny strip of Super8 film, with a plastic camera nosecone with, I think, a rubber band as a drive belt. Now there are kits with digital movie cameras. I’m happy to report that my son’s school is entering two teams in this year’s Team America Rocket Challenge ( and he’s leading one of the teams.

    P.S. Gareth: I liked the Big Bertha and Cherokee-D too. I still have the Cherokee minus a nose cone, which I got back weeks after losing it in a tree, thanks to having my phone number on it..

  18. Brian says:

    I was a winner of one of those $50 certificates way back when they introduced the Mini A – T motors. Spent it on the newly introduced space shuttle model..and a transroc telemetry transimtter..Man those were the days.

  19. JSK says:

    I guess the Orbital Transport was very popular; I also built this one but, if I remember correctly, I built it while I was in engineering school. I flew it, with great success, many times with my (then) 8 year old nephew. I am going to introduce my 8 year old son to rocketry this spring.

  20. William Simon says:

    Thanks, Stefan. As the guy responsible for producing the Estes catalogs in that era, it’s nice to learn that someone appreciated our efforts. Everyone in the R&D and Graphics departments was a “Maker”, as was Vern Estes, and the company in those days was totally customer-centered.

    Like many others, I started out building Allied and Heath kits, then discovered model rocketry in 1961. The Heathkit instructions were our inspiration as we developed our own style of kit instruction. Our goal was to have instructions such that the builder could successfully assemble the model from the text alone or from the illustrations alone. In general, young rocketeers had no problems building the models–it was the adults who didn’t bother to look at the instructions who had problems.

    1. Stefan Jones says:

      Oh! You were at NARCON last year, right?

      I loved that presentation on the theory and design of kit instructions. In fact, it could probably be turned into a MAKE article!

    2. Michael Kelsey says:

      How do you say “Thank you” to a god? Seeing you post here reminds me of when I got my copy of “Quantum Field Theory” autographed by Bjorken himself (and amazingly gracious he was, too). It never hurts to be reminded that the textbooks, the catalogs, the instruction manuals which inspired us had _real people_ behind them, who put them together and were themselves inspired to travel that road.

      Thank you.

  21. Jay Barron says:

    Oh, I remember that catalog! Our rocket club in Junior High School bought the Cineroc, and we were so excited to launch it. The decision was made to have the launch body and the Cineroc capsule come down on separate parachutes, the thinking being it would be safer for the Cineroc. It was a little breezy on our launch day, so one of the guys aimed it a bit into the wind; something we were told to do. However, it was aimed a bit TOO MUCH into the wind, and the windspeed may have kicked up a bit at launch, because the rocked immediately weather-cocked into the wind, shot out over an open excavation area to a residential neighborhood. The ejection charge fired and both parts came down into said neighborhood. We didn’t see exactly where they came down, so we went searching. We found the launch body, but never did find the Cineroc! To this day, I wonder who got it and if they even knew what the heck it was!

  22. PeteB says:

    We made some rockets around 1970. That catalog cover looks familiar. I remember the “Mars Lander” kit that was over my head and never got finished, but I did finish the “Falcon” It looked like one of those balsa wood gliders and was supposed to eject the motor and then glide back down to earth. We always had trouble getting the engines to ignite. It was a little scary approaching one the should have gone off. The falcon finally went of and flew up beautifully, but when the ejection charge went off the whole thing blew to bits and all the parts came fluttering down. It was magical and heart wrenching.

  23. michael clark says:

    Back in the 50’s ,give or take, I got a Minnesota Engine Works pulse jet from the pages of Boy’s Life. With tail fins strapped to the tail cone and an instrument package in front, it weighed 2.5 pounds, just under the 5 pound rated thrust. A mercury switch fired a flash bulb imbedded in gunpowder to blow the chute when it flipped over at the top of flight, a dethermalizer timer from a free flight model plane gave the whole thing 10 seconds to stabilize, then tripped a camera shutter. It might have actually worked if I could have gotten the engine started.
    Enter Estes Rockets, much more successful.

  24. PJK says:

    Thanks for this Stefan, and the online link. That catalog meant the world to me. I must have read it cover to cover 100 times. My Dad and I built and flew the Orbital Transport, and the Mars Lander, and I was so hooked on science. So many memories – losing my X-Ray on a B14-5 one windy day, watching my first D-powered rocket auger in on a ‘chute failure (it made a hole 5 inches deep) and some other experiments that I did with my buddies that we don’t need to discuss here. Thanks to model rocketry, in part, I made a career of science. I don’t know what else could have made me happier!

  25. blakejohnson says:

    Hahaha I remember these catalogs! I only got a few, but they were like bibles of sweet sci-fi wonders! I was so excited to pick out all the designs I wish I’d had myself, for no reason other than to marvel and enjoy the design. Thanks for the reminder!

  26. Danko says:

    I remember my first Estes catalog. I can’t precise the year but I remember spending hours looking at it. My first rocket was a magnum if I recall. Flew great till I lost it on a flight had a few others after those years. Flew some of them well into my 20’s. Many kids today won’t even pay attention these days if it doesn’t have a screen. Sad really.

  27. Richard Mays says:

    I remember seeing an Estes catalog for the first time, and thinking, “This is too good to be true!” I went to High Command hobbies on Boulevard in Richmond, VA and got my Alpha rocket kit. I built the rocket and went to launch it still thinking it was too good to be true. When I hit the launch button and it flew, I was hooked. The following Christmas was my second best ever (next to getting a TRS-80 4K Level 1). I got the Scissor Wing transport, the Space Shuttle, Colonial Viper, the Scout, the Mosquito, the Condor, the Teros (my favorite), and a few others. I was building and flying for a long time.

  28. Stefan Edward Jones (@StefanEJones) says:

    Hey, you want to see REAL old school?

    The 1961 Estes catalog!

    The site — — actually has dozens of scanned-in old catalogs and newsletters. It is almost guaranteed that the Estes (or Centuri) catalog that introduced you to the hobby is up there.

  29. Gary Zorko says:

    I grew up a few miles from Estes in Colorado, and felt like the luckiest kid in the world as we made the annual pilgrimage to the factory in Penrose with our Cub Scout troop. Even better, the next door neighbors worked there and always managed to have a few spare motors lying around to hand out like candy.

  30. Norman Rabek says:

    Thanks for the post. This took me back to middle school in the mid sixties. For two years I did science fair projects built around model rockets, all the parts ordered from Estes, and the second year went all the way to the state finals. Besides good design practice, building and flying rockets taught me a lot of math and physics. And persistence. All good things to learn at 13 years old.

  31. Raymond Ramírez says:

    I still have the dial scale to weigh the model rocket after 45 years.

  32. The Larry Mac says:

    I built that rocket on the catalog cover, probably in about 1974. My recollection is that it flew once, and then one part or the other got lost in the swamp next to my buddy’s house :-/

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn