Love and rockets: A few words, a great many actually, on Larry Brown

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Larry Brown with the model rocket that carried Max the mouse. Léon Bernard, “Le passe-temps préféré de Larry Brown, de Québec – Lancer des fusées avec des grenouilles et des souris à leur bord.” Le Petit Journal, 25 May 1969, 22.

Hellooo there, my reading friend, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to examine the picture above, drawn from the bowels of the 25 May 1969 issue of a weekly newspaper from Montréal, Québec, that we both know very well, Le Petit Journal. Are we all ready? Perfect. Let’s go. There will be a test.

Our central character of the week, the American Larry Brown, began to take an interest in model rocketry / space modelling / astromodelling around 1959, and ... What do I hear? You want to know more about the youth of this remarkable character, my reading friend? Well, me too. Yours truly confess to having found nothing on this subject, which is, all in all, somewhat annoying. Anyway, let’s move on.

Brown, say I, became interested in rocketry around 1959. Between that date and 1969, this graduate in philosophy launched no less than 200 model rockets. While some of them came from companies specializing in this type of production, others were original in design, with the exception of the solid fuel rocket engines of course. Measuring between 38 and 65 centimetres (15 to 25 inches) in length, these rockets had 1 or 2 stages. Some of them breached the sound barrier (1 225 kilometres / hour or 760 miles / hour at sea level) during their brief flights.

Brown moved to Québec, Québec, around 1967. He worked there in a tower for the ministère de la Famille et du Bien-être social. Brown seemed to fit in rather well in his new environment. His spouse was a Quebecker, for example. Better still, she and he were members of La Minorité, a seemingly very popular, but now well forgotten group of bilingual singers and musicians.

This being said (typed?), Brown did not give up rocketry. Indeed, he used part of his free time to launch rockets. One of them carried a mouse named Max. The rocket returned to earth suspended under a parachute. Max walked away with a slight nosebleed. Some frogs immersed in water survived a return to earth without a parachute.

Yours truly wonders if the name of Brown’s mouse owed its origin to a series of short educational Canadian cartoons. Broadcasted in several countries around the world from 1967 onward, the 104 episodes of Max, the 2000-Year-Old Mouse told the story of 104 characters and historical events. Hello EP! Some of these characters were, you guessed it, mentioned in our blog / bulletin / thingee. Just think of Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie, born Maria Salomea Skłodowska, and William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody. One of the episodes of the series was devoted to one of the great fighter pilots of the 20th century, Baron Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen, the famous Red Baron, active during the First World War. Again, hello EP – and EG too!

Brown launched his rockets from pieces of land in the suburbs of Québec, after obtaining permission from their owners as required by Canadian regulations. In fact, Brown deplored the severity of said regulation, when compared to what existed in the United States.

While rocket kits and accessories were (readily?) available, engines could not be imported into Canada, at least not legally, until 1964. If truth be told, under the Explosives Act, private individuals could not manufacture or experiment with materials that could be used as rocket fuel. In 1964, responding to pressure from enthusiasts, the federal government contacted the Royal Canadian Flying Clubs Association and the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute, a well known organisation dedicated to the advancement of aeronautics and astronautics mentioned in March 2018, May 2018 and January 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, to see what could be done.

The former agreed to put together a national organisation to supervise model rocketry. Thus was born the Canadian Association of Rocketry (CAR), in October 1965. In April 1966, model rocketry became legal in Canada, thanks to a piece of legislation. The restrictions imposed on this hobby / sport were such, however, that its growth was severely curtailed. As the 1970s dawned, the federal government eased some of its restrictions and control of CAR passed to the Youth Science Foundation, a well known group known as Youth Science Canada in 2019.

You will remember, my eager reading friend that you are, that a February 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee mentioned Hillel Diamond’s efforts to make model rocketry legal on Canadian soil.

My crystal ball whispers to me that you would like to know more about the history of model rocketry. I am delighted.

The history of model rocketry arguably began in 1954 when 2 American shoe salesmen, Orville H. Carlisle, an inventor, and his brother Robert, a licensed pyrotechnics technician and dedicated modeller, developed the ancestor of the modern model rocket, the Rock-A-Chute. In early 1957, the former allegedly read an article in a popular science-type magazine. Its author, George Harry Stine, an engineer at a missile test facility who also wrote science fiction stories, pointed out that young Americans risked injury or even death when testing homemade rockets. Convinced that the Rock-A-Chute was a safer alternative, Carlisle sent sample rockets to Stine, who was impressed. Not too long after, the 2 men founded Model Missiles Incorporated, the world’s first model rocket manufacturing company.

The launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, a spacecraft mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2018, was an even greater event in the history of model rocketry. Interest in space exploration and rocketry dramatically increased. The phones at Model Missiles began to ring off the hook. Demand was such that the company had to look for someone able to produce a lot of engines. The first fireworks making company listed in the phonebook belonged to the Estes family. The son of the founder, a building contractor, Vernon “Vern” Estes, was sufficiently intrigued to construct Mabel, a machine able to mass produce rocket engines. As a result, a new company, Estes Industries Incorporated, was founded in 1958.

An inability to handle the growing demand and some poor business decisions led to the demise of Model Missiles around 1960. Estes Industries picked up the torch and gradually became the largest and most famous model rocket maker in the world. Its role in the growth of model rocketry / space modelling was crucial. If truth be told, Estes Industries was the first truly successful maker of model rockets.

Damon Corporation, a medical products manufacturer, acquired the company in 1969. Victim of a hostile takeover in 1990, Damon soon began to divest its hobby division. Estes Industries was sold to Trust Company of the West in 1990, for example. Hobby Products Incorporated acquired the company in 1994 and changed its name to Centuri Corporation. Barry Tunick, a gentleman well known in a previous life for marketing the Cabbage Patch Dolls, who believed model rockets still had a future, acquired the company in 2002 and changed its name to Estes-Cox Corporation. Hobbico Incorporated acquired the company in 2010 and did not change its name. The bankruptcy of Hobbico in early 2018 led to the acquisition of Estes-Cox by Estes Industries Limited Liability Company, which still existed as of 2019.

The problems / perils faced by young rocket enthusiasts were portrayed in the 1999 movie October Sky, based on the 1998 book Rocket Boys, an autobiography of Homer Hadley “Sonny” Hickam, Junior, an engineer who had worked for United States Army Missile Command, the former Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – an organisation mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018. Amusingly, the expression October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys. Would you believe that ABMA was mentioned in a February 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee?

In 1957, the aforementioned Stine and Carlisle co-founded the world’s first model rocketry, the Model Missile Association. The National Association of Rocketry, as the group became before too long, became the largest association of its type in the world. It had more than 6 000 members and 155 clubs around 2018-19.

In 1962, Stine contacted the Fédération aéronautique internationale (FAI), the Paris-based governing body for all manners of aeronautical records mentioned in a few issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since January 2018. His proposal that model rocketry / space modelling become an officially recognised air sport was compelling. The FAI’s Commission internationale d’aéromodélisme ratified it in 1964. With interest in space exploration at an all time high, rocketry became an increasingly popular hobby / sport.

The FAI’s first model rocketry competition took place in May 1966 in Czechoslovakia. The first World Space Modelling Championship, in turn, was held in September 1972 in Yugoslavia. The following year, the aforementioned CAR held its first national competition, CARNAT-1, in Edmonton, Alberta.

Recognising the attention to detail and safety of Canada’s rocket enthusiasts, the federal government eased its regulations a bit more during the second half of the 1970s. As luck would have it, the decreasing interest in space exploration that permeated the general population meant that fewer people wanted to join CAR and / or launch rockets. As well, new rules allowed people to launch rockets without having to join the association. This perfect storm, combined with increasing popularity of video games, led to a drastic reduction in membership, from 2 500 to 200 within a few years. By 1990, the association had 50 or so members. This collapse of rocketry was not limited to Canada. It affected associations around the globe.

The development of high power rockets, in the United States, in the second half of the 1980s, was a turning point. Yes, another one. And no, this story is not going around in circle. May I continue? Powerful new engines allowed rockets put together by enthusiasts both young and old to exceed the speed of sound and reach altitudes of more than 3 000 metres (10 000 feet). At first, reliability of these engines left somewhat to be desired, a dangerous problem brought under control by the introduction of reloadable engines. Even so, the capabilities of the new rockets meant that special precautions had to be taken in order to minimise the risk of collisions with passing airplanes or helicopters.

In 1989, CAR began to lobby the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources in order to allow Canadian rocket builders to import the new high power engines. The first CAR-approved launch of a high power rocket, by members of the Calgary Rocketry Association (CRA), took place in September 1993. By then, draft regulations were ready. As the years went by, they were finalised and updated. By the end of the 1990s, additional high power rocket launches had seemingly taken place in:

Manitoba (Manitoba Rocketry Group),

Ontario (Toronto Rocket Club and North American Propulsion and Aerospace Society),

Saskatchewan (Saskatchewan Rocketry Association), and

Québec (Association des astromodélistes amateurs du Québec).

As of early 2019, as far as yours truly could ascertain, only the CRA was still around. New groups in Alberta, Ontario, Québec and Saskatchewan picked up the torch at some point.

This digression having ended its course, let us return to the main subject of our story.

Brown seemingly left Québec and Québec in the early 1970s. He landed a job at Centuri Engineering Company, an American manufacturer of model rocket kits founded in 1961. Brown designed a number of well-known model rockets, such as the Orion and Athena, produced between 1971 and 1977. Let us also mention the Mach 10 and X-24 rocket gliders.

If I may digress for a brief moment, one of the rockets designed by the founding owner of Centuri Engineering, Leroy E. “Lee” Piester, was destined for the television spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., aired between September 1964 and January 1968. The rocket in question played the role of the infrared-guided missile mounted in each of the two gull wing doors of the very special automobile that the heroes of the series used a few times. Said automobile was a Piranha, a vehicle manufactured in very small numbers by Aluminum Model Toys Incorporated. And yes, my reading friend, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was among the television series translated into French that yours truly looked at during his dissipated youth.

The aforementioned Damon acquired Centuri Engineering in June 1971. This takeover was not revealed until 1972. Brown seemingly lost his job shortly before the mid 1970s. He began a teaching career a little later. Brown taught English and History at least until 2016.

Brown did not give up model rocketry, however. He appeared to be part of a team, the Noblemen, associated with a high school between 2003 and 2008. Some of the members of this team decided to fly on their own in 2008. They then formed Rocket Sauce, Team 1137. This team associated with another high school still existed in 2019. Brown seemed to occupy the position of team coach. Rocket Sauce, Team 1137 was / is interested in both robotics and rocketry.

And that’s it for today. I forgot to prepare the test.

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Rénald Fortier