In 1830, an Italian pyrotechnician by the name of Claude Ruggieri announced a truly wondrous event. The latest in a long line of successful Ruggieri firework producers, Claude was particularly devoted to the study of rocketry and had begun, in as early as 1806 to successfully launch small rodents high into the atmosphere (frankly, it was about time someone got around to doing that). As others wasted their genius merely developing more effective weapons delivery systems, Claude Ruggieri proved to be a true pioneer when in 1830, he finally announced that he would, for the purposes of public demonstration of his company’s rocket-making prowess, launch a sheep from the Champs de Mars in Paris, where he was living at the time.
As exciting as this may sound, it wasn’t enough for one young man who eagerly volunteered to take the animal’s place. Ruggieri accepted the gracious offer (much to the relief of the sheep) and the launch was re-advertised. Unfortunately, Paris authorities investigated, discovered that the volunteer was in fact an 11 year old boy, and determined that though perfectly old enough to board the Hogwarts Express, 11 was perhaps not yet mature enough to display good judgment in regard to experimental rocketry. The launch did, however, go ahead as originally planned and the once again greatly dismayed sheep was fired 600 feet into the air (not exactly suborbital, but not bad by 1830 sheep launching standards) only to land gently by parachute, alive and instantly famous.
Though Ruggieri’s success may not seem like a big deal now that we’ve been to the moon, roved Mars, and rely daily upon satellite technologies, his “combination [sheep launching] rocket” was pretty innovative. And while I can’t say that his work formed an important basis for that which followed in the field of rocket science, his story does nicely illustrate the plucky can-do attitude that has plagued the field since it’s earliest days when legendary Chinese official Wan Hoo attached rockets to his wicker chair in an attempt to launch himself to the moon (because he was never seen again I think we can safely assume he made it).
So if we skip ahead a few years to the 1957 Russian launch of Sputnik, it’s not hard to imagine that the excitement of that event may have led to some poor judgment on the part of the enthusiastic, though sadly under-qualified, masses. And a new industry was born.
In 1954, Robert Carlisle, a model airplane enthusiast, needed a model to use for demonstration purposes when he lectured on rocket-powered flight and so he approached his brother Orville, a pyrotechnics expert, to help him design it. When Sputnik went up and the masses began their various dangerous experiments, the Carlisle brothers saw an opportunity. Using their newfound expertise, they developed a (relatively) safe model rocket engine. Through a series of business partnerships, their design became the backbone of the Estes Corporation, still a major supplier of model rocket equipment, to which many wives and mothers owe their gratitude.
This brings me to my weekend. Last Saturday, my husband and young sons held their first launches. Weeks of anticipating, assembling, painting, and still more anticipating culminated in a brief, but awesome display of smoke and propulsion. All three rockets launched successfully and landed intact. Nothing (that wasn’t supposed to) caught fire and there were no injuries to children (or sheep). Thank you to the Estes Corporation, to the Carlisle brothers, and to all those brave pioneers without whose guidance I am certain my boys (all three) would have launched something into the air anyway, and who knows what would have happened.