October 13, 2003

Flight of the Crayfish

When we were kids our dad got me and my brother into model rocketry. On weeknights he'd help us turn cardboard, balsa, and white glue into ships bound for the stars. On Saturday morning he'd take us out to Dribble Elementary School where the local rocketry club would help us launch them. It was loads of fun. Kids and rocketry go together like, um, well, a band of crazed monkeys with hammers and high explosives.

After a while simply launching rockets into the sky and running after them as they floated back to earth got kind of boring. Occasionally they would have egg-lofting contests where the objective was to launch an egg and recover it in one piece. Space exploration is a dangerous business (especially for an egg) and more often than not all the king's horse's and all the king's men couldn't help after the egg landed. Being kids we quickly lost interest. We wanted more - we wanted to launch a man into space like NASA did.

Unfortunately, the technology at hand (cardboard, balsa wood, and white glue) wasn't up to the task so we had to find an achievable goal. One Saturday watching wasps buzz around a trash can filled with empty soda cans we had an idea: We would be the first to launch a wasp into space. Heck, even he Russians launched a dog into space before attempting to send a human. This would be our Laika. Our stepping stone to even greater achievements.

Quickly a volunteer wasp was secured for the mission and we headed to the Range Safety Officer for launch clearance. He eyed the wasp in the rocket payload capsule not quite sure what to make of it. Finally he decided it didn't pose a hazard to anyone on the ground, saluted the brave wasp, and gave us the all clear.

On the pad the wasp waited patiently on the bottom of the capsule as we counted down to blast-off. 5... 4... 3... Suddenly, sensing something was amiss, the wasp started flying around the top of his capsule. 2... 1... IGNITION! The rocket rapidly accelerated and the wasp, flying around inside, didn't. He was quickly smushed against the bottom of the rocket. Laika the wasp never realized what hit him. The poor guy never even made it off the launch pad.

But we knew from NASA the important thing was to learn from these sorts of disasters. To pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and to try again. You can't let a setback set you back. We had failed to provide a proper life support system for our subject. It was a mistake that would not be repeated.

A few weeks later one of the kids showed up at the launch site with a crawfish in the nose of his rocket. The nose was filled with water for a crayfish life support system. Today the Range Safety Officer took a little longer to decide if he would let us attempt this one. He finally gave us the OK to launch but the expression on his face said, "This should be interesting."

With the rocket setup on the launch pad it was time to launch. The engine ignited properly and a bright flame licked against the pad. Burdened with the payload of crayfish and his watery life support system the rocket slowly, majestically, rose into the sky. The grace with which it moved reminded us all of the mighty Saturn V moon rocket. This was just like the real thing - it was to be our finest hour. "Houston, we have cleared the tower!" we all thought as it ascended off the pad. But only a few seconds later as we watched we realized, "Houston, we have a problem."

You see, balance is equally important as life support in rocketry and the water in the crayfish command module had thrown the rocket out-of-balance. Now, instead of flying straight up like a moon rocket it had assumed a trajectory more like that of a SCUD ground-to-ground missile. As the rocket reached its apogee we realized the mission was in trouble - it was heading straight for the chain-link fence at the edge of the school yard.

I don't want to describe the next few moments in detail, but the rocket did indeed hit the fence. Needless to say, both vehicle and crew were lost. We spent a few minutes on the grizzly task of recovering the bits of crayfish scattered at the foot of the fence. That was the end of the crayfish space program. We stuck to unmanned (uncrayfished?) flights after that. Still, being little boys and despite the tragic loss of life, we thought the whole experience was pretty cool. We had learned a lot. Well, not really but it was fun anyway.

UPDATE: Apparently our crayfish blazed a path for other crayfish to follow.

Posted by thom at October 13, 2003 08:30 AM

Being the mom of 3 sons I have often spent the day blowing things up and watching them shoot in the sky. Living in the south we have access to some fun stuff to blow up that calf. would never allow, and to think with all this destruction and our share of exploration we never killed anything? I hope we are doing it the right way? *wink*

Posted by: stephie at October 13, 2003 05:35 AM

At first, I thought the above commenter wrote that she blew up a calf. Then I realized she was talking about California.

But I haven't finished my coffee yet, and my heart is sobbing on behalf of crayfish everywhere.

Posted by: Erin at October 13, 2003 10:18 AM

Do not cry for href="http://www.wilhelm-aerospace.org/WAEC/Rockets/lone-star.html">Earl,
the "sufficiently heroic biological payload",
for he made a successful journey into the sky on October 11, 2002
and retired from the crayfish space program the next day.

As for stephie, she grew up in California so any desire she has to blow up the golden state is based on experience.

Posted by: paulthom at October 13, 2003 01:28 PM

I am honestly not am eco-terrorist so please excuse the blond moment with my poor wording, lol

Posted by: stephie at October 13, 2003 02:13 PM
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