Situated in the pressed wake of a glacier, Central Illinois is nothing if not flat. But what we lack in topology, we make up in sky. The vast, azure expanse of a perfectly sunny summer day; the towering golden majesty of a stormy sunset; the resin-poured stillness of an impossibly cold winter night; our sky is grand and beautiful. While many may gaze into the heavens with an ineffable sense of yearning, some intrepid members of the Champaign-Urbana community have found a unique way to extend their reach just a little farther into the wild blue yonder: model rocketry.
 


Model rocketry as a hobby dates back to the 1950’s. The frenzy of the space race saw a surge of aspiring engineers performing ill-advised experiments in propulsion; thus, model rockets came about as a safer alternative to homemade contraptions. The idea caught on and a generation of inquisitive minds found their fascinations launched skyward by cardboard tubes stuffed with gunpowder.

Over the years, humanity’s fascination with the sky hasn’t wavered and model rockets have endured as a direct and visceral connection with the heavens. However, the hobby has evolved through the decades, and it has developed into a multi-faceted community of dreamers and innovators who value education and curiosity.

A large, traditional model rocket takes off in a cascade of flame and smoke. Photo by Christopher Brian Deem.Photo by Christopher Brian Deem.

Central Illinois Aerospace is a group of passionate individuals dedicated to the responsible practice of model rocketry and the educational opportunities it offers. When I spoke to their director of operations, Greg Smith, he enthused on the educational value that model rocketry carries. “It’s for people who are interested in building things and doing aerodynamics and combustion and electronics and computer modeling of how rockets will perform. It’s a great and wonderful education opportunity and the hobby has expanded tremendously in the past 20 years or so with bigger, better, and faster rockets.”

Beyond the educational value, Smith indicated something more that he has found through the group, “It is, by definition, a kind of nerdy hobby...the unknown thing about it is the wonderful social experience. To gather like-minded people who can come together and put aside the other cares of the world to zone into the technical aspects of it. It’s a great way to make important friends and connections.”

Central Illinois Aerospace was formally founded in 1992 primarily through the efforts of John Page, the son of a teacher and local weatherman. The group was originally comprised of Page’s friends who had been informally launching together for years, but they made efforts to reach out to other enthusiasts in the area to create a thriving community. Page built a launcher and launch system and filed paperwork with the Champaign Park District, the Chanute Air Force Base, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the local aviation authorities to ensure the group would have a safe space to perform launches.

The club generally meets for launches twice a month at Dodds Park where they perform flights from noon to around 6 p.m. These meetings are open to the public, and they encourage first-time rocketeers to share their inaugural flight with the club. The club also holds regular informational meetings once a month which typically involve a presentation on model rocketry or aerospace engineering.

In addition to the regular meetings, the club hosts several special events throughout the year. They are an official affiliate of the Champaign Park District, and they work together to host workshops and seminars for children with a burgeoning interest in science. They also hold several fun get-togethers ranging from competitions – that’s right, there’s competitive model rocketry – to special launches to “bad movie nights.” Although they have had to scale back their events due to COVID-19, their biggest launch of the year is right around the corner.

A pyramid shaped model rocket soars across a blue sky with a gout of orange engine fire leaving a trail of smoke in its wake. Photo by Christopher Brian DeemPhoto by Christopher Brian Deem.

The club holds an annual launch event called the Great Annual Rocket Lift Off (GARLO) which will be held Saturday June 26th — weather permitting — at Dodds Park. The excitement will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with around a hundred launches held throughout the day. There will also be special contests, an awards ceremony, and a potluck picnic. While all of their launches are open to the public, this event is their most concerted effort to welcome new rocketeers, so this is a great time to dip your toes into model rocketry.

The club has held their Great Annual Rocket Lift Off annually for the past 32 years and those who have attended in previous years, might notice things are a bit different. In the past, they have held giveaways and build workshops during this event, however, they wanted to keep the scale smaller this year to better observe safety guidelines. They plan to fully return to normal in the next year, assuming it is safe to do so.

If you are interested, check out their website for more information.

Top photo by Christopher Brian Deem.