The rocket engineer

-A flashback-

In the early 60s, when I was a young boy, the space age had begun; rockets were the big thing; so I built rockets, little rockets, model rockets. The typical “appeal” of rockets, the noise, the fire, the violence didn’t attract me so much; it was the purposeful mechanics, the intricate functions of machinery that could fly and come down unharmed that inspired me. The thing had to fly in a controlled way; a parachute had to open at the right time. In order to fly really high it had to be very light weight but still tough enough to withstand the enormous speed.

For power I tested firework-rockets. I asked my father to buy some but never used them at New Years. I carefully removed all the useless explosives and special-effect stuff and measured their thrust by putting them on a baking scale and fired them. I made a parachute out of a handkerchief. And I designed a system to trigger a rubber string loaded container with the rolled-up parachute to eject when the rocket had burned out. The firecracker rockets received a few modifications so that a little explosion at the end would eject them out of the body and release the chute.

Making things do what I wanted, the controlled sequence of purposeful events was what I found beautiful. I recently found some plans I made some 50 years ago.­­­­­­­­­



It’s funny how I remember that I somehow intuitively knew that this thing could only achieve a stable flight if the center of combined wind forces on the little wings in the back and the body lay behind the center of gravity. How to check this? The center of gravity is easy to find by balancing the finished rocket. The center of wind forces must be the center of the entire geometric surface, I thought. And, as the weight is distributed evenly in any homogeneous object, the geometric center must be identical with the center of gravity, so I simply cut out a 1:1 projection of the rocket out of cardboard, found the center of gravity of that by balancing, and had my center of wind forces.


 Super light, made of balsa wood, this thing flew and worked like a dream.


 Note the Elvis Presley hairdo! It was that time.


This rocket never failed or crashed. It was impossible to know how high it actually flew, but it was high enough that we – my friend Wolfgang and me – couldn’t see it anymore when the smoke had faded.


 And each time we were elated when it finally came slowly down, dangling from the little parachute.


In later versions I added a compartment in the upper part and a little door. And I actually put in a pretty big beetle and let him have the ride of his life. I remember he crawled out quite unimpressed after the flight.

I never became a rocket engineer; however I did become an engineer but got soon disenchanted with this profession even though it somehow ended up to be my ticket to the independence I really wanted after all. (There are some thoughts about my short intense engineering career here).

What would have been if I hadn’t taken that road leading to this engineering episode in my life? Why didn’t I playfully shoot rockets like any other boy, enjoy the bang, and move on to other things?

I always wanted to be an artist but for inexplicable reasons never took that seriously.

The artist is content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery. He knows the temptation to strive for demystification, but within the mystery he sees the metaphor and understands it and knows his freedom to leave it at that. The engineer feels the same wonder, but he takes the mystery personally, he feels challenged and chooses to act on his desire to conquer the mystery. For the artist, there is no separation between himself and the mystery. For the engineer, to look at a mystery is to look for a solution. He applies his method of questioning to the “problem”. He looks at what is contained within this limitation. The artist knows: to see is to see the limitations themselves.

Sometimes I wanted to become a writer. My father was one and did not find much happiness in it, so I ruled that out without ever really considering it.

Do we ever have even the faintest idea what accidents, fateful or totally benign, what plain, innocent ignorance or equally inculpable misunderstandings have shaped our decisions in life? We think we chose our path; of course we did, but what we choose from is mostly a fictitious, made-up capricious set of options. How many times may we have just misunderstood things, misinterpreted impressions, and what we perceived as choice was only a selection between misconceived arbitrary options? In our early years, when we are most vulnerable to impressions, we are the least capable to avoid drastically misjudging what they mean; and this, of course, alludes to the very essence of the mystery of life.

                                                                                             Klaus   Feb. 13. 2012

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