Rookie Dad: The Rocket Boys


For my 37th birthday, my 5-year-old son picked out the exact present he wanted to give me. Wait a second … let me be perfectly honest. Those last three words are completely unnecessary. The first sentence of this column should read: For my 37th birthday, my 5-year-old son picked out the exact present he wanted.

Which is A-OK by me. Heck, I think the little guy caught on to my own present-buying schemes. Like the pair of primo baseball tickets I bought my wife for her birthday. Or the surround-sound speakers she received last Christmas.

So, what did my son buy himself? I mean, what did he buy me? A rocket. An honest-to-goodness “Model Rocket!” with “Quick Assembly!” Yes, a “Real Rocket Engine — Sold Separately!” and, by the way, “!WARNING: Product Contains Lead.” (You know a product is super-cool when it can get away with placing an exclamation point after the words “sold separately” and before a warning about a poisonous metal.)

As soon as I unwrapped the gift, my 5-year-old and his 3-year-old brother began tearing at the box. They faithfully had kept the rocket under wraps for two weeks and couldn’t wait one more second. They wanted to see what that bad boy really looked like.

To their disappointment, it was a bunch of small plastic parts and a long list of instructions. Apparently, they thought a fully assembled Space Shuttle Atlantis was going to drop out of the box.

Quickly, I tried to rally the troops. “C’mon, guys, this is going to be great! What an awesome present! Building the rocket together will be half the fun.”

Turns out, building the rocket was fun. I waited until my 3-year-old went on a play date (I was pretty sure he would just run off with key parts and hide them behind the couch if allowed to help) and then sat down with the older boy to piece the rocket together. I read the instructions, and he did the mechanical work. We talked about if the rocket could make it past the clouds and all the way to the moon. We joked about strapping the 3-year-old to the rocket. And slowly but surely, we built the rocket and pride beamed from our faces.

As advised, we left the rocket’s engine — an insert the size of a crayon that’s filled with who-knows-what kind of propellant — inside its packaging until launch time.

The next morning, the boys popped out of bed ready, in their words, to “light that candle.” They come by their enthusiasm for rockets and space travel honestly. My parents live near Cape Canaveral in Florida and Grandma has been sending her grandsons NASA-themed toys from the day they each were born.

And on this special day, I popped in my DVD of “October Sky,” the real-life tale of a boy who built a rocket with the help of some friends and eventually earned a scholarship to college, a job with NASA and the respect of his father. I fast-forwarded to a thrilling scene late in the movie when the boys launch one of their rockets. My sons watched in awe, then asked excitedly, “Can we go launch our rocket now?”

With blue skies overhead and still, warm air, it was a perfect day for the launch. We set up the pad in the middle of a local baseball field complex. I inserted the engine into the base of the rocket and connected the wiring. My wife dutifully videotaped the proceedings for later review by mission control.

My 5-year-old counted, slow and steady, “TEN… NINE… EIGHT… SEVEN… SIX… FIVE… FOUR… THREE… TWO… ONE…” Pressing his finger on the launch button, the rocket jumped from the pad with a “THHHSSSTTT”and climbed into the sky.

We followed it with our eyes as it accelerated, went into its climb phase, reached its apogee… and failed to eject its parachute. The rocket crashed back to Earth and the recovery team — whooping with sheer joy despite the glitch — sprinted across the field to assess the flight.

After I loosened the parachute inside the body of the rocket, we tried again. This time, my 3-year-old sent the rocket on its way, and it performed its task — all systems nominal, in NASA-speak. A thrilling lift-off turned into a majestic flight, which turned into a soft, parachute-aided descent.

That night, when the boys went to bed, they each rolled over on their back, whispered the countdown sequence and knifed their hands up toward the ceiling, replaying the launch.