Getting a Guinness-worthy attempt off the ground -- Going for a
water rocket record using 'Home Depot engineering'
By Lou Fancher
For Scoutmaster Tony Zavanelli and the boys in Boy Scout Troop 227, "failure to launch" on Nov. 2 means only one thing -- try again.
Shooting for a Guinness World Records-worthy effort, the Scouts are working to hurtle their 24-foot, 4-inch water rocket, believed to be the largest ever, airborne from a launch pad atop a hill at Diablo Ranch Sunday afternoon, Nov. 16. If successful, "launch 2.0" will thrust Troop 227 and the 710 2-liter and 2.5-liter bottles with a liftoff weight of 550 pounds and total volume of 953 liters into the world-famous record book.
Troop 227's rocket is roughly twice as long and twice as wide as the current record holder -- an 11-foot, 1-inch-tall, 3-inch-wide rocket created by members of the National Physical Laboratory (UK) and launched at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, UK, on June 15, 2011.
Remarkably, the lack of liftoff on the first attempt was a mere hiccup in the Walnut Creek troop's two-year process, a fact made evident during a TV broadcast covering the event. After five hours of try-tweak-try-again, with aging plastic bottles bursting under the pressure of water and compressed air (the primary blast mechanism) and sunset's fading light, optimism prevailed.
"We just wanted to get to our goal," 12-year-old Scout Ruhan Katre said. "And now we're here and just the enthusiasm of all of us just trying to get there ... "
Katre left his sentence incomplete, but a phone interview with Zavanelli, a mechanical engineer who's led the troop for 3 1/2 years, made it clear that the project was in no way finished.
"The theory is sound, we've done the tests," Zavanelli said. "The issue is simple joints with the bottles. We know it can work."
Zavanelli said no one complained when darkness fell and safety dictated they abandon the Nov. 2 launch attempt and regroup.
"The only thing I heard was, 'What comes next? How do we come back and try again?' It's a reaction some adults can't do," he said.
Regrouping means examining the rocket, made mostly of repurposed materials like irrigation piping, spray bottle tops, offcuts of a cutting board and recycled plastic bottles the boys obtained from people waiting in line at a local recycling center. The construction involved what Zavanelli calls "Home Depot engineering" and fashioning "tornado tubes," drilling orifices, affixing 30-foot bottle columns to a manifold and gauging air pressure versus volume and weight with mathematical formulas to insure adequate force is created.
"The science and math, I soft-sell," Zavanelli said, "but I do explain the physics."
Primarily, the boys learn lessons that are more precious than algebraic theorems or practical applications
of physical properties, he says. After all, dividing a complicated project into tasks, determining who does what, self-separating to take responsibility, staying motivated as a team -- or knowing when to step away and go camping, hiking, white-water rafting, indoor sky-diving or collecting food for a local food bank -- are essential life skills.
"They learned things don't work the first time," Zavanelli said. "They built things three or four times. It taught them things don't happen in a linear process. From a broader perspective of positive memories and skills, we've been successful, even with the setbacks."
If the launch can't happen Sunday, he said, it may have to wait for a reliable window for good weather. Rain isn't an issue, but wind certainly is.
So what happens if the reinforced, revamped rocket, now with a bigger compressor allowing bottles to be filled faster and starting a few hours earlier for more sunlight, fails to launch?
"We're not going to stop until it launches," Zavanelli said. "Even if we eventually run out of weather, we'll park it in my backyard and spend winter fabricating new bottles."