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Rough Science 4 Death Valley: Iain Stewart's diary: Rocket

Updated Tuesday 29th August 2006

Iain Stewart's diary about the challenge for the Rocket programme, from the BBC/OU series Rough Science 4

The team with the rocket Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day One

I’d been preparing myself for the final challenge of the series to be a real tough task, but this appeared too good to be true. Kathy, Mike and Jonathan are to build some rockets to fire off into space, while me and Ellen are to build a payload for it to carry and a parachute to bring it back down to Earth.

Admittedly not a hint of rock or geology in sight, but this seemed to be too much fun. This is the kind of things you would do with the kids in the back garden (fire them into space I mean), and after the stress of the earthquake task this seemed to be a breeze. It was funny. When Ellen was quizzed on camera about what was the worst challenge of the series she chose this one “because I know nothing about it”. When I was asked for my best one I chose this “because I know nothing about it”.

So, it’s a good team! Dumb and Dumber I hear you cry – maybe. But In Rough Science the fresher the challenges are, the more exciting and fun they should also be. Well, that’s the theory. The next couple of days would certainly sort that out.

Most of our day just seemed to be spent cutting up bin bags, throwing them up into the air and smashing a few eggs. Oh yes, the egg. Well, Kate had decided that the payload that we had to bring back down safely was an egg. A couple of dozen eggs were provided for experimental purposes. Ellen cleverly thought that our early tests should have something with the weight of an egg on it, but not the mess.

Anyway, turns out that a small square battery was an equivalent weight so we started using this. That’s when I discovered that to an American, the term ‘battery egg’ is meaningless; still, others tittered. But as the day wore on we had refined our chute size and recognised that a hole in it was much better for its aerodynamics. The only trouble was that often the chute was only starting to open when it was a metre or so from the ground. We had got up about as high as we could at the mine, and with it being early evening already (how time flies when your making aerial omelette) we figured we’d set out for the hills first thing in the morning.

The team with the rocket Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day Two

The local Alabama Hills are amazing to look at. The low rounded peaks, with incredible bulbous shapes, are in fact made of granite. In the hot desert conditions, the granite outer crust is weathered off to ensure that a smooth, rounded shape is formed. What’s strange is that the very same granite forms the stunning jagged peaks that tower over the hills from the nearby Sierra Nevada.

Way up there the cold conditions cause the granite to weather more by freeze-thaw processes, so forming a completely different mountain landscape. Actually you’ll have probably seen the Alabama Hills on telly, since just about every early western was filmed there. And it’s still movieland country up here, with small parts of Gladiator and GI Jane being filmed here most recently. And soon, you’ll see it on Rough Science too.

Apart from enjoying the scenery, Ellen and I were keen to try to launch our parachute from the highest peak we could safely manage, so that it had the longest chance to free fall and open up. We were assuming that the rockets that the others were making would be giving us a few hundred metres of height (ha, ha - as it turned out), so the main question was to check that the chute design was stable and that the descent was as slow as possible.

As usual, I was more than happy to clamber up the rocks, particularly since Ellen was still nursing a twisted ankle (that’s another story – for the full sordid details check out her webpages). A morning of me throwing up (as ever), and Ellen catching down ended with us feeling pretty good about our chute. The egg-splattered granite surfaces made us feel less confident about the safety of our payload. So, back to the mine to work on that.

We figured that it would be against the spirit of the challenge to embed our egg in jelly (my idea), or to hard boil it (my idea) or various other cheats (my ideas), so we decided instead to give it a natural cushion (Ellen’s idea). She went out to collect some soft vegetation that would make a nice wee nest for our precious egg. The return to the mine also gave us the chance to see how the rocket designs were coming on, important for us since we had to design our payload to fit onto them.

The designs of Kathy and Mike were fine – both were using 2 litre plastic lemonade bottles, so we could use the cut off base of one of those and simply attach it loosely on top. Jonathan’s rocket was a vicious beast – a thin rod of metal tubing that when heated we expected would soar skyward, bringing down one of the F-16 jets that regularly buzzed the mine (I swear they must have thought we were a terrorist group – how else would you explain such strange comings and goings in the middle of an abandoned mine).

By the end of the day it had turned out to be a bit of a damp squid, the air pressure rupturing the seals before it could escape explosively.

The team with the rocket Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day Three

Our work today was pretty repetitious. We'd set up our payload on Kathy’s water rocket, pump it up, fire it off (sometimes) and then decide why our payload had (a) not come unstuck or (b) come unstuck but failed to open. Usually we were also soaked by water in the process. We’d already decided to ditch Jonathan’s air rocket and Mike’s gas rocket wasn’t doing very much, so only Kathy's was getting any height.

Even then we were talking a few metres to tens of metres, so our chute wasn’t having enough time to detach and fall freely. There were constant refinements, this time with Jonathan and Mike helping out since they’d abandoned their efforts. But we had competition – the crew had decided that they could do a better water rocket so they set about building an alternative. We had a space race on our hands.

To be fair, when they set off theirs it went up for miles, much to their delight. Still, it wasn’t on camera, so it didn’t count. Reluctant to be shown up, we stuck with our more gentle one. Even after an afternoon of valiant efforts and numerous failures, we still hadn’t had a full dress rehearsal with the egg inside. But time was up. We needed to film the finale. The two sets of cameras set up and we made final refinements to our launching system.

Of course, it worked. We pumped up the air into the upturned bottle, half filled with water. When the pressure inside exceeded the grip of the jubilee clip at the corked cap of the bottle, it blew off. The bottle, with our payload balanced loosely on top, soared into the sky. As it reached its maximum height and turned to descend, there were a few anxious seconds of hesitation. This was typically when the chute just refused to come out.

But this time it did, the parachute canopy quickly opening and the whole thing floating off to land behind the wood pile. We rushed to see the damage. Gingerly, Kate opened up the payload and took out the egg – unbroken. Then she cracked it (whew, just as well we hadn’t gone hard-boiled). Yoke! Success. Pats on back. Whooping and hollering. Lots of beers. Ingredients for a great Rough Science.


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