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Father of High Power Rocketry, John Rahkonen

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Blackleaf99

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The Father of High Power Rocketry, P. John Rahkonen (1930 - 2009)

John Rahkonen passed away a few years ago. After 79 years on planet Earth, he departed for places at a higher altitude. It is important that younger readers and rocket enthusiasts know that someone, namely John Rahkonen pushed the high performance aspects of this hobby in the earliest days of model rocketry. This had the net 'pay forward' effect in ways we all would benefit from for decades to come.

This author first met John in 1990 at LDRS-10. John was attending the rocket meet and was sharing in and enjoying the camaraderie of all the rocket enthusiasts. John was also providing one of his K700 motors to a high performance fiberglass rocket project which one of the members was launching. I never saw a rocket move faster, or more vertically straight previous to this one. This caused me to want to know more about this manufacturer called Propulsion Dynamics.

John's early years were spent in New York. In 1948 he joined the military and became part of the occupation forces in post-WW2 Europe. One of the things most interesting to me was his many humorous stories about life back then. I got the idea that he truly enjoyed his time on the continent and this was related through the positive things he had to say about the people and experiences he had. John had a strong connection with his Finnish heritage and it probably was a natural for him to spend some of his years in Europe.

In MR history, John was NAR #257 and assisted with NARAM-1. He also was the founder and owner of Propulsion Dynamics Inc. (aka Prodyne). Many who are new to the hobby probably have never heard of Prodyne, but Prodyne's early 60s contributions to the MR hobby were very real. Prodyne produced some of the earliest E series black powder motors which utilized phenolic cases and ceramic nozzles. Surviving examples of these early motors are now collector's items. Ads and articles for Propulsion Dynamics products may be found in the American Modeler magazine, circa 1963. John was one of and knew all of the early MR manufacturers.

I don't know who deserves the title of 'Father of High Power', but if anyone does it is John Rahkonen. He was making and selling full L class AP composite HP motors as early as 1963. This is a full 4 years before even Irv Wait of RDC marketed his model or HP motors. I am not aware of any other individual who could honestly make the claim to both have designs and sales literature defining 2.77 x 24" filament wound composite motors for sale in the year 1963. As far as I know, only Propulsion Dynamics can make that claim.

Prior to NARAM-6, a group of MR enthusiasts was testing new flight vehicles at the NASA Wallops Station facility. In a personal correspondence letter from G. Harry Stine to John dated 28 June 1964, the flight success of a Prodyne vehicle with a cluster of three Prodyne motors was related. To quote, "The Prodyne Swallow became the first model rocket in history to be tracked by radar. There was some side discussion among the NASA people of using model rockets as wind sounding vehicles to 2000 feet because of their low price."

Later on John became a developmental propellant chemist at Morton-Thiokol. He already had solid propellant knowledge inside him so this was another natural progression for his life and career trajectory. John was full of interesting stories and anyone who inquired about some obscure or esoteric aspect of solid propellants was sure to receive an injection of valid and accurate knowledge. Associated with this John could relate the special considerations of very fast, very slow or ultra exotic propellant formulations.

He had a large diverse knowledge base: rockets, politics, astronomy, health, strong views on most things especially religion, and lots of good advice on many subjects. In all of our society there is a large amount of questionable information available and this has increased with the use of the internet. But John's information was kept in his head, very reliable and I always found him correct on the subjects we discussed. He was someone who investigated a matter thoroughly before personally accepting a position on it.

Later sales at his company Prodyne were all vehicle and motor components and de-emphasized finished motor sales. And I also believe now that his company was never oriented toward commercial profitability. Rather it was John's intention to spread rocket knowledge through hands-on application and making high performance supplies available at a reasonable price. To this end he succeeded immensely. More than once he expressed his disgust with crushing government regulations of everything, the "alphabet soup" of regulating agency acronyms making it impossible to profitably conduct business.

John was also known outside the borders of the US. The Finnish film maker Veli Matti Granö made a film about him titled “A Strange Message from Another Star”, and the film received several awards abroad. Not many hobby enthusiasts can claim that honor.

John’s health was failing in various ways toward the end of his tenure, so there is probably a blessing to be seen in his passing. He was strong, practical, pragmatic and honest to a fault. Not at all a bad way to be remembered. The denomination which held John's spiritual beliefs encouraged members to write a book of remembrance about their lives. I hope John is always remembered in our hobby as one who contributed in positive ways. Fifty years ago he pushed the early days of higher powered, higher performance rockets. And now I hope he is out there somewhere on a higher plane among the stars he was so interested in.

John Rahkonen with a Prodyne K700.jpg
 

RocketFeller

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Interesting read. It sounds like you were fortunate to have met him.
 

bclark989

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Great piece. Thanks for posting it. I had the privilege of hearing Vern Estes, Gleda Estes, Bill Simon, Lee Piester, Betty Piester, and Bill Stine, all together on a panel at 2015. It was a very enriching experience to get and listen to them talk about those early days of model rocketry and how it shaped the hobby into what it is today. I have not read or heard nearly as much about the history of HPR. I had heard the name ProDyne before, but hadn't tried researching it.
 

jimzcatz

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Many thanks for the history lesson, even though I consider myself an oldtimer in the hobby I have never heard of this man. Thanks again.
 

tfish

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I met John a couple of times through my Research rocketry activities. I'm willing to bet I'm still using some of the 'chems' I got from him. A couple of your comments about John made me smile. I'm sure he is on a higher plane amongst the stars!

Tony
 

aerostadt

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I started at Thiokol in 1984, but I never met John. I am aware of some of this story and enjoyed reading it in this thread. I knew one Thiokol chemist that knew John, but even this acquaintance has now passed away. John lived in a town nearby by my town. He had quite a chemical stash when he passed away and his wife did not know what to do with the abundance. The local fire departments here made sure all the stuff was burned up and that made headline news locally for a few days. There has been some postings on the internet by other amateurs wishing that some of the chemicals could have been passed on to other experimenters.
 

Blackleaf99

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To those who responded, thank you. I am sure John would have appreciated the kind words of remembrance. He was not one to draw attention to himself, so it remains for others to say these things or any words at all.

Prodyne logo.jpg
 

Onebadhawk

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Wow,,
Very interesting read,,
Thank you very much for going to the trouble of posting...

Teddy
 

Bat-mite

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I will never be more than a hobby rocketeer, but, man, that guy was into it! Professionally and personally. The hobby personified. Thanks for sharing.
 
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