The cost of rocketry programs

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Jan 18, 2009
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Our small club is starting to do a lot of outreach to park districts and 4H clubs. What I'm finding is that far too many of these organizations don't want to spend any more than about $5 for a rocket kit. Our club members donate their time and we like to be able to make maybe $3 per kit in order to pay for our costs (sandpaper, glue, Exacto, etc.). $5 per kit barely covers the costs of the rockets let alone leaving anything for our club.

I don't get it. We live in a middle class area where the typical park district class like gymnastics can easily be more than $100. Whenever rocketry is discussed however, they think it's too expensive.

I like to get away from minimum diameter rockets for the beginners so that they have fewer deployment problems. Problem is, that's all that's available for rock bottom prices. Not only that, but it's nice to stay with balsa wood for the parts so that the kids can make their own repairs.

What sort of experience do others have with respect to being able to charge a reasonable fee for a rocketry build session?
We've seen similar "complaints" with certain cub scout launches where we hear second hand that building rocket is difficult and expensive.

I really think the best thing to do is to make a one page handout describing what you're doing and what the costs are, and what the time commitments are for the parents and the children. I really believe that if you make a kit rocket that will be flown more than once you really have to expect to spend $25 for a decent kit rocket, a three pack of motors, building supplies, paint and postage for everything.

The simplest rocket I know of made with classical parts is the FLISKITS Whatchamacallit which retails for $12. This rocket and it's larger sibling the FLISKITS Thing-a-ma-Jig which retails for $15 are really simple 3 FNC rockets with precut balsa fins that are impossible for a 5 year old to screw up. (Ok some adults I know have screwed them up but they were thinking too much.) With appropriate adult supervision, young folks can assemble and decorate this rocket in 1 hour. Add $5 for 3 motors, and allow $5 for postage and supplies and you're at $22-$25.

If price is really a concern, make paper rockets. The FLISKITS Caution Rocket is a free down load. Print out what you need and go to your local hobby store and buy some 1/8" elastic for Shock Cords, a roll of crepe paper for Crepe Paper Streamers, a spool of Cotton Button Thread, Masking Tape or small tape disk, and somemodeling clay for nose weight, and some glue. These supplies should be about $10. Buy a 3 pack of standard A motors for $5 and you're done. It's a bit more work than a Thing-a-ma-Jig, but everything will cost about $7 each for 10 kids.

First off, don't look at it as a money-maker for the club. Look at it as growing the hobby, and potentially your club. Plus, it's just plain fun, if done properly!

That said, yes, they don't want to spend much. But consider how many things these organizations do, and think of the problems they'd have if everything they did cost them even $5 per child. They'd quickly run out of money for activities, or the costs would be so high that they wouldn't be able to afford to do anything.

Instead of a stock kit, why not buy parts and put the kits together yourself? When you buy kits, you're paying for design time, packaging, instructions, etc. If you buy parts, you're paying for something completely different.

I must agree strongly with troj on this one---you should not try to turn these things into "money makers"
I would think you would be lucky just to get it done and get the costs covered, or even lose a little in the interest of introducing rocketry to kids

Up until a few months ago I would buy plastic NCs for 40 cents (the most expensive part), cut a 34 inch $1 piece of BT into four pieces, cut fins from a sheet of matte-board (on sale at half price every couple weeks at craft stores like HobLob), and shopped for cheap prices on all the rest. I got a roll of brightly colored plastic surveyor tape and cut 18 inch streamers. When I bought launch lugs, CRs and other parts by the 100 I was able to put a "school" rocket kit into a ziploc bag for under a buck. I had to shop about a half-dozen vendors, but it was worth it...I think.

My starter kits feature pre-colored NCs that require no finishing, white cardboard BT that works well with markers, stickers, colored tape, and sharpies, sturdy cardboard fins (some all-white, some colored one side) that can be glued on three out of four edges without worrying about grain direction, and several other simple features that made classroom builds simple and fast. There was NO brush or spray painting. Everything used water-based white glue (that I was sure to grab cheap at the back-to-school sales). I was not worried about instilling an appreciation of the fine points of classic balsa materials, or anything else that might slow down the process. These rockets were launched once, occasionally twice, and sent home. I never expected them to survive (at home) to make it to any other launches. Simple parts and and simple design were all that was needed.

I mix up fin shapes in each kit bag, and give the kids a few minutes to swap among themselves for their own choices. I make sure that the NC has enough clay ballast to keep the rocket stable with three fins. If they want to use four, or five, it's up to them. They get to show some degree of creativity, arrange the fins within limits, and decorate to "create their own design."

Motors still cost me $1 to $1.50 at the lowest prices I could find.

I found it was sooooooo much easier to get rocketry into a classroom if I donated all the materials. This completely avoided the hassle of collecting $2 or 3 from each kid, finding out which kids genuinely could not afford the $2 and which kids were just lazy, etc. For tax purposes, I donated the kits to the school PTA, or the church youth department, etc. Actually (having had the joyful experience of being audited), instead of donating the actual kits and claiming the values on my taxes, I asked the school/church to purchase them at cost, and then turned around and donated the total amount right back, so everyone had easy paperwork to work with.

Anyway, I certainly don't want to undercut any of our vendors sales, but there is now the option to purchase most (or all) of the necessary parts at very reasonable prices from Quest. And there are options there for several different BT diameters, thereby giving you choices in rocket size. If you cannot keep an individual kit cost below $1, you ought to be able to come darned close. I know that kit manufacturers have no choice than to price things differently and I don't blame them one bit. They cannot afford to "donate" their time to kitting up thousands of bags of simple parts at cost.

Motors are still going to be a bit pricey. If anyone knows a way to get the price of an 18mm A motor down under a buck (without having to buy in bulk like 100,000 at a time), please let me know.

But providing a kit-n-a-motor for around $2 seems to be about the minimum. If you can't afford to sponsor the costs yourself, you might be able to find a local business or organization (McDonald's, Home Depot, Best Buy, Kiwanees, etc) that would step up.
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Part of the problem is that we're a really small club of 5 members. This is the only way to recoup our costs. We've had so many requests to do build sessions that we'd never be able to afford to do them if we didn't make a dollar or two per kid to pay for our launch equipment. It's not really profit at all- we simply need the money pay for the hard costs of the programs. I've used easily $500 of my own money last year and that has to stop.

We were using the School Rocket kit from BMS and that costs about $4.50. However, the thru the wall construction design of the kit is not a good idea with such a small diameter body tube. The kids end up putting too much glue on the fins which then rolls around inside the body tube and results in a soggy tube around the fins and takes a day to dry.

Quest has some inexpensive kits around $5 but the shipping always pushes it past $6 or $7. I can't complain about those costs myself, it's just that the groups who want to do build/launch sessions never seem to have money for rocketry. I need to remind everyone that we are in a middle class area where most 'programs' of any sort start at $50 and go into the hundreds of dollars and often include the obligation to pay for uniforms. So what doesn't make sense is the attitude that somehow rocketry shouldn't cost more than $5 for a kid to participate.

I buy a bunch of engines when they are on sale like Quest's recent 40% off and I'll use the 40% off coupons at Hobby Lobby, one at a time for my own needs. It's tough when we suddenly need a bunch of engines for a group launch when there are no sales. It can easily cost $2.50 to $3.00 per engine if they aren't on sale. Our local Walmart only carries C6-5's.

One of the ladies that I'm dealing with at the county 4H offices thinks it's 'kind of neat' when the rockets crash. Apparently when they've done launches in the past they've had all sorts of difficulties but their attitude is that's what makes it fun. I've explained that we have an interest in showing the kids how to safely launch rockets pursuant to the NAR Safety Code and that's a tough sell.
By the way, Powder, where are you getting the 40 cent nose cones from?

PM sent.
Note that the prices are comparable to what Quest is now offering.

I hope the info is useful.
One of the ladies that I'm dealing with at the county 4H offices thinks it's 'kind of neat' when the rockets crash.

I have run into many people that ask "what sort of explosion happens when the rockets go up"
I just go through the explanation again, trying to maintain some degree of patience

One idea: You can try to encourage craftsmanship skills and classroom attention by turning the whole thing into a streamer duration event. Yeah, that's asking a lot for a first-time build, but you can indeed run this sort of thing (roughly) and have a lot of fun while getting the point across that THERE IS A RECOVERY SYSTEM that deploys and the model rockets are RE-USABLE
I'd agree with folks who say "don't make $$"; there's not enough margin in the "product" to make it worthwhile.

Simultaneously, I think it's perfectly reasonable to ask people to cover the cost of the supplies needed to do the builds. Explaining that to the parents in a sentence or two should be enough, and if not, then I think it's OK to say "thanks, but no thanks".

Pat's describing a phenomenon I took to labeling "needy groups". They've got their own agenda after all, and generally the agenda is a good one for the young people they're supporting. But converting substantial numbers of them to rocketry isn't very likely. It tends to follow "Bunny's Rule of 10's" (do a "Make It Take It" for 100 kits at an event, 10 show up for the launch, 1 might join your club).

These kinds of outreach can pay off in indirect benefits, i.e. leaving the public with a positive impression of rocketry, and helping cement your relationship with a launch site owner, like a park district.

Clubs need to be judicious in their time spent on these things. Up north of Pat, here in McHenry County, we do one major outreach a year in conjunction with the local Challenger Center, we welcome scout groups to join our launches and we use local community calendars in the paper to promote club launches. Between those things, maintaining good contact with local hobby shop owners, and the times when our individual members can do school talks and TARC mentoring, we maintain good relations with the community without burning ourselves out trying to service the dozen or so build events we could be doing.

A tough balancing act for sure.
A few comments as this is a topic near and dear to my heart :)

First, concerning our kits. Yes, the Whatchamcallit and Thing-a-ma-Jig have retail prices of $11.95 and $14.95 respectively, but you should know that they have a bulk pack price of $7.75 and $8.95 so long as you order 10 or more.

Also, FlisKits is willing to work with you on pricing and if you give us enough advance notice we can offer lower cost shipping options. The most frustrating are the groups who order on Monday for a Friday build session and then get upset with the cost of priority shipping... :)

Also, I agree that such outreach shouldn't be considered as a way to make the club money. They shouldn't be a cost burden either, but should be a service that your club offers the community. As for the cost of the launch equipment (and maintenance), frankly I believe that this is something that the club should be covering via club dues and such (imho)

Paper rockets are certainly an option, just be aware (and make sure the participating families are aware) that you get what you pay for. I've done classes with our CAUTION paper rocket only to hear parents comment "that's the cheapest rocket I've ever seen"... Well, duh.... it's free, dude... :D

The Whatchamacallit and Thing-a-ma-Jig are very high quality kits, easy to build and will last many flights (and is reparable if broken!).

Charging a fee for the session should be a given and, as Trip says, don't feel bad when you have to say "thanks, but no thanks". If you have, as you say, MANY groups seeking your services, then charging a fee should help weed out the ones who are serious vrs the ones wanting something for nothing.

Another thing that can help is to host the occasional launch demo to let folks know what rocketry is really all about. Advertise them heavily in the local papers and get folks out to watch and ask questions.

Lastly (for now anyway :) ), don't be shy about asking for support FROM your community. Ask local craft shops for donated glue, hobby shops for knives, the 99 cent store for rulers, etc. Not all will say "yes", but some will. For example, I get a 30% discount on motors from our local hobby shop. In return I put a sign up at our launches that let folks know about the discount and invite folks to visit that shop. One hand washes the other, as it were :)

Hope this helps!
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I think in the future that we'll just pass on the clubs who want to go too cheap. I'm not a big fan of minimum diameter rockets because of the deployment issues, especially for beginners. And there's not a lot of room in between the fins with such a small body tube; makes it more of a hassle form a construction point of view.

Fortunately, we have a couple of park district events coming up where they've agreed to $15 with the district subsidizing the cost for their residents so that it'll only cost $5 for the participants.

I like being able to provide a balsa wood rocket that is slightly larger, more durable, and able to be repaired.

We're going to have to work on those local donations Jim. Heck, even a couple of tubes of yellow glue at Home Depot can cost $15 by itself.
If you can stand to wait, you can find those little bottles of elmer-style glue (2 ounce? 3 ounce?) on sale at dirt cheap prices. Last summer I think they were 11 cents each around the Ft Worth stores. Sales start a mid summer. Those little bottles are good for several build sessions.

Your $15 would buy at least a 100 individual bottles, maybe upwards of 150.
Yes, you are correct, but let's clarify (I hope).

During "back to school" time - which occurs immediately after 4th of July and through August - Wal*Mart type stores have been selling decent sized individual bottles of white glue for 11 cents to 20 cents (store brand vs. Elmer's) each. They are not yellow glue, but they work. Once empty, you can refill them from a gallon jug of yellow glue if desired.

If you can stand to wait, you can find those little bottles of elmer-style glue (2 ounce? 3 ounce?) on sale at dirt cheap prices. Last summer I think they were 11 cents each around the Ft Worth stores. Sales start a mid summer. Those little bottles are good for several build sessions.

Your $15 would buy at least a 100 individual bottles, maybe upwards of 150.
Another way around the cost of kit problem is to allow the club, or orginazation wanting the build session to purchase the kits, motors and wadding for themself.

We offer a "suggested kit" list that they can select from with all the contact info.
Our club has set up build boxes containing all the basic need stuff as Powder mentioned earlier. Those little 2oz bottles of white glue are perfect for this. We refill them with yellow glue as needed. Visits to the dollar stores provide cheapy dollor "cutting/gluing board" trays, rulers, rags, tape and other items at minimal cost. These build boxes are set up in rubbermaid totes and stored at various club members homes. When needed they are ready to go, and can handle groups up to 20 builders.

As mentioned we just don't look at running building sessions as a money making activity, it's pure outreach. Sometimes the session orginazitions well give a donation to the club of 20 to 50 bucks, but thats completely up to them. When these donations do come in they are used to replenish the build boxes with supplies.
keep up the great work, it's our very best way to grow the hobby and "Pay Forward";)
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We finished our 4H build & launch session. I had the 4H office buy the kits and they bought some Estes E2X kits. The lady in the 4H office drove to the supplier to pick them up. When she commented on how the kits were inexpensive ($5), I had to politely remind her that she is an employee of the county, and hence, is on the payroll while she is driving and picking up those kits. They likely cost much more than $5!

Their office made a mistake in the brochure and only charged $8 for the class. They were suppose to add a $3 fee for each motor. So they ended up supplying enough motors, but lost money.

This 4H office is used to doing large build sessions with 80-100 kids at the schools. So their launch sessions consist of each kid getting to launch their rocket one time. We only had 13 kids in our class and they each got to launch a second time in order to fill up the class time.

Ultimately, the 4H office ended up spending about double the money that they had wanted to. I'm sure glad that I had them pay for the expenses directly. They also realize that the sort of class the we put on was much more educational in nature than what they had been doing.

We did a streamer duration contest and gave away a free rocket kit, and also launched a number of mid-power rockets for demo launches.

All in all, the kids had a fun time and the 4H office is more aware of the expenses. Everything else we have coming up is more in the range of $10-15 per attendee and will allow us to properly cover our expenses.

We're in the unfortunate position of being a very small club, so we don't have the option of subsidizing these expenses. So we either make sure the class fee covers the expenses or we won't do any outreach. I prefer the former and it appears to be working out other than this 4H group.

Your club is doing a wonderful outreach for rocketry, but the cost of the event needs to cover the expenses to the members don't have to subsidize the events. To make this happen you need to be able to set the price and probably should supply the PR/registration forms for the classes.

Since the 5 of you are providing the service and have put in a lot of time, effort and thought into it, my suggestion is that your club should make up a standard electronic form with prices and leave blank spaces to add in the the sponsoring organizations info such as the date, time, location, logos, contact info, etc. (Blank tables in Word work great for this.) When a group asks you to do an event, simply add the group specific information, pdf it, and have the group print the forms out and distribute it. You have control of the kit selection and the motor selection, and therefore the pricing.

If you can schedule the event in advance, either you or the sponsor can purchase the kits and the motors in bulk.

Here's an on-line example. You can get bulk packs of cheap rockets for as little as ~$3.20 per rocket and ~$1.30 per motor. (E2X UP Aerospace SpaceLoft Model Rocket Educator Bulk Pack of 12 and Estes A3-4T Model Rocket Engine bulk pack of 24) Each kid gets a rocket kit and 2 motors for ~$7 including shipping.

While this example is probably not the best from an educational standpoint, it shows that you can do it inexpensively if you have control of the pricing and the vendors. From the comments in this thread, you should be able to get more "robust" kits like the Fliskits mentioned for ~$10-$11 and 2 B6-4 motors for $4 with shipping for a total of $15. If the group charges charge $20 per child, you can get paint, glue, knives, etc. and the sponsoring group gets to keep the change. It covers their publicity costs and doesn't cost you club any more than the time you put into it.

Just a thought.

Thanks for the link Bob. They just keep getting cheaper and cheaper! It's amazing that the kit mfgs even make any money at those prices.

Some of the parents showed up when we had our launch. We had a sign in sheet for anyone interested in our club and we got interest from about half of the attendees.

What was interesting is that the parents who showed up had no concern over the costs- like I expected. The demographics of this area can support much higher fees- just like many of the other extra curricular activities that kids sign up for. Our club is doing a big push this spring and summer to get more members and these sessions are really going to help.

We have a list of about 30 kids and adults who have attended various club events in the last few months and now we're ready to start having regular meetings and grow our new littlle club into something much larger.
I've done a few build and launch sessions for the Discovery Center here and a PCS (not sure what that means) center, a place for advanced students.

I haven't done one in a while but I used Pratt Hobbies Super 6 rockets that cost $2.25 with pre cut fins. The Centers ordered and paid for the rockets and supplies.

Ok, I just looked at Pratt Hobbies link in the recources section and the cost for 5 or more is $4.50 now(guess it's been a while since I've done a session :p )
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What are these "kits" of which people keep talking? :D

The way to get costs down is to scratch build. A friend of mine runs rocket workshops and, partly for cost reasons and partly so everyone gets their own design of rocket rather than someone else's, they all get to build from scratch. The motors are commercial, for obvious safety and legal reasons. Wadding is also provided.

Body tube: basically any cardboard tube of reasonable size that he can get from anywhere. He has a large collection now. :)
Body extension tube: rolled from paper.
Nose cone: rolled from paper.
Nose weight: plasticene.
Fins: cut from heavy cardboard.
Motor mount: heavy cardboard tube cut down to size and slit lengthwise so it can be reduced to the relevant diameter.
Motor hook: large paper clip straightened out and bent to a more useful shape.
Shock cord: mostly string plus a rubber band.
Streamer: crepe paper.
The result: