About a month ago, while traveling online, I came across an offer to get a Catalog of Estes rockets “free and in color”. I was shocked and delighted to learn that a real paper catalog still existed.
I had lived for the Estes Catalog as a preteen and teenager. Getting one in the mail was like Christmas morning. So, I signed up for my 2022 catalog and immediately forgot about it.
A few days ago I opened our mailbox and lo and behold, and with it came the same monstrous buzz of excitement and possibility that I used to get as a kid.
The 2022 catalog is quite substantial, with more than 100 pages. And it’s brilliant, beautifully designed and clearly presented.
Opening it, I was thrilled to immediately see a group photo of the Estes staff in front of their facility in Penrose, CO. I remember similar group photos, in the same place, from long ago. Dig out that groovy space-age architecture!
I had to burst out laughing as I turned the page to the first product offering, the Starter Kit, now the Astrocam. In the 1970s, the starter kit was the Astron Alpha, a basic 3-fin model that sold on its own for $1.50. (Below is a photo of mine that I rediscovered several years ago – hard to believe it’s over 50 years old.) Besides the Alpha, the 70s starter kit included a ramp for launch and a launch controller, all for less than $10. Opposite the spectrum of 1970s desires was the Cineroc, a rocket equipped with a Super 8 video camera, something that looked like state-of-the-art space-age technology at the time. It sold for the princely sum of $19.95. I didn’t know anyone who had one, but we all coveted it.
In 2022, the starter set is now the Astrocam, the modern version of the Cineroc. It comes with an HD camera with USB. It also comes with the Porta-Pad II launcher and what looks like the exact same launcher controller I had in the 1970s. This starter set is $80. It sounds like an unaffordable sum for a child, but it’s actually not much more than inflation.
One of the things I loved most about model rockets was building the birds myself. So it’s a little disappointing how many current Estes models come “ready to fly” or in kits with all the plastic parts snap-on. Luckily, they still offer complete DIY kits, right down to balsa wood fins (now pre-cut).
One thing that strikes me about the modern catalog is how similar it is in layout and content to older editions, right down to the pitch to join the National Assoc of Rocketry on the last page. I was also happy to see that some favorite rockets from my youth are still on sale, like Big Bertha, the Goblin, and the Mars Snooper.
The rocket challenge that we were always excited about was sending the Scrambler up and picking it up… uh… in plain English. It was a rocket with a transparent nose bay large enough to carry a raw egg. It’s great to see that they still have an egg transport, now called Green Eggs. Why the name? The payload section plastic is tinted green. If the egg breaks in combat or upon landing, green eggs are what you get back. [Cue: sad trombone music.]
When I got into model making in the late 70s, the two giants of the hobby were Vern Estes (founder of Estes Industries, with his wife Gleda) and G. Harry Stine (often called the father of the hobby). time, founder of the National Association of Rocketry, and the author of The Rocket Model Handbook). One of Stine’s earliest concept and ever-built designs was a rocket called Antar. Every rocket enthusiast, young and old, has probably dreamed of building this sci-fi-looking ship. I did. So I was thrilled when Estes announced the release of an Antar kit last year. I haven’t had this hobby for many decades, but I have to admit I can’t wait to build one.
It was a big deal in the 70s when Estes released their biggest rocket engine yet, the D-class (up to 20 N-seconds of total impulse). The spectacular take-offs and the power of these engines were a real boost for the hobby. Today, Estes offers an even more powerful motor, the F (up to almost 34 N-sec of impulse). Where a D motor can handle a lifting weight of up to 14 oz, an E can handle up to 21 oz.
As a teenager, I could never afford the Designer’s Special, a big bundle of parts for you to design your own rockets, but it was still a huge source of inspiration. I would try to design my own rockets on paper, limiting myself to the parts found in this lot. Since so many rockets are now ready to fly or nest together, I’m glad to see that the Designer Special lives on.
One of the many interesting things about Estes early on was his focus on science and technology education. The current catalog is a little lighter on this content, but there is still enough technical information for budding scientists and engineers to get started. I’m sure over the years Estes has struggled to strike a balance between market appeal/object value and science and technology education and depth.
Given all the distractions of our times and the constant competition for kids’ attention, it’s great to see a company like Estes stay true to its original mission of inspiring the imaginations of young (and old) ) and teach science and engineering through a fun and engaging hobby. Or, as Estes puts it: “…from backyards and schoolyards to worlds beyond.”
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You can order your own printed Estes 2020 catalog here.
Image: Estes product photo