The Ukrainian government and society, especially in the context of the ongoing war with Russia, must give thought to the future of the country, in particular concerning the development of its young people’s potential. It will also have to pay close attention to the education of the engineers who will be responsible for the development of Ukraine’s production and technology – both civilian and military. One of the possible paths for attracting young people to engineering careers is engineering clubs, such as rocket modeling clubs.

Model rocketry is a competition in which participants create model rockets designed to perform specific tasks. By doing this, people are essentially developing their own engineering skills. And it is precisely these engineers that Ukraine needs for the development of industry and, in general, for the sake of the future. But are “children’s toys” capable of turning into real ideas and products?

What is rocket modeling?

In the modern world, sports are not only competitions in strength, agility, and endurance. Many activities demonstrate other skills. Competitions in technical or motor disciplines involve the ability to deliver a vehicle to a certain point or area while handling certain conditions.

The most famous technical sport is Formula 1 racing. Its example clearly shows that in such sports it is not only the skill of the person driving the vehicle that is important, but also the engineering talent of the team that prepares the car for the start.

Rocket modeling is somewhat similar to Formula 1. Only in this sport, human participation during the rocket flight itself is completely removed. The decisive factor here is the work of the team itself at the preparation stage. Fundamentally, rocket modeling is a competition of ability to build complex equipment with limited materials.

Ukrainian Rocket Modeling Championship
2021 Ukrainian Rocket Modeling Championship, Dnipro
Photo: Federation of Rocket Modeling Sports of Ukraine

In modern rocket modeling, rockets are divided into twelve categories – from S1 to S12. In each of them, the rocket must perform a different task: gain maximum altitude, land close to a certain mark, or simply demonstrate its exceptional resemblance to a real carrier that actually launches or once launched cargo into orbit. In addition, competitions include various gliders with jet boosters.

Rocket modeling in Ukraine

With a total weight of up to 20 kilograms and a maximum flight altitude of several kilometers, even “toy” rockets still require responsibility and knowledge of how to handle them. By themselves, they are not suitable for any practical purposes, but historically rocket modeling has developed in countries that had their own “adult” rocket industry.

Ukraine is no exception. From its Soviet past, the country inherited not only a rocket industry, but also rocket modeling circles. They have not disappeared over the past 30 years of independence, but have transformed into a new modern culture.

Ukrainian rocket modelers at the 2023 World Championships
Ukrainian rocket modelers during preparations for the 2023 World Championships
Photo: Todd Schweim

Rocket modeling is aimed at older schoolchildren. It is teenagers who are attracted by demonstrations organized by their older comrades who join modern rocket modeling circles. On the other hand, adults often turn this into their life’s work.

Before the full-scale Russian invasion, model rocket competitions were regularly held in Ukraine with the support of Association Noosphere. Ukrainian competitors regularly traveled to international events and won prizes.

Since the full-scale invasion, however, all competitions within Ukraine have had to be stopped. Rocket modelers have not even had the opportunity to carry out practice launches to test new ideas. International competitions have continued, however, in 2023, Team Ukraine was able to bring a total of 14 medals from the World Championships held in the US.

Ukrainian national rocket modeling team 2023
The Ukrainian national rocket modeling team at the 2023 World Championships awards ceremony

Is it difficult to create a rocket?

At first glance, rockets are quite simple in their design. The main thing required is a substance that, when burned, produces a large amount of high-temperature gasses. You also need a chamber where it will burn, and a nozzle through which the combustion products will be expelled to create thrust. You also need something to ensure that fuel is fed into the chamber gradually. All this is packed into a housing and equipped with flight and stabilization controls.

However, in practice, using this recipe to produce a rocket capable of rising several hundred meters into the air is extremely difficult. It is necessary to understand the physics of fuel combustion and gas expansion. One must account for the weight of each individual element that makes up the rocket, know what the center of mass is, and what rotational moments will occur in the rocket during movement.

The vast majority of information about this is contained in the school curriculum, but for students it mostly remains dead weight. For rocket designers, however, it is essential to understand how to use this or that formula.

Mastering all of these skills takes time and practice, which is exactly what rocket modelers all over the world work on. This does not replace specialized education in the field of aircraft and rocket modeling. However, if a person already has experience in launching “toy” rockets, they will immediately find the practical applications of what is explained to them in lectures, and will also quickly learn new material.

All of the above applies only to model rockets. For devices intended for practical purposes, like launching satellites into orbit or destroying enemy armored vehicles, everything is much more complicated, although there are exceptions. For example, the solid-fuel rocket for the BM-21 Grad is structurally not so different from what schoolchildren launch.

What rocket modelers create

The chief task of any engineer is to create a product with specified properties from available materials and mechanisms at minimal cost. The technological methods and calculations they use to achieve this goal are a question of skill.

Ukraine Rocketry Challenge 2021
Ukraine Rocketry Challenge 2021 participants assemble models of the Firefly Alpha rocket

Both Formula 1 teams and rocket modelers create one or a very limited number of vehicles for use in competition. On the other hand, they are not particularly limited in the labor they use to produce their entry. The main thing is to produce results in accordance with the requirements.

It is these requirements that shape the final design of the model rocket, which needs to be the best in its category, but will not be useful for anything else. That is, it is not a matter of actually reaching orbit or delivering a payload.

It is also important to note that rocket modelers build their own designs with their own hands, unlike professional rocket engineers, who must think through their designs so  that other people who are completely unfamiliar with their brilliant ideas can start production on standardized equipment.

And this is precisely where the skills of rocket scientists differ from those of an engineer. Therefore, to say that we need model rocketry to start a Ukrainian SpaceX or the production of hypersonic missiles is incorrect. Schoolchildren won’t magically start producing Falcon analogues. However, this will help lay the foundation for the development of this industry.

Human Development

At one time, the rocket industry was born out of the desire of a small group of eccentrics to reach space. Like most high-tech industries, it came about thanks to the dreams of unusual but very smart people. And this is what changed our world.

Every society has the potential to produce people capable of creating something more high-tech than what we have now. However, to do this, it is necessary to identify their abilities, equip them with knowledge, and teach them to use these things for the benefit of themselves and others. This is called human development. The more complex things an individual member of a society can do on average, the richer and more powerful the society is as a whole.

model rocket launch

Educated people create high-tech products to improve society, which produces creative people who strive for education. This feedback loop of societal development, where the emphasis is on the production of a product rather than raw materials, forms both reliable industry and technological independence. One of the main driving forces of such a society will obviously be young people who are continuously building new skills and knowledge.

Rocket modeling, like other mechanical design and testing activities, is a great way to show young people what developing their potential can do for them. Because it all starts with something that interests you. It is this that serves as the main motivator for the development of new knowledge, which, under favorable conditions, can give rise to a new industry.