If Michael Roberts is working on a project, chances are it is rocket science.
The Land O’ Lakes man has been fascinated with making things fly where he wants them to go since he was a young boy.
“I started going to the five-and-dime seeing these little windup planes,” he said. “I had a shoebox full.”
As time went on, he graduated from balsa wood model airplanes to radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters, which he bought with his paper route money.
“My mom kind of thought I’d grow out of it,” he said. Instead, the 49-year-old who flies aircraft for the U.S. Department of Defense delved deeper.
In recent years, Roberts decided to get into designing model rockets from scratch. That began after he moved to the Tampa Bay area, just down the street from his nephew.
When his nephew began asking questions about rocketry, Roberts was inspired to try to build them.
“I started with small rockets — stick rockets — and they got bigger and bigger,” he said.
As his interest deepened, his rockets became more sophisticated. They had become so large that he decided he needed to add parachutes.
After that, he joined the Tripoli Tampa Rocketry Association, which has rocket launches on the third Saturday of each month in Plant City. It was then Roberts decided to pursue certification so he could launch larger rockets, and is now at the highest level a civilian can achieve.
“It’s a big deal,” he said.
With that certification, Roberts is qualified to launch a rocket capable of reaching the edge of space. But he still would need the proper kind of rocket and would need to launch it in the right place, under the proper conditions. To earn his top-level certification, he launched a rocket that flew 11,000 feet at 920 miles per hour, returning to the Earth intact.
He built that rocket from scratch in his garage.
It took him thousands of hours to progress from the first stick rocket that he constructed to his 14th rocket, which weighed more than 30 pounds. He built that rocket from parts he bought at such places as Home Depot, Ace Hardware, Target, Walmart and hobby shops.
It is made from double-layered polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, pipe, and includes such items as baby powder, Christmas tree light bulbs, keychain cameras, pet tracker GPS devices, and commercial composite fuel.
“The guys in the club kept trying to tell me, ‘Don’t do it (from) scratch. It’s going to be a lot of work. It’s probably not going to work,’” Roberts said.
He ignored their advice.
“Scratch-build — what I like about it is that it takes more research,” Roberts said.
He jotted design ideas and calculations in a composition notebook. He kept going back to them, to refine them. His goal was to limit the number of variables to reduce potential for problems.
“Too many variables, you don’t know what happened” if something goes wrong, Roberts said. “Reduce the variables, when you’re doing something complex, I don’t care what it is.”
At a launch, Roberts runs through a mental checklist.
“I look at it as stages. Let’s make sure it ignites,” he said. “Your first thing is, let’s get it to launch and not blow up.”
As the rocket rises, “you’re thinking of other items that should happen, that should trigger,” he said. “You’re kind of keeping a clock in your head of what should be next.”
Finally, “you want to be able to find it, because you can have a good flight and not be able to find it,” Roberts said. “That would be a sad time.”
Even with a good design, nothing is guaranteed.
“You’re not sure. The engine could blow up or something could fly off,” he said. “That’s why it’s such a good feeling when it all works.”
Roberts gets a kick out of flying rockets and radio-controlled model airplanes and helicopters, and he hopes to encourage young people to pursue model aeronautics. He thinks that working with models was good for him because it captivated his interest.
“It kept me focused and kept me out of trouble,” he said.
To view Roberts’ rocket launch, visit youtu.be/U6JBVRkGq-s.