rocket1.jpg

A view of the completed rocketpack.

Fuel your child’s flights of fancy. Build them a rocketpack.

“The little ankle biter is wild enough on a tricycle,” you say, “without adding jet fuel to the mix.”

Well, I can’t speak to the hyperactivity, but with this creation, you’ll be assured he or she will be staying on the ground, and the only pyrotechnics will be in the imagination.

But why a rocketpack? OK, here’s my admission: I always wanted one.

rocket2.jpg

Looking up into the central core where the wires for the cooling fan were placed.

I mean, how cool was it to see Gilligan rocketing off the island in that rocketbelt, or the animated heroes in Saturday cartoons blasting away to save the day. Anyone cool had a rocketpack. My G.I. Joe action figure had what looked like F-4 Phantom engine on his pack. And then, James Bond in Thunderball, escaping evil-doers up-up-and-away in the opening scene. This interest was started early from my dad, a Depression-era kid, who was raised on Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and notably Commander Cody, the original Rocket Man.

So, as a dad, I decided to make my kids a rocketpack, and live the dream through them, whether they liked it or not.

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A top down view, showing the computer cooling fan, backed with a piece of tin foil.

In starting this, I did my Internet search for ideas, and then (originally I did this project in 2008) as now, I found lots of ideas and creations, but the problem I saw in these elaborate and creative designs was they were visually neat but were too fragile for kid play: painted plastic one-liter pop bottles, or fabric, or thin cardboard tubes wrapped in tinfoil, many of which were dragging behind them flimsy fins or “exhaust flame” streamers.

Yeah. Those look pretty, but an afternoon of action and adventure, your kid is gonna have a shredded mess trailing behind him or her.

So, I decided on design materials with some moxie. Let me lay out the supply list.

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Another top down view, with the cover off, showing the bolts holding this together.

Head over to your favorite newspaper office (I chose the Idaho County Free Press, go figure…) and pick up an end roll; that’s the remnant of those massive paper rolls used in publication production. Within the core of that paper (which is great for other child crafts and uses, by the way) is a quarter-inch thick or so cardboard tube. This is a beefy tube; those are your rocket engines.

What else do you need? I chose a Folgers 11-ounce plastic coffee can for the core (skinny, and would fit a section of end roll inside). Get to the thrift store and pick up a child’s backpack, from which you’ll remove the straps. Have a scrap computer? Pull out the ventilator fan for use. Gather up two tin cans as exhaust ports. Those are the basics. I also found two plastic caps from inside a packing paper roll, which holds it to a dispensing frame; that works great for the thruster nozzles. Also, have on hand a good epoxy, and pick up some coach bolts strong enough to hold all this together. Silver or chrome paint to dress it all up later, and some striping tape (I used electric tape) for aesthetics.

I cut the tubes to roughly around a foot and a half or so; straight cut on top and angled cuts on bottom. A tube remnant I put into the coffee can for strength and to give a little more body to the setup. All these tubes I painted first; a good two or three coats. In hindsight, a spray of sealer may be an option to help preserve the paint from extended play.

Attaching the rocket tubes to this core took time in maneuvering the wrench inside in many, many short turns. The advantage with the rounded flush head with coach bolts is no protruding sharp edges to hurt the kids in play.

Then those backpack straps. Stripped from the backpack, you should have a good nylon strap to attach at five points on your assembly (two at top and bottom of tubes, and one at top middle that attaches to your core). This will take some time as I found the fabric turned as I was tightening these up to the tubes. At the bottom, I used the bolt to attach the straps, as well as secure the thrust end cans.

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A closeup of the exhaust port. Note the CD use here, which worked temporarily until the strain made it crack at random.

At the thrust end, tin cans protrude about an inch or more beyond the tube edge. The angled cut here shows off the ruffled can side, gives it a cool look. Before securing those cans, attach the plastic cone tips to the bottom.

From the pictures, you’ll see I set the center tube down to allow space for the ventilator fan to be secured to the top, which gives it some protection from being knocked about. I added some tin foil underneath it to give it a little shine and set off the blades better. I also kept the fan wires, and strung them inside that center tube; that empty space gives the option – for the electronically adept – to add battery power to run this and any other lights and sound options you may wish to add.

What I found was the coffee cans I collected had lids that fit the tops of the rocket tubes. If you are all done with bolting everything on, do your stripe taping for the aesthetic look (such as around the bottom and top, a horizontal stripe down the back; do something cool). Then, if everything is bolted on, epoxy those lids on the top.

OK, it’s looking pretty solid. Let me tell you two things I tried that didn’t work out.

One was taking the screw-on tops of these hard plastic to-go cups (they had a cool curved top) and glued them on top of those lids to give this a bit more design. They were not durable enough to stay on.

Another was using old CDs to add some flash at the exhaust end. I tried heating these up and curving them so they would fit in behind the cans and add some cool metallic shine. But they couldn’t stand the bend they were put at and would shortly break.

Overall, the assembly looked pretty good; not as aesthetic as some I’ve seen, but it proved to be durable through three kids and several years, requiring minimal repairs mostly in regluing those lids. But with this basic design to start from, there is no doubt the more creative and patient parents and grandparents out there will come up with more ideas on how to improve the look and also the “bells and whistles.”

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Worn by my son, Jonah. Ready for play.

It seems that such a project today – just stuff slapped together with no functionality; merely a visual prop – is archaic, out of place today when kids start life early with electronic devices in their hands. I think we’re selling kids short when we defer to the tap and slide of tablets and phones designed to addict us to their use. We rob them of something that stimulates their imagination and encourages them to make up their own stories, adventures and games of play.

This middle-aged guy thinks kids need fewer zombie moments with Candy Crush, and more adventures battling zombies strapped in rocketpacks, angel wings and knight helmets.

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