In June of 2019, aerospace technician and space enthusiast David Wilkie sent out an invitation to 32 friends via Facebook: “World Record attempt rocket build and launch VOLUNTEERS NEEDED.” It was the first many had heard of the venture, but it would not be the last.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s blastoff for the moon, David was joining an effort to set a Guinness world record for a simultaneous model rocket launch — 5000 rockets. The first step was obvious and reasonably simple, but still daunting — build 5000 Estes Pathfinder model rockets. This would begin the practical countdown on a project that had been in the works for months.
By July 12th, on NPR’s “Science Friday,” U.S. Space and Rocket Center director Deb Barnhart reported that volunteers had been “working for weeks, in the evenings and on Saturdays, building and constructing the rockets.”
The rockets would be laid out in pods of 100 each, with 10 pods forming sections of 1000. These were arranged in a pattern of five circles, resembling the five F1 engines of Apollo’s Saturn V first stage.
In order for the launch to be certified by Guinness, Dr. Barnhart told “Science Friday” host Ira Flatow, “the type of rocket that we’re launching (must) be commercially available … that we will surpass 100 feet of height with our launch, and of course we have to have independent judges.” That wouldn’t be a problem, she added, as “we have more rocket scientists per square inch in Huntsville, Alabama, the Rocket City, than anywhere else on the planet.”
Dr. Barnhart’s excitement was apparent as she said, “So they’re all set. … They’ll start with an electronic starter. We’re not using matches on 5,000 rockets at once. And they’ll all go at one time, with the flip of a switch and the press of a button.”
And go they did. AL.COM reported that an estimated 2,500 spectators showed up for the event, “including hundreds of Space Camp students, Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden, Marshall Space Flight Center Director Jody Singer and Wernher von Braun’s daughter Margrit.”
At 8:32 AM — the exact moment when Apollo 11 began its launch sequence — astronaut Worden “turned the key to prime the rockets, and 12-year-old Lillian Duran — attending her fifth Space Camp — flipped the ignition switch to launch all 5,000 rockets.”
As of this writing, a confirmation of the record from Guinness is still pending, but AL.COM’s Paul Gattis reports that things are looking good.
“Randall Robinson, one of the organizers of the event Tuesday, said 5,000 model rockets were readied, 77 did not launch — a success rate of better than 98 percent. Robinson said he is 98 percent confident the 4,923 sent skyward met the Guinness record requirements.”