I (Scott Todd) was in Grad school in the Fall of 93. A friend owned a local Hobby shop where I had ‘stored’ some of my models on his ceiling. A local School teacher, Rob Catto, had been working on this 1:40 shuttle project with his students for a few years and was nearing completion of the Launch pad and related structures. Catto (as we called him) had seen my 1:45 shuttle (pictured)hanging in the store and REALLY wanted to get a hold of me. I ignored his requests as I was quite busy with school and other things. One day just before the Christmas break Catto was at the University and heard someone talking to me in the hall. He approached and asked if I was the same Scott that owned the shuttle hanging in the Hobby Shop. Damn. I was cornered! I agreed to go check out what they were doing. I was really impressed!
I took my shuttle from the hobby shop and recruited my friend Matt White to go over to the school for a meeting. He agreed to lend a test airplane and help with construction, as long as it didn’t interfere with his school. The school lab was very well equipped with a CNC router, CNC lathe, some injection molding equipment, and a small vacuum forming machine. We decided to make wood molds for the orbiter nose , OMS pods, and Main engine bells and vacuum form them from styrene plastic. We (Matt and I) would teach teach Catto and the students about Foam cutting for the booster parts, ET nose, and tail cones. Other parts would be drawn in CAD by the students and made on the CNC machines.
We started from some plans drawn by Luther Hux around 1978 that were the basis for my previous shuttles. We basically copied the box structure and then made the rest from scratch out of foam and plastic to save weight and time. We did get a hold of another shuttle modeler named George Gassaway that had some experience with boosted shuttles models. He pointed out it wouldn’t fly without a computer or stabilizing fins and wasn’t willing to offer any more assistance other than saying it wouldn’t work without fins and he looked forward to saying “told you so”. The School teacher was really surprised. So many people had offered to help and here was the one guy with some experience that could have helped and had nothing but a pessimistic attitude that did nothing but discourage him.
We built three fixtures to cut out each foam wing core. We made some wood molds for the Orbiter nose and OMS pods. Catto really had a way with wood. He was a master cabinet maker and all around great craftsman. We constructed an orbiter prototype in 1:40 scale to match the pad that had been built. We built a simple cradle to put the shuttle on top of a Cargo Airplane Matt had built as an Undergrad. It had won an International Competition and was featured in Air&Space Magazine the year before.
I recruited another friend Robbie (Zoomie) Conway. He an excellent modeler and true craftsman. His hobbies included R/C Helicopters, Parachute Design, and homemade LASERS. He is one of the smartest guys you will ever met. He was in charge of R&D at Strong Enterprises, one of the largest sport parachute manufactures in the world. He was a Master Rigger and I knew he would be invaluable in the parachute recovery of the Boosters and ET. Matt is seen flying the airplane in the test glide videos and Zoomie is the guy in the blue shirt with the smirky grin after the first unsuccessful try.
The first test flight didn’t work out so well. It can be seen in one of the videos. The shuttle was washing out the marginally sized vertical fin and the entire model was unstable in yaw. We all quickly realized why the extra fins were on the 747 SCA. After some minor repairs and modifications, we were successful. We flew the orbiter a dozen or so times and let several local pilots fly it for their input. Matt was the second to fly it and of course Zoomy had a go. One of Matt’s best friends, Chris Huhn, was instrumental in helping and can be seen in the videos. He flew the carrier airplane for all the early tests. Today Chris is in charge of the most popular R/C equipment line in the country. It was near the end of January when we finished working out the CG and control issues of the prototype and decided to move on to rocket testing. We would build an ET and set of SRB’s to put our proven orbiter on.
Catto had contacted NASA for help and was directed to a local rocket modeler that lived and worked at the Cape. David Sollberger had taken a similar attitude as I did early on. He was mildly interested in a large rocket project but was also quite busy with a new wife and hectic work schedule. Catto talked him into coming over for an orbiter flight demo. He became much more excited and we really hit it off with him. He was the only person with any big rocket experience. He recruited help from his local rocket club and several members came by to ‘help’ but none really showed a lot of interest in committing any time. Several made small contributions to the project but only one stuck with us to the end. One of the Nerdiest guys I have ever met became a good friend and invaluable asset to the project.
Somehow it made it up the chain of command at NASA that this High School was partnering with the local University (UCF) by way of a few Grad students and some NASA and Contract engineers in this giant scale Space Shuttle project. NASA contacted the school and wanted to be kept in the loop and maybe send some executives over during National Engineers week to try to promote NASA at the school age level.
All of a sudden, we were on a time crunch. National Engineers week was in the beginning of March and we were near the end of January. Holy Cow! We had way too much to do in way too little time. All we had done was flown a simple RC glider that resembled a Space Shuttle a few times, which I had done before. Dave sent out word to the rocket club and Steve Pollack answered. He was the only one that stepped up the the plate and was willing to do what it took for the cause. He was an Electrical Engineer working for the Military through a subcontractor at the Cape. He was an average modeler with an above average Heart. He basically put his life on hold for us. Apparently his bosses got wind of what we were doing and gave him the flexibility that was needed in a project like this. He was always there when we needed him. He could always be counted on to stop at Radio Shack, the Hobby Shop, or the Fast food joint on his way in every day. Every large project needs a Steve and ours would not have been successful without him.
So the Team was in place. I (Scott Todd) was an Aerospace Engineer from Pratt & Whitney that was in Grad school at UCF. Matt White was an Aerospace Engineer from Martin Marietta that was also a Grad student at UCF. Robert (Zoomie) Conway was an R&D Engineer working at Strong Enterprises, a parachute manufacturer and military contractor. David Sollberger was an Electrical Engineer working for NASA. Steve Pollack was an Electrical Engineer working for the Air Force at Cape Canaveral. Rob Catto was the High School teacher that taught the Engineering program and a great woodworker. He was also the glue that held us all together.
Dave ran all the rocket parts of the project and was always around to help. Matt helped build the vehicles and was there for all the testing. Zoomie designed the recovery systems and was the ET pilot for all but two of the rocket flights. Steve put together all the electronics for Booster recovery and supervised most of the special effects work around the pad. Catto oversaw everything and was primarily responsible for the Pad construction. I was in charge of the flying parts and flew all the rocket flights except one. There was always two or three of us (Engineers) working in the lab with students at all times, 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for nearly two months.
We got super busy. The lab at the school really was occupied 20 hours a day. Catto would go home to see his family and grab a quick nap while some of us stayed late. I practically lived at the High School for those two months. Some of the students really got involved. They often stayed late with their families bringing dinner for all of us. Some of the local restaurants donated food. It was nothing for us to be out in the parking lot at midnight testing parachute deployment systems or throwing parachutes off the roof of the school to test things out.
We decided to built a complete stack without staging the boosters to see how it would all fly. Matt bought an Estes shuttle kit and started adding weight to the nose until it flew straight without fins. He did some rough calculations and came up with a starting CG for the stack. We gathered all the appropriate motors we could find in the range of G thru I to do some testing. All the test flights were at an adjoining Jr High that had a large grassy sports field. The first three rocket flights were filmed and can be seen on the videos. We did more testing with various motors and decided on the Aerotech H70W single use. It was lighter than a reload and weight in the rear was critical. With all the radio gear inside the ET nose, the CG just came to where Matt wanted it. Aerotech did a custom run for us and donated 30 motors.
I had connections in the RC industry but couldn’t get any one to help with electronics. Finally Hitec decided it was a worthwhile venture and donated two complete radio sets for us. They were fairly new in the radio business. Their equipment worked flawlessly. You can see a banner in the videos. The school really didn’t have the budget for what we were doing so the 5 engineers funded much of it from our own pockets. Whenever we needed something, someone would just go to the store or local hobby shop and just buy it. Once a week or so I would go by the Hobby Shop and pay my bill off where students had been going by to pick stuff up for us. It seemed like it was always a few hundred dollars a time. Jerry, the shop owner, gave us a deal and would just add what we needed to my account. He would often call around 6:00 to see if he could drop stuff on his way home. It really wasn’t on his way home but he stayed in the loop and helped when he could. Some of the best video we have is from him. He was a silent but essential part of our success.
After about a dozen rocket flights, we decided to move on to ‘production’ models. We would build two identical stacks using all out lessons learned for the big event. There are some brief construction shots in one of the videos. I’ll also scan in some old photographs when I get a minute. The two stacks came out nearly identical. The students named one Explorer and one Venture. The parts were not really interchangeable. Small tolerances caused some tight fits so we decided to just keep them separate. Explorer was flown more for whatever reason. Since we had more experience on it, we wanted to fly it on the big day. I don’t think the names actually got on there until a day or so before the big event. I can’t remember but it probably had 15 rocket flights on it. For some reason the number 31 total rocket flights sticks in my head. The rest were split between the prototype and Venture.
When the big day arrived, two local news crews and CNN showed up. Bob Crippen, the first Space Shuttle Pilot and the Center Director along with a few other top Execs were supposed to come. We knew it would be a big deal so we asked the student body, school staff, and families to NOT come. It was a weekday so that helped. It still turned out to be a big deal with several hundred spectators. The JROTC ran crowd and traffic control. They really did a great job. This whole event was well run by the school principle and seeing all those uniformed kids around doing their job really made for a great event.
All the VIP’s showed up on time. They were given a tour of the lab and launch pad. Once started, the countdown lasted about 15 minutes and the kids, led by Dave Sollberger, did a super job of giving the feel of a real NASA launch. When it finally came time, all the special effects went off but the Shuttle didn’t move. Dave and his team quickly went to the pad to sort out the problem. Once done, the launch went off perfectly. We didn’t re-load all the special effects but it was hardly noticed. Crippen was genuinely impressed. He laughed and commented the hold could not have been planned better (it was NOT planned). It really showed how prepared everyone was for such a contingency. All those practice runs ended up paying off!
After the launch, the NASA execs hung around for a while for photos and autographs. All the news channels got a chance to interview them also. Again, they were super gracious and left a great lasting impression on all of us.
We scheduled another launch the following Saturday for everyone else to come to. One of Dave’s friends (Scott Vaugen) had been selected as a back-up payload specialist for an upcoming shuttle mission. He volunteered to come over and help us out. The day was a lot less hectic than the previous launch. No news crews but lots of families and friends. Everyone got photos and pictures with the astronaut and the flight went off perfectly. Someone asked how much control I had on flying the stack near apogee. We thought this might me the last rocket flight so we decided to try something a little different. After booster release, I rolled the stack to an upright position before separating the orbiter. it worked perfectly and was a different view than all the releases before where it comes off inverted. As it turned out, this was the best video footage we had of separation after all those flights so its the one seen most. Video was more of a nuisance during test so we just didn’t do much of it. After seeing the interest by all the news crews, we decided to ramp up the video/photo documentation for the last flight. Of course we regretted not doing it more earlier, but oh well…
I soon moved to Virginia for work. The school kids got a bunch of old launch consoles donated by NASA and build a really cool launch control center in an old School bus. It would be the highlight of the next years launch at the school. Zoomie flew the shuttle stack for his first and only time. Catto was the ET pilot. He had done it once before not too successfully. He got nervous and fired the ET parachute before deploying the nose. It was a good demonstration of an Emergency procedure we had talked about but never tried. The ET nose still has the patch in it where the mortar blew through it. Catto saw the chance to redeem himself, and did so perfectly. Zoomy did an awesome job in near hurricane winds and landed the shuttle back at the pad. His flight is on one of the videos. He always was, and probably still is, a better pilot than me but don’t tell him I admitted that.
Catto won a very prestigious award from Disney. He was selected as their ‘Teacher of the Year” For his work on the shuttle project. We were all very proud of him and he really deserved it. Disney wanted us to come fly the Shuttle for them. They thought it would be good to fly it center stage at EPCOT center for National Engineers week the following year. Catto and I went over there one day to check it out. They were nuts! They wanted us to launch and land back at center stage surrounded by thousands of spectators. After much discussion and consideration, we decided to pursue it a little further.
We had modified a small RC combat airplane to have similar glide characteristics as the shuttle (copied of course from NASA). For practice, I would fly low into the base area of the launch pad and then pull straight up simulating a shuttle launch. On a random call from an appointed test person, the throttle would be reduced to idle to simulate apogee. I would then set up my approach to the landing area and fly to within a few feet of the ground in the flare. I would throttle up and go around for another attempt. I could do about 15 passes in one tank of fuel. Often I would induce a high rate roll on the vertical to simulate any issues we would encounter on the rocket flights. I always shot 10-15 approaches on the morning of any rocket flight just to get warmed up and make sure I was familiar with the forecast wind direction for the day.
I insisted I practice the same approached at EPCOT before we committed to a launch there. So Catto, Zoomie and I went over a few days in a row to get some flying in just after sunrise before the park opened. I probably flew 50-60 total approaches from every possible direction. We spent hours reviewing all the bail-out scenarios and where all the ‘safe’ zones were. We scouted out the tops of all the buildings, the biggest trees, and the surrounding lake. If something went wrong or I didn’t think I had the right energy to get back, I would have to make a split second decision to dump the shuttle in one of these safe areas. Even though it was controlled, the Orbiter would have the most energy of all the parts and the most potential to hurt someone. All the parachutes together had about a 90% success rate so were pretty confident those parts would work. Zoomie spent extra time making sure everything was rigged properly. The second biggest concern was the ET. It only weighed about 3 pounds and was pretty draggy. It had bounced before with minimal damage so we hoped if it hit someone it wouldn’t hurt, much…The plan was to try to steer the stack over one of the safe zones before staging. The apogee target, which we hit both flights, was over the closest large building. In addition, Disney placed about 20 staff and security personal throughout the crowd along with about 20 students. we hoped someone would be nearby each of the 4 falling pieces to run interference. All the planning worked perfect. I think the only part that landed in a public area was an SRB that landed about 40 feet or so behind the main crowd line. All the parachutes worked perfectly for both flights and the orbiter touched down near the center of the LZ both times. It was really exciting to have the opportunity to fly a unique model in such a unique setting.
The Disney flights were the last on these vehicles. Catto soon accepted a job at a private college. The rest of us moved on with our careers. The students and Catto thought I should hang onto the Explorer stack for safe keeping. The Venture stack was left at the school and ended up falling the way of unsupervised High School students. Someone rescued the remains of the orbiter and gave them to me. Dave still has the wing with the name on it and the other parts have all been thrown away. Catto was by the school a few years after the event and saw the remains of the Launch complex sticking out of the dumpster. He was so saddened, he just drove away. The LCC bus was later sold to another school in another state. We heard it was subsequently scrapped. The prototype stack hung from the rafters in the Lab for many years but no one knows what its final fate ever was.
The following year Disney wanted us to do something larger and cooler than the Space Shuttle. It was definitely larger but I don’t think anything will ever be as cool. I’ll post up a summary and some photos of the 14 foot EPCOT Explorer one day….
Catto never really played with models much more. He was a busy Dad with a new career in front of him. Matt plays with models occasionally but spends more time racing Sports Cars and playing with Motorcycles. Zoomy still flys occasionally and sells custom LASER tables for a living. Steve can often be seen at Model Rocket events around the South East US. Dave still tinkers with model rockets, mostly small ones. He got remarried and had a beautiful Daughter he is very proud of. He still dreams about he next big rocket project. Scott left his Engineering Job and opened a Small hobby shop in the Phoenix area. It was very successful and he eventually sold it. He still remains active in all aspects of RC modeling and rockets.
If you were there and have more to add or can clear up some of the details, please let me (us) know.
The Launch Team