Blast off! Homemade rocket ship launches in Alberta to mark Apollo 11 anniversary

A group of Calgarians calling themselves Kronos Pente drove a few hours south of the city to launch a functional 1:20 scale model of Saturn V, the first rocketship to send humans to the moon.

1:20 scale model of Saturn V travelled thousands of metres in the air

A 1:20 scale model of the Saturn V rocket takes off south of Lethbridge, Alta. (Shane Weatherill)

People in southern Alberta had their eyes to the sky this weekend, trying to spot a rocketship travelling more than a thousand metres in the air.

A group of Calgarians calling themselves Kronos Pente drove a few hours south to launch a functional 1:20 scale model of Saturn V, the first rocketship to send humans to the moon. The project marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.

Shane Weatherill was one of four "rocketeers" who set up the rocket Saturday morning in an old gravel pit south of Lethbridge, Alta.

The Saturn V model about fifteen minutes before it was launched, south of Lethbridge, Alta. (Shane Weatherill/Kronos Pente)

"I've been flying amateur rockets for 20 some years. I've never seen anyone in Canada attempt to build something like a Saturn V or any other large national vehicle," Weatherill said. "And, so, I really wanted to see that done north of the border."

The 5.5-metre, 91-kilogram rocket was projected to fly as high as 2,600 metres in the air. The team's flight computers provided some conflicting information on the big day itself, with one computer saying it came close to their estimate, which is more than 8,000 feet.

However, a second computer said the rocket only made about 1,200 metres off the ground — that's 4,000 feet. The team will go through their data to try and determine why the results were different than their software-based predictions.

"It looked quite a lot like you would expect a NASA rocket to look," said Weatherill in an interview with CBC News a few hours after the launch.

Launch delayed at first

Takeoff was initially planned for 7 a.m. but was unexpectedly delayed by more than three hours after they discovered some faulty wiring in one of the backup recovery systems for the rocket.

Weatherill, along with his fellow aviation and space travel enthusiasts, worked hard on their project and wanted to make sure most of it survived takeoff and landing. That meant making sure everything was working perfectly before launch, even if it meant an irritating delay.

"With something this large you don't want to have any event that's going to occur in the air that doesn't have a backup to it," he said. 

Observers watch the members of Kronos Pente launch their Saturn V model in southern Alberta. ((Michele Buhler))

The team eventually located the fault after lowering the rocket and having their lead electronics volunteer repair the problematic connectors.

Because of the rocket's size, it breaks apart into multiple pieces once it reaches apogee — its highest point of travel.

"Each piece individually deploys the parachute or a set of parachutes so that the rocket can be landed safely and presumably in a reusable condition," Weatherill said.

According to Weatherill, all the rocket's parts were recovered, though one section saw its parachute fail completely and took quite a bit of damage. 

As for what's next, the group hasn't discussed next steps yet — and Weatherill isn't sure how they can top this achievement.

"It's possible that we may decide to get this rocket flight worthy again so that it can go up again," he said.

Watch (and listen!) as the Saturn V model takes off south of Lethbridge:

Launch commemorated Apollo 11

The Apollo 11 moon landing and astronaut Neil Armstrong's first steps captured the imagination of the half a billion people who watched worldwide. Its 50th anniversary has sparked many commemorations, including a stamp from Canada Post that highlights Canadian participation in the milestone project.

Owen Maynard was one of Canada's top aircraft engineers and he was picked to sketch the early designs of the command module. He's credited as the NASA staffer most responsible for the lunar lander.

A Quebec company, Heroux-Devtek, also built the landing gear components that remain on the moon to this day.

With files from Rachel Ward and Anis Heydari


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