War couldn’t stop Ukrainians from engaging in rocket modeling

For the past 17 months, Ukrainians have been mostly concerned about rockets coming from the aggressor country towards their homes. Nevertheless, amidst all this horror, there are people who remembered that in the civilized world, rockets have another, more peaceful purpose. The Ukrainian model rocketry team not only participated in international competitions but also secured 14 medals.

Переможці та їхні медалі
Winners and their medals

The Rocket Enthusiasts

Once, all rockets were amateur. There were neither fearsome Iskanders capable of destroying a multi-story building nor powerful carriers capable of taking astronauts to the Moon. There were only enthusiasts who experimented with rocket devices that refused to fly where they were supposed to. However, they succeeded in the pursuit they were passionate about, evident from the fact that the descendants of their creations evoke both fear and fascination.

However, those who are passionate about building rockets on their own have not disappeared, even despite the threat of the world’s destruction from ballistic giants with nuclear warheads. Evidence of this is the World Championship of Model Rocket Sports, which has been held since 1972, reaching its peak during the Cold War.

Even the fearsome Russian Kinzhals (Daggers) and Iskanders couldn’t prevent some Ukrainians from dreaming of the celestial heights and building rockets to reach them. On July 25, a press conference was held at the Ukrinform media agency, where these individuals talked about their participation in the competitions that took place from July 2 to 7 at the private Apache Pass Event Centre airfield in Austin, Texas, USA.

The most amazing thing in all of this is that, under the challenging conditions, the Ukrainian team, consisting of boys and girls aged 14 to 37, managed to secure medals. In total, they won 14 medals — 6 gold, 3 silver, and 5 bronze.

Моделі ракет та планерів
Rocket and Glider Models

The Challenging Path to Competitions

Rodion Struzman and Oleksandr Radchenko participated in the competition. They shared the story of their achievements at the press conference, along with Denis Khmil, the Secretary-General of the Ukrainian Rocketry Federation.

Rodion won two medals in the junior-team standings: a gold one in the rocket-flight-altitude class and a silver one in the glider-with-a-jet-accelerator class.

Oleksandr competed in the adult team. He won a bronze in the gliders-with-accelerator class and in the competitions of rocket models that imitate real ones. In these competitions, the realism of the model and its launch are judged. In the individual standings, he took first place in the rockets-with-payload class and third place in the altitude flight competitions.

However, the journey for both of them to achieve these results was long and difficult. Participants recount that they became interested in rocket modeling in junior school when they observed launches during summer camps carried out by their older peers. Interestingly, this technical sport turned out to be accessible not only in such a recognized center of the space industry as Dnipro, Rodion’s hometown but also in the small town of Nizhyn, where Oleksandr was born.

“We have quite a large yard at the 15th school in Nizhyn. The launches took place there. The rocketry club was in the basement of the school, so transferring the rocket from there to the launch site was not a problem,” says Oleksandr.

Although an amateur rocket can be made from materials that are easily obtainable in any stationery store, for Ukrainians to succeed in this sport, they had to master numerous modern technologies: forming casings from carbon fiber, 3D printing, and 3D milling. This made the models lighter or more detailed.

Ракетомоделісти розповідають про свої пригоди
Rocket modelers talk about their adventures

Nevertheless, all of Ukrainians’ achievements were nearly crossed out by Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Every year, the organizers of the world championship change its conditions for each class so that participants have to work with their minds and hands rather than use ready-made schemes.

“We worked at the Creativity Workshops Center in Dnipro, and there were times when we had neither light nor heat, we sat with generators and flashlights and molded launch vehicles. However, it was extremely difficult, because at the air temperature we had in the room, some of the polymers we use for this simply couldn’t solidify,” says Rodion Struzman.

Moreover, unlike modelers from other countries, Ukrainians did not have the opportunity to conduct preliminary launches at home. This year, the organizers decided to use slightly heavier engines than before. Therefore, our participants had to make the rockets a bit heavier. However, they came up with many new designs that allowed them to make them lighter.

But they haven’t had the chance to test them in practice. Due to the ongoing hostilities, any launches of something even remotely resembling rockets are now prohibited in Ukraine. Thus, the boys and girls had to satisfy their curiosity through computer modeling, which they actively employ.

How the Competition Was

However, even after completing the preparations at home, our team faced ongoing challenges. The issue was that there are many classes, and each participant prepared for competitions in only a few of them. But not everyone received American visas, so not everybody were able to attend Austin. Consequently they had to quickly rearrange things so that the roles of those who couldn’t participate could be transferred to others. This especially concerns especially adult teams.

Запуск моделі на чемпіонаті
Rocket launch at the championship. Source: www.fai.org

Meanwhile for those who did manage to arrive to the US, the organizers made every effort to put all participants on an equal footing. Specifically, the country’s legislation doesn’t permit the importation of even small rocket engines. Therefore, they provided these engines, as well as rocket fuel, to all participants on-site.

Furthermore, the list of components was known well in advance, so all 460 participants from 17 countries came prepared, knowing what and how they would create. The competition rules strictly regulate not only the power of the engines but also the minimum and maximum rocket weights in each class. Therefore, our participants had no setbacks due to the challenging conditions.

The atmosphere at the competition was quite friendly. Rocket modeling, in general, fosters close relationships not only within a team but also between them. Additionally, Denis Khmil mentioned that during the competition, organizers approached him and fondly remembered the European Championship of 2016, which took place in Lviv.

The Importance of Rocket Modeling

Historically, rocket modeling developed in countries with strong space industries. What these industries could send into space inspired children to become interested in this field. As the children grew, they joined the ranks of engineers who invented new technologies.

Particularly, the boys participating in the press conference chose professions directly or tangentially related to their hobby. Oleksandr Radchenko studies aviation and rocket engineering at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, while Rodion Struzman studies computer engineering at the Dnipro National University.

Олександр Радченко
Oleksandr Radchenko

Currently, rocket modeling, like other technical sports, is primarily seen in the context of STEM education — learning physics, mathematics, and technology in general. Here, students can practically apply numerous theoretical concepts that are often too abstract in the school curriculum and hence difficult to remember.

“Everything starts with modeling. Rocket modeling sports nurture a new generation of inventors and space conquerors. The passion of youth often turns into a lifelong pursuit. It’s common that participants in rocket modeling competitions become chief engineers and founders of space companies. These victories are a clear indicator that Ukrainians have all the potential to become a nation that creates high-tech products,” says Denis Khmil, the Secretary-General of the Ukrainian Rocket Modeling Federation and Data Secretary of the 2023 World Rocket Modeling Championship, discussing the significance of rocket modeling for Ukraine’s engineering and space sectors.

He also noted that many of the successes in rocket modeling in Ukraine are due to the help of the NGO Noosphere Association, which has been supporting these efforts for many years. This organization was instrumental in hosting the aforementioned 2016 championship at such a high level that organizers from other countries still recall it with a touch of envy.

Rocket modeling sports are developed within extracurricular education in Ukraine. The state considers this field promising and provides all possible support, especially in today’s challenging situation. It’s here that the full potential of the project approach is revealed. Not all schoolchildren can master it, but those who do can achieve much in life.

“It’s crucial to support the STEM approach in extracurricular education. The success of the rocket modeling team shows that the theory learned in school, supported and expanded through extracurricular education, becomes the basis for success on the international stage. The stories of winners prove that skills and knowledge gained in extracurricular clubs can drive professional self-determination,” emphasizes Olena Pedorenko, Deputy Director of the Ukrainian State Center for Extracurricular Education, who was an honorary guest at the press conference.

What the Boys Say About Their Hobby

However, rocket modeling isn’t just hard work, overcoming difficulties, and acquiring skills critical for the country’s development. Oleksandr Radchenko stated during the press conference that participants can spend up to 50% of their time on this sport. It’s unlikely that the boys would engage in it so much if it weren’t incredibly captivating.

“Between going to McDonald’s with friends and launching rockets with them, I choose the latter. Because there, you can relax and communicate much better than in McDonald’s. Rocket modeling is fun because you’re surrounded by like-minded people,” he says.

Родіон Струзман
Rodion Struzman

“Do I want to build a real space rocket? That’s a very simple question because we’re all doing exactly that, and probably all of us would answer ‘yes’ to this question. Rocket modeling is cool because it’s your creation; you assemble your model and do whatever you want with it,” says Rodion Struzman.

“As for the most weird material I used for rocket construction, were beer bottles. This was during the championship in Romania in 2021. We, along with our Spanish colleagues, created a model rocket using those bottles. We paired them with a really hot engine from Americans and launched it,” he shares.

So we only wish that Ukraine wins this war soon, and this joyful approach prevails over the dreadful images of Russian rockets aiming our cities today. Perhaps these model enthusiasts will usher in a new era of Ukrainian space exploration.