Tom’s Vashon Rocketry Site

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On this page:  |  Vashon Industries  |  My First Valkyrie  |  BAVR  |

Vashon Industries

Vashon Industries, a company based on Vashon Island in Washington state, made a line of model rockets in the late 1960's and early 1970's that were fueled by liquid R-12 Freon (which they called RP-100 propellant). The expansion of the liquefied gas as it exited the nozzle provided the thrust for these rockets. Vashon Industries was bought out by Damon Corporation in 1971, and the Vashon product line and newer "Cold Power" products were marketed by Estes Industries (another Damon company) until the mid-1970's. If you want to read an excellent article about the history of Vashon Industries, I recommend Mark Schmitt's web site. Mark goes into detail about the Vashon product line and how the rockets were manufactured.

What amazes people nowadays when you tell them about Vashon rockets, is the whole concept of blithely spewing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere. "What? That's the stuff that kills ozone! Were you guys ignorant or something?!" Well, yes, we were. The deleterious effect that CFCs have on the ozone layer was not widely understood until later. (It's interesting to note that CFCs were developed by Thomas Midgley Jr., the same guy who gave us tetra-ethyl lead as an anti-knock additive to gasoline and resulted in vast amounts of poisonous lead being pumped into the atmosphere.)

But Vashon rockets were just so COOL! They had polished aluminum bodies, they used liquid propellant, and they had a nifty pressure-controlled parachute deployment timer mechanism. Plus, they were perfectly safe to hold in your hand while "firing" them.


My First Valkyrie

I got into model rocketry in 1972 (I was 14 at the time) and had been flying regular solid propellant model rockets for about five months before I decided to try a "Cold Power" rocket. Don's Hobbies in Mankato, Minnesota (now there was real hobby shop), had an old Vashon version of the Valkyrie-1 kit, complete with launcher and propellant, squirreled away behind a counter that attracted my attention. It was pretty expensive, so another member of our local rocket club (Donald Miller) and I bought it together. Now, this was in December in Minnesota, and as you can imagine, it wasn't particularly warm outside. But we just had to try it as soon as possible. The results were unspectacular. We made two flights that day, and they reached altitudes of maybe 20 feet. A definite disappointment. I think we used up the rest of the propellant just firing off the motor while holding the rocket in our hands indoors (which was certainly cool -- you couldn't do that with a regular model rocket).

I finally bought another can of RP-100 propellant the following Summer (I think I realized that temperature had been a big part of the problem with the first flights). I remember setting up the Valkyrie in our back yard on a hot and humid day. As I fueled and vented the motor, frost started forming on the metal body. Once it was full, it started venting white mist through the pressure relief valve. Man! This was just like the real thing! Just like the "big birds" at Cape Kennedy. Unfortunately, it had been a while since I'd read the directions (as evidenced by the fact that I was over-venting the motor and getting it too cold), and I did not brace a finger against the nozzle as I pulled out the release pin. As a result, the rocket broke loose from its launch guide (launch lug) and fell over on the pad. It chose that moment for the nozzle plug to finally release (I evidently hadn't oiled the o-ring on the plug, either) and let out its 0.6-second blast of freezing exhaust on my hand while held in place by one fin snagged between the wooden pieces of the launcher. That was the first time I ever got frostbite in July (even in Minnesota, that's unusual, despite what you might believe about my home state's climate). OK, I'm exaggerating about the frostbite, but the exhaust blast was really cold. And even though the launch was unsuccessful, I was ecstatic. Wow! Frost on the rocket! Venting fuel vapors from the tank! Rocket geek-boy heaven. I went in and tried to tell my mom about it — she just listened and said, "You know, most boys your age are interested in girls." Aww, mom... don't pick on the rocket geek.

For some reason, I don't recall ever trying to fly that model again. Maybe I didn't have any more of the contact cement needed to glue the launch guide back onto the rocket. More likely we used up the propellant playing with the rocket indoors (or used it up on Estes Land Rockets or my bother John's Shrike glider). In any case, the Valkyrie languished in the rocket cabinet and I don't know what became of it (maybe Donald still has it). But I always remembered how cool it was, and how annoyed I was that I was never able to get a good flight out of it.


BAVR: Born-Again Vashon Rocketeer

Skip ahead many years (you can picture that cliché visual effect of the calendar pages streaming off of the wall, if you'd like) — after a lot more experience flying model rockets and a lot better knowledge of the physics of gasses, I decided to try again. In the early 1990's I bought an assembled Valkyrie-1 rocket at a NARAM rocket auction (and several years before that, I'd purchased a Vashon filler nozzle and hose from some ancient hobby shop stock in Iowa..."just in case"), so I experimented with using airbrush propellant in the model. But again, I was disappointed. The person who'd previously owned the rocket had drilled a hole in the bottom pressure bell before putting it up for auction (why? why??), and I had to fix that. Then I found out that the motor tank and the separator leaked around their connector joints. So, after a few leaky static test firings, I put the rocket into storage. The airbrush propellant I had purchased happened to be the kind that contained isobutane and propane, so it really didn't seem like a good idea to experiment further with such a flammable fuel.

Zip ahead again in time to 2005. By then we had the Internet and eBay, making it possible for me to buy up old Vashon rocket parts and kits. And we had Mark Schmitt's web page to remind me of the wonders of Vashon rockets and point out the existence of the less-flammable alternative of difluoroethane airbrush propellant as a fuel for the models. And by then I had even better modeling skills to refurbish leaky rocket parts and finally get some great flights out of Vashon rockets.

All right! Now we're cookin' with (difluoroethane) gas!

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Page last updated May 9, 2007