My failed rocket experiment and one person’s kindness

The summer when I was about eight, my mother took me to the local science museum for children. We had been there many times before, but that day, our purpose was to attend an afternoon workshop hosted by a woman rocket scientist. It was one of the museum’s summer programs designed for families and children, and in this workshop, we were going to craft our own miniature rocket out of a plastic bottle.

The room was packed with school children, some older and some younger than me, along with their accompanying families. Our instructor was a young woman scientist. She was not tall, and her voice was not loud either. With the help of a microphone, she first explained to everyone the basic mechanism of how a rocket launched from the earth ground into the space in real life.

“We are now going to make our own little rockets out of the plastic bottles in front of you,” she said to us in a cheerful voice. “Instead of using the real fuels of real rockets, our rockets will launch by the water force.”

The launch would take place in the garden right outside the classroom.

“For those of you whose rockets travel further than the red line, there will be a special prize!”

In front of our eager gaze, the instructor pointed to a pile of blue boxes.

“These are water rockets manufactured by a company that I work with. If your rocket crosses the red line, you will get one of these! Now, have fun!”

We all started crafting our rockets enthusiastically. The idea was simple. All we needed to do was to cut out a cardboard to make wings and attach them to the plastic bottle. But the wings had to have the right shape in order for the launch to be successful. Initially, many of our rockets did not even fly for a few meters. They dropped on the ground immediately following the launch.

After each unsuccessful launch, we would go back to our work table to improve the rocket design before going out to the garden to try another launch.

Slowly, but surely, people around me got the hang of it, and their rockets started travelling further. Some of them even crossed the red line and got the prize.

I heard their cheers and worked even harder to figure out the right wing shape. I really wanted to get the prize! But my rocket kept struggling to fly. A few hours into the workshop, many people were taking their rockets beyond the red line, but mine was still plummeting to the ground after the launch. In front of me, the number of blue boxes was quickly decreasing, and I started to whine.

“They will be gone before I cross the red line!”

My mother and I tried different wing shapes and changed the amount of weight inside the plastic bottle, hoping that that would allow the rocket to travel further. But the rocket did not catch the wind and fell on the ground.

The room became more and more empty as more and more people succeeded in bringing their rockets across the red line. As I kept working on my rocket design, once, the instructor came by and told me to think about where to attach my wings.

“I think the shape of your wings is good. Now you have to find the best position to attach them.”

She showed me where I should attach my wings, and when I followed her advice, my rocket finally flew properly though it still fell short of the red line. I ran back inside to apply more improvements.

In the meanwhile, the organizer of the event started bringing the red line closer and closer to the launch point so that the remainder of us could also cross the line more easily. There were now only a few blue boxes left.

The instructor came to my work table once again to give me further advice.

“You will be able to cross it soon. Your rocket is travelling further now. Try changing the wing shape a little.”

Again, when I applied her advice, my rocket travelled a little further. Just when I was about to run back inside, I heard the announcement made by the organizer.

“The last winner of the prize is here!”

When I turned, I saw somebody holding the blue box of a water rocket with a beaming smile, and there was no more box left in the pile. They were all gone now.

“I wanted to have one!” I cried. “Why? I worked so hard, but I couldn’t cross the red line!”

I felt so miserable that I wanted to throw away my rocket altogether. While I was having a tantrum, the instructor came to my work table again and told me to give it another try. I don’t remember if it was about the wing shape, the amount of weight, or the position of the wings. But she gave me one last piece of advice, and I went out to the garden to launch my rocket for one last time.

“Congratulations!” Somebody yelled from afar, picking up my rocket from the ground. “You crossed the red line!”

With that, the workshop was over. I was one of the very last people who managed to cross the red line. I wasn’t sure if we finally succeeded because of the improvements we had made on our rockets or because the red line had travelled close to us. In any way, it was all over.

I went back to my work table to pick up my belongings. I was whining to my mother again how sad I was for not getting the prize when I heard a kind voice behind me.

“Congratulations,” it was the instructor. “Your rocket crossed the red line! I’m sorry that you couldn’t get the prize.”

My mother told her how I was looking forward to getting one of those blue boxes and how heartbroken I was because I could not get one.

“I understand how you feel,” she said to me gently. “You were working so hard on it. Well, I have something for you.”

She then took out a beautiful wooden toy and placed it in front of me. It was a traditional German Christmas pyramid candle holder. On a red-coloured square wood piece, several dolls were standing in a circle, and there was a tiny windmill over them.

“You will place candles on the four corners, then this windmill will start to turn.”

I gazed at the candle holder in silence. The warmth this wooden object carried made such a contrast against the harsh competition of the afternoon.

“This is my gift for you because you worked so hard on the project today.”

I did not know what to make of it. I was still sad that I had not won the water rocket prize, but now I was also happy that somebody had seen me working hard. I smiled and thanked her for the gift. My mother was touched by the kindness, and she bowed to the instructor many times to show her appreciation.

The Christmas candle holder found a place in our living room, and every time I saw it, it always reminded me of that day of water rocket workshop. How I struggled to cross the red line and how one instructor made me feel seen by talking to me and gifting me with this special foreign candle holder.

Decades later, the candle holder still sits in the same spot at my parents house, holding the memory of that rocket scientist who reached out to me with her kindness.