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  Chapter 4  Pencil rocket in Michikawa  
The Launch of The Pencil 300

The first rocket experiment in Michikawa was the inclined launch of the Pencil 300 rocket. On August 6, 1955, under fine weather and a wind speed of 5.7 meters, a 30-cm long Pencil 300, with 2.5-degree helix-angle tail wings, was placed on the 2-meter long launcher with a launch angle of 70 degrees. The chief of the experiment, Hideo Itokawa, lead the group of 23 people in total. At 13:45, the red flag was raised and the firework shot up into the sky at 14:45.

As a chief, Itokawa wore a "Commader" armband and sat on an upper deck of the experiment site. About 10 bare light bulbs were lit there and according to the progress of the experiment preparations, such as completion of the rocket's transportation, completion of the launcher setting, etc., these lights were turned off one by one. When all the preparations for the launch were finally completed, the largest light at the end was lit up. This system was Itokawa's idea and he commented at the time, "This is the first Japanese control center," and acted unconcerned.

Itokawa started the first count down 30 seconds before the launch. His voice sounded more tense than usual.

"Five, four, three, two, one, zero!" -- 14:18, blast off! "Ah!"

Everybody held their breath, but the Pencil rocket toppled over in the sand pit and crawled above the sandy beach just like a spinning firework.

At that time, there were only 23 participants in the experiment, but there were about 70 to 80 people from the media, I believe. Professor Itokawa was talented at advertising things to the media. The launcher was designed by Professor Ikeda and had a specific shape. The horizontal launch in Kokubunji went well, but Ikeda omitted a support device for the first rocket in Akita, so the rocket fell down right after ignition and crawled around the sand and ended in failure. The rocket just needed a piece of nail underneath it, so we tried again and this time the rocket successfully flew up to about 600 meters in altitude. (Toda)

To ignite the rocket fuel, first, you need to ignite the small-scale igniter and then ignite the main fuel with the fire from the igniter. It wasn't a horizontal launch like the one in Kokubunji, so we attached vinyl tape to add support at the bottom. But when the igniter caught fire, its little injection blew off the vinyl tape and instead of shooting up, the rocket "shot down."

Of course, we quickly attached a wire stopper at the bottom of the launcher and at 15:32 tried again. The Pencil rocket with 0-degree helix-angle tail wings lifted off into the hot summer sky and made history. Defying gravity and air resistance, a beautiful narrow white trail of titanium tetrachloride smoke remained in the air. The rocket reached 600 meters in altitude and 700 meters in horizontal distance. The commemorative flight duration of the Pencil rocket was 16.8 seconds.

For me, the launch experiment in Michikawa was the very first experiment with the Pencil rocket. Ordinary cameras could not capture the flight of the Pencil rocket. To shoot a picture of it, you needed a high-speed camera that could take 2,000 or 4,000 frames per second. A group of excellent journalists was there at the time, but none of them could take a photo. Thus, Professor Uemura developed a film for high-speed cameras at my place. To develop the film, we shook and washed a 35-meter-long film from left to right with our hands in the metal washbasin, dried it with alcohol, enlarged the photos with a machine and distributed them to the journalists. (Ryohei Yasuda)

To prepare for the fall of this mini rocket weighing 230 grams into the ocean, a 400-ton patrol boat was waiting offshore. The trekking shoes of the experiment members were sunk into the hot August sand.

They looked like a group of explorers who came to dig out ancient ruins. There wasn't even a telephone line and bicycles were the means of transportation. University outdoor experiments used to be like this. I miss such simplicity now. (Junjiro Shimomura)

On that day, Itokawa composed a "Tanka (Japanese 31-syllable poem)" about the peace and calm of this summery day.

"When we tried to launch the first rocket in front of the glares of the summer sea, the waves sounded rather close."

Ruins of the Kappa launch site, north of the mouth to the Katte river

The Pencil 300 launcher

Itokawa's count down

The launch of the Pencil 300

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