The Rocketmen of V.I.

For almost a decade the annual V.I. Science and Mathematics Exhibition was an event timed to overlap with the school’s Annual Speech Day and Concert. Over three or four days, thousands of visitors would throng its biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics sections. It was the fifties equivalent of today’s science fairs, in which the pupils invested many weeks of intense preparation. With the opening of the specialist labs in the Science Block in 1957, the exhibition expanded in scope and diversity in the new premises. Something else happened that would change the appeal of the annual event.

On October 4th of that same year, the space age began with the launch of the Sputnik by the Soviet Union. Every few months the world would turn its head upwards as mind-numbing events – the first unmanned probes to the moon, the first dog in space, then the first man in space, and so on – made banner headlines. In May 1961, President Kennedy announced before the United States Congress his intention to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Regular reports of the American training of astronauts and tests of moon rockets now began to make headlines in newspapers and in the evening news on television (which had finally arrived in Malaysia). VI boys began to get ideas.

Around 1962, Koh Tong Chui, for instance, put together science lab chemicals such as phosphorus and potassium nitrate as fuel to propel a crude rocket of compressed cardboard that he built with Boon Tan, Koh Kee Seng and Chiew Teik Aun. Working in his backyard, the lads glued some crude fins to the base and carved a piece of balsa wood for the cone. When they tried to launch the rocket, the fuse would not light. Desperate, they stuck a burning joss stick into the nozzle. That did the trick. The rocket went up for about five feet before it exploded, searing Teik Aun in the back and Tong Chui in a leg.

That same year, VI science students had inaugurated the Interplanetary Section of the Science and Maths Society. Its reflecting telescope enabled its members to see the moon surface clearly, among other things. Wong Kam Luen, 1963 Chairman of the Section, recalls organizing night time viewing sessions with the telescope. According to him, it was quite popular with the girls, which in turn attracted a number of boys! But passive sky viewing apparently wasn’t enough. Some younger members now hankered to reach up - with rockets!

Chandrasekharan Nair’s head was filled with information gathered from science books in the V.I. library. He began to fashion rudimentary rockets from small metal tubes. One end of his rocket was crimped into a small opening around a nail, while the other end was flattened like the end of a tube of toothpaste about two inches long. The potassium chlorate fuel he purchased from the Naina Mohamed pharmacy in town.

Each cigarette-sized rocket – about a hundred were made in total - had a wire ring around the tube so it could slide along a wire strung from the Physics Lab in the Sixth Form Block to the old lab upstairs in the main building. During the Speech Day Exhibition, Chandra launched his rockets every five minutes or so from the Sixth Form Block. Once, a rocket exploded in front of the startled spectators, sending a piece of shrapnel into Chandra’s elbow.

The following year, 1964, Chandra had earned his stripes and was appointed Chief Supervisor of the Physics Section. Two junior members of the Science and Maths Society now approached him. They were members of the Cadet Corps Band as well: Gui Wee Kee was the trumpet major and his junior, Chai Sin Chong, the band sergeant. Wee Kee had been soaking up pictures of rockets in magazines at the USIS Library, on TV and in war movies, and could not resist the thrill of launching a rocket of his own. Could he? Chandra gave Wee Kee and Sin Chong free rein.

The principle of a solid fuel rocket engine was no secret but the challenge for these two lads, who did not have a budget as large as NASA’s, was to build one with their very limited resources. Rocket fuel was easily concocted – Sin Chong seemed to have the formula from somewhere - and readily available. All they needed was to find a way to build a working (and affordable) rocket.

The biggest challenge was the nozzle. It had to be able to withstand the very high temperature and pressure of fuel combustion. It could either be molded from cement or machined from metal and both were relatively expensive. And there was the complication of attaching it to the booster tube.

The boys hit on the idea of building both integrally. They soaked layers of brown paper in glue and wrapped them around a metal pipe of one inch diameter to form a paper tube. At one end of the paper tube a similar metal pipe was forced in and then withdrawn by half an inch to create a gap between the two metal pipes. The nozzle was constructed at this gap by gradually tightening a metal wire noose around it. The diameter of the nozzle was determined by using a pencil left in place during the process. After the nozzle was properly shaped, the pencil and metal tubes were withdrawn and the paper tube was left to dry and harden.

The boys bought their bottle of potassium chlorate over the counter for a few dollars. Working out the molecular weight of the oxygen content in the chlorate and that of the hydrocarbon in sugar, our smart chemistry students arrived at the correct proportions for a clean and efficient burn! It was relatively safe to mix and handle as the flash point was much higher than that of gunpowder and the sugar/chlorate fuel did not need to be bone dry.

A pencil was inserted through the nozzle to three-quarters length of the tube when the fuel was loaded and compacted from the top end. The top was then sealed with cork and sticky tape. When the pencil was withdrawn, an empty core was created in the fuel compartment to increase the combustion surface area which improved thrust and acceleration.

Their prototype rocket was a booster strapped to a two-foot long stick, with a drink straw taped along the side. The launch pad was a long piano wire attached to a test tube clamp stand. The rocket was secured by threading the piano wire through the drink straw. The wire provided the crucial initial stability at lift-off and determined the trajectory of the rocket. The launch pad was placed on top of the connecting walkway linking the science wing with the Sixth Form block across the road.

For safety and reliability, it was decided to use electric ignition. A piece of nichrome wire inserted in the nozzle became red hot when circuited from about 40 feet away using a small accumulator battery and a switch. It was spectacular to watch, particularly at night fall (toward the later hours of the exhibition). The rockets were aimed toward the school field and achieved heights of more than 1,000 feet. A sixth former from a rival school sniffed that they were rather like “crackers and, besides, some of them failed.” Apparently, some of the rockets were mistakenly loaded by our lads with only chlorate or sugar as all the powders were white in colour! Among those that never left the launch pad were two that were set aside to be fired for the parents and dignitaries on Speech Day night! Still the VI boys who witnessed the fifty or so successful launches described them as “the greatest” and “the prettiest.” The target of the rocketeers was not the moon but the Best Section Prize, which, as it turned out, was theirs for the taking.

When 1965 rolled around, Gui Wee Kee was made one of the supervisors of the Physics and Interplanetary Section. In addition to his buddy Sin Chong, Wee Kee tapped his Lower Six classmate, Peter Tang, while Sin Chong brought in his fellow Fifth Formers, Woon Tai Hou and Tan Thian Soo.

The rocketeers decided to build a more sophisticated version with fins. A technological leap was needed as the balance of the rocket and the aerodynamic precision of the fins were factors to consider. The rocket body was made from thick rolled drawing paper soaked with glue. They made certain to keep the centre of gravity aft, with the engine portion enveloped by the fins. From thin aluminium sheets, the fins were made in pairs, two pairs per rocket, cut and glued onto the rocket body. The nose cone was shaped from balsa wood. While they could get the balance precisely, the lads could only position and align the fins by eye. As a result some of the trajectories on launch were rather zig-zaggy. Fearful that some of the rockets might land in the classrooms and cause a fire, Wee Kee and Sin Chong moved their firing range to the school field.

The next stage was to make a recoverable rocket equipped with a parachute. The lads bored a small hole through the cork stopper at the upper end of the engine casing and filled it with the same fuel for the fuse. They made the engine casing slightly longer so that by pushing the cork deeper into the casing, a half inch receptacle was created at the top of the engine casing. It was then filled with the same fuel for the parachute discharge. Immediately above the discharge receptacle they packed some cotton wool. Into the remaining cavity of the rocket was stuffed the parachute which was tied to the base of the balsa nose cone, which in turn was secured by thread to the inner side of the rocket body.

As the rocket exhausted its fuel in flight, the fuse got lit. The few seconds it took the fuse to reach the discharge receptacle allowed the rocket to complete its upward acceleration. As the parachute discharge ignited, the sheer volume of gases generated by the explosion ejected the parachute. It was an idea worthy of NASA’s scientists.

By now, the publicity in the press was drawing large crowds to the school field to witness the launchings. The yellow flame billowing form the nozzles during the evening launch on Speech Day gave the effect of a real rocket launch. The parachute system wasn’t 100% reliable but the spectators were quite happy to see rockets zooming into the sky; never mind if there was no recovery. The rocket engine Sin Chong and Wee Kee had created was extremely reliable. Of the 40 to 50 rockets launched during the exhibition, at least 95% were successful. Both boys were also busy enough after school hours in the Cadet Band display which was also part of the Speech Day programme. As a result they did not have the time to build a two-stage rocket which was already on the drawing board.

By the time Wee Kee left in December 1965 for a career in the blue yonder - as a pilot, what else? - the groundwork had been laid. Sin Chong took over the 1966 Speech Day rocket display. Altitude was now his aim. For this the long-awaited two-stage engine was needed.

To build such a rocket, two technical problems had to be solved: attaching the first stage to the second, and the ignition of the second stage. Sin Chong’s team persuaded a tinsmith in Petaling Street to solder together an adapter, at their own expense. The ignition of the second stage would depend how long it would take to burn through to that stage. As it took a lot of guesswork, it turned out to be a most unreliable system. It was indeed unfortunate that the two-stage rocket project failed. Despite the toil and sweat put into this project, it was heart-breaking that all of the team’s rockets, except for two, exploded at launch. One reason for the failure lay in the fuel - instead of ground sugar, icing sugar was used.

In hindsight, Tai Hou recalls the great risk the rocketeers were taking. “We could have lost our fingers or eyesight if there had been an accident.” He should know. At a younger age, Tai Hou had dabbled with gunpowder scraped from firecrackers. He had wanted to make some sort of bird gun from hollow bamboo sticks packed with the gun powder and small stones. That enterprise had ended when he accidentally shot his own palm with the make-shift gun and had to furtively dig out the embedded stones before his parents found out.

Fortunately, whenever Sin Chong’s propellant fueled sticks exploded, his rocketeers happened to be well out of range. However, the highly combustible squatter huts of Jalan Kenaga opposite the school lay in the flight path of the test rockets. Many a time spent rockets would land in their midst; that no major fire was started was a miracle. This was also the time of the Indonesian Confrontation when would-be saboteurs prowling around was a distinct possibility. At times, after an explosion, police patrol cars would drive up to the school field to investigate. The V.I. boys would feign ignorance.

On Speech Day 1966, in the august presence of the Agong, a two-stage rocket was prepared to be launched by Thean Soo. As he proceeded to attach the ignition wires, there was a mighty explosion, hurling Thean Soo backwards. Fortunately he was not hurt. A second rocket was prepared but Thean Soo now decided to retire, and Tai Hou took over. The first stage ignited and there was lift off, but not for long. The rocket started to rotate such that, when the second stage ignited, it was aimed directly at the fire station across Shaw Road. As expected, a few seconds later, there was a frantic ringing of bells, and firemen streaming from the station. Of course with the Paramount Ruler of the country present as an “accomplice”, there were no further inquiries. And so ended Sin Chong’s tenure as rocket master in 1966. Out in a blaze of glory and scattering firemen.

Peter Tang had a better run of luck. At the beginning of 1966, Mr Chang Chi Yeh, chemistry teacher and the Senior Science Master, had specifically asked Peter Tang and Nah Seang Hoo to look into putting up a fireworks display for the upcoming Speech Day. No, not the commercially available fireworks, but VI-manufactured ones, Mr Chang insisted. It was a challenge for Peter, who had joined the VI in Form 4 from Clifford School. He had earned his rocketry skills the previous year from Wee Kee. Classmate Seang Hoo also taught him how to make gunpowder from charcoal.

Peter and Seang Hoo now gathered a team of enthusiastic Lower Sixers to crack their heads on the fireworks challenge. They bought fireworks during the Chinese New Year and dissected them to examine the contents. A dollar bought a firework the size of a fountain pen which produced a five foot high fountain. As observant chemistry students, they noted that the lighted sparks came from aluminium dust. They now welded together a two-foot five-inch diameter metal pipe equivalent of the firework and filled it with two kg of coloured gunpowder pellets.

Peter recalls doing silly things like once trying to dry the ignition fuses (strings laced with fireworks) in the oven in the chemistry lab. On drying, they caught fire and exploded. Fortunately the boys brought the fire under control with the only fire extinguisher in the lab. If the gunpowder had caught fire they could have brought down the whole school. Ironically, Peter Tang later became a doctor who went round Asia Pacific conducting Occupational Health and Safety training for workers in industry, and teaching them how to handle hazardous chemicals. Amen!

Still, like Sin Chong’s team, Peter and his boys managed to scatter a lot of debris on the school field and over the fire station opposite the school. Some nights, after the firemen heard some noisy explosions coming from the school, they went over to check. All they found was a bunch of smart VI boys busy doing "research" in their laboratories late into night. The firemen left nonplussed.

And yet, by March, test firings had proved successful enough for hopes of an impressive display. The home-made fireworks started to roll off the production lines during the first week of April. Pong Kai See did some testing with Peter in the run up, such as fine tuning the booster design. He remembers visiting Peter’s fireworks "workshop" at the height of their preparations. It was a rather messy affair with an enthusiastic team of Fifth Formers literally manufacturing rocket fuel and fireworks pellets day and night. They were grinding their fireworks mixture with bare hands and with pestle and mortar. He felt horrified thinking of the possibility of an explosion. It was a wonder the Headmaster or any of the teachers did not even put a stop to it. In fact, no teacher ever supervised the boys. Maybe they had full confidence in the boys’ common sense!

The display, which lit up the skies with brilliant colours for some twenty minutes, was so impressive that most invited guests thought the fireworks were commercially manufactured. The creations of Peter`s team included a spectacular fifty-foot multi-coloured fire fountain. The team also attached a packet of firecrackers to Wee Kee’s rocket boosters and blasted them up to more than 100 feet at which point the crackers were ignited.

Peter and his boys had also made fireballs the size of a soft ball filled with coloured pellets. As they did not have enough time to work on the propulsion system, they simply tied the fireballs on 30-foot bamboo poles and lit them. Some of the projectiles were found later in the long-suffering Jalan Kenaga squatter area.

An aerial display had also been planned: a double-barreled metal cannon using gunpowder was to be the means of propulsion. Unforeseen circumstances and the refusal of the police to grant the school a permit grounded that display.

1966 was the pinnacle year of VI rocketry. There were some subdued demonstrations in the following year and in 1968, the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the school. Clearly the giants had gone. In the Exhibition of 1968, the rocketry section was run by fourth and fifth formers who “showed initiative and resourcefulness”, said the Scientific Victorian bravely. However, the rockets were not very successful and had “an embarrassing tendency to explode." It was the swansong for the end of yet another school tradition.

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Created on January 18, 2017.
Last update on Mar 9, 2017.

Contributed by: Chung Chee Min