Claybaugh 6-inch Rocket, Post-Flight Inspection

by Bill Claybaugh, RRS.ORG

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a continuation of the reporting from the 10-16-2021 flight of the 6-inch rocket design, built and flown by RRS member, Bill Claybaugh.

Post-Flight Motor Inspection

Recovery of the spent motor hardware allowed a detailed disassembly and inspection of the parts.  This revealed several useful observations:

Motor Tube

The recovered Motor Tube showed a dent just above the fins that was deep enough to have caused a pressure failure if it had been present while the motor was operating; we thus conclude that the dent occurred during or post impact.

Localized dent in the aluminum case, likely resulting from impact after burnout


Inspection of the Forward Bulkhead showed it to be in good condition with no evidence of any gas leaks above the two O-rings.  The bottom of the Bulkhead showed some damage to the fiberglass heat shield from the ground impact of the rocket but showed plenty of fiberglass heat shield remaining after the about eight second burn.  The “nose” of the ignitor assembly remained in place in contrast to previous tests where this part had shattered upon ignition; the change to a steel “gun barrel” liner for the initiator appears to have resolved this issue.

The forward side of the bulkhead showing no leakage or damage.
Aft side of the bulkhead showing damage to fiberglass heatshield.


The four fins were intact and largely undamaged; they appear suitable for reuse in future flight vehicles.  Checking with a 0.002” feeler gauge showed there was no gap between the “nose” of any of the fins and the motor tube.  A further check using backlighting confirmed that there were no visible gaps between the fins and the motor tube at any location along the fin edges.


The graphite nozzle insert had broken free of its aluminum shell on impact; it was damaged at the exit end and is not suitable for reuse. The aluminum shell showed signs of erosion at the very top of the nozzle.  This area was covered by a ring-shaped fiberglass heat shield that was not present upon disassembly.  This suggests that the heat shield was fully consumed by hot gas erosion during motor operation; a thicker heat shield is evidently appropriate in future nozzles.

The titanium nozzle extension was undamaged and is suitable for reuse in future nozzles of the same design.

Nozzle was damaged in the impact.

Fin Can

The internal “Fin Can” showed some evidence of blow by of the O-ring that normally sits between the Fin Can and the phenolic liner at the base of the propellant grain.  No hot gas erosion was evident in the aluminum structure or in the O-ring, but soot was found on the downstream side of the O-ring.  If this O-ring were breeched, hot gas could—in principle—circulate between the liner and the motor wall; thus, this is a potentially significant issue.  Mitigating against circulation is the use of high temperature grease between the liner and the motor wall. There was no evidence of any soot or hot gas circulation along the interior of the motor wall. Likewise, there was no evidence of any hot gas leak between the fin can and the motor wall.  With minor refurbishment, the fin can does appear suitable for reuse excepting the potential change to two O-rings between the liner and the fin can.

Some “blow by” transient leakage past the seals was evident.
Opposite side of the fin can shows same pattern of the “blow by”.

Phenolic Liner

The propellant grain liner was partially consumed at the forward and bottom ends where the liner is exposed to hot gas for the full eight second duration of the burn.  There was no evidence of any hot gas contact with the motor tube wall and we thus conclude that the existing liner is of sufficient thickness to handle the current eight second burn time.


Based on this inspection it appears some minor redesign of the nozzle top heat shield is required.  It may likewise be prudent to replace the single O-ring used between the internal Fin Can and the phenolic liner with two O-rings.  The rest of the vehicle hardware appears to be in good shape and does not seem to require any design changes.

The lack of gap between the fins and the motor wall appears to rule out the possibility of part of the belly-band having become trapped on one of the fins and causing the unexplained turn to the Northeast.  The cause of that turn remains a mystery.

MTA Launch Event, 2021-10-16, First Update

by Bill Claybaugh, RRS.ORG

In a remarkable demonstration of persistence and luck, RRS President Osvaldo Tarditti was able to find the spent booster rocket. A few photos were captured of the recovered rocket.

Bill Claybaugh’s recovered spent booster casing brought back to the Mojave Test Area (MTA)
Closeup on the bulkhead shoved into the aluminum case of the booster from the impact.
The fins look great and the nozzle was recovered.

Based on the impact location, it was possible to reconstruct a possible flight trajectory by assuming the motor performed as designed and further assuming the front of the vehicle was a flat plate and that the mass did not include the mass of the payload.  We know from video, telemetry, and recovery of the payload that the payload separated from the booster about one second into the flight.

The recovery location on the map shows a northeast trajectory as confirmed by launch footage.

This analysis suggests a burnout velocity of about 1550 feet/second with a peak altitude of about 21,200 feet given the known range of about 14,300 feet. This analysis gives a flight time of about 74.5 seconds and an impact velocity of about 820 feet/second.

Given the observation that the vehicle stopped in about 2 inches (based on the depth of the depression in the hardpan) before falling on its side; we can estimate the impact deceleration.  Given an average velocity during impact of about 410 feet/second because the final velocity is zero and it took only 0.167 feet to come to rest, it follows that the impact occurred over 0.000407 seconds.  This, in turn, indicates an average deceleration of about 31,250 g’s.

The reason for the vehicle turning to the Northeast starting at about 0.20 seconds into the flight remains unclear. There is no evidence either in video or in images of the recovered hardware of any hot gas leak nor of any transient thrust vector anomaly.  The wind was less than 5 miles per hour and from the Northwest; if it had caused a turn, we would expect it to be toward the Northwest, not the Northeast as observed.  The only plausible theory at this time is that part of the belly-band became embedded between the nose of a fin and the rocket body causing the turn via differential drag and then fell away from the vehicle, causing the resumption of normal flight.  Once the recovered hardware is available for inspection, we will test each fin nose to see if a gap exists that might have caught the 0.020-inch thick belly-band.

The recovered payload segment was examined after it was found just north of the launch site.

It also remains unclear as to why the payload separated about 1 second after launch.  The recovered payload showed that both initiators had fired (by design, if one fires the other is ignited; thus, only one signal is required to fire both) but did not show any evidence of having been “swaged” or otherwise subject to being forced off the rocket by aerodynamic or other forces. Neither does the matching front end of the rocket show any evidence for the payload having been forced off. We thus conclude that one of the flight computers ordered the firing of the initiators.

The bellybands being fit checked in the launch rail.
Recovered bellybands have evidence of tearing from what is likely fin impact.

However, the main flight computer stopped working just after 0.80 seconds into the flight for an unknown reason after recovery it was still connected to its battery, which showed the expected 3.87 volts. Further, the limited data recovered from that computer shows that it did not initiate separation of the payload: the firing circuit shows continuity throughout the period that the computer was operating and separately records that no signal was sent by that computer.

Still image of the rocket just after launch making the unexpected hard turn.

This points to the backup flight computer.  That hardware is currently at the manufacture for repair, after which we hope to extract continuity data with regard to its firing status.  Hopefully, once that and other data is available from the backup computer we will be able to establish when it ordered the separation of the payload, and why.

Recovered payload with the main and backup computer.

A second update to this firing report is expected. The booster has been packaged up for a more detailed inspection.