Space Derby

The Space Derby is similar to the Pinewood Derby or Raingutter Regatta except that the models are miniature 'rockets' -- propeller-driven and powered by two or three rubber bands -- that travel along a heavy monofilament fishing line. The rockets are carved by the boys, with the guidance of their parents or other family members. Space Derby kits with building instructions are available at the Scout Shop.

Track Construction
Use the design in the Cub Scout Leader How-To Book, pages 9-44 through 9-47, ISBN 0-8395-3832-4. Do not deviate from the measurements. The 4 lane design fits nicely in a large van (or any vehicle that can handle a 4x8 sheet of plywood). It is also nice to load the starting gate with 4 space derbies.

Measurements that are NOT included: The upright dowels (to stabilize the space derby in the starting gate) should be 3 inches tall and spaced about 2 inches apart.

Thread the monofilament fishing line through each eye on the gates back and forth. Do not make separate lengths of line for each lane. This makes it easier to make all the lanes the same tension by simply pulling the gates away from each other. Weigh down the starting and ending gates with sand bags.

Tie several (5) pieces of cloth at and just beyond the finish line. This acts as a bumper stop without damaging the propellers. Carefully look at the illustration in the Cub Scout Leader How-To Book.

Getting Things Started
100 turns, 3 rubber bands for a 45 foot run. To reduce rubber band breakage, do not wind more than 100 turns.

"The Rocket"
There are many alternative non-rocket designs such as: cruise missiles, boats (Titanic is always popular), planes, jets, etc.

The little plastic straw MUST go over the hook (not just the shaft as the drawing in the space derby kit illustrates) This is where the rubber bands will hook on - the wire hook will cut the rubber bands without the plastic straw liner!!!

Lubricate the rubber bands (spray silicon, ethylene glycol, castor oil, ...)! Stretch them numerous times before loading, hand wind the bands numerous times before races (20 winds, then 40 winds, then 60, 80, 100) -- this helps relax the elastic properties of the band and makes it more pliable and durable (this is exactly why the clowns stretch the balloons before blowing them up!).

The plastic dowel at the rear of the space derby to hold the rubber bands MUST be kept from rotating (groove out the back so the dowel can sit in it!) - do not glue it!

Do not glue the front nose/propeller assembly into the front of the space derby. It is pulled off to re-load new rubber bands!

Do not glue the back dowel onto the rocket. It is pulled off to re-load new rubber bands!

The propeller should have the rounded shaft-end pointing into (touching) the space derby (this makes the bending of the wire easier and it reduces friction).

How to run a Space Derby

Personnel Needed
Program Committee

* Plan an opening ceremony, such as a ribbon-cutting.
* Handle all aspects of awards (decorated platform, signs, tables, trophies, ribbons, medals, etc.)
* Plan for crowd control.
* String pennants for decoration.
* Secure public-address system or bull horns, if needed.

Inspection Team

* Check entries for use of official materials.
* Mark a number on each rocket.
* Act as judges for craftsmanship award and other special awards. Report winners to program committee.

Registration Team

* Enter rocket numbers and boys' name on a preliminary heat sheet.
* List heat winners on semifinal sheets.
* Determine final standing of each rocket and report results to program committee for presentation of awards.

Flight Operations Team

* Have two starters with green flags.
* Have two judges with checkered flags.
* Have two gatekeepers to line up boys.
* Set up the space derby raceway.
* Report preliminary winners and final winners to registration team.

Constructing and Operating Rockets

The official space derby kit includes all necessary materials and instructions for building. Decorate the rocket with bright colors. Apply decals furnished in the kit.

Tips for rocket builders:

* Reduce air friction or "drag" by making all surfaces as smooth as possible. A blunt, rounded nose causes less drag than a sharp nose. A good design has all leading edges rounded and trailing edges tapered to reduce the drag.
* Rubber bands should be lubricated before the race. They are the "motor" and must be strong and flexible.
* Use a sharp knife for cutting the grooves for the hanger fitting and fins. A dull knife will crush and splinter the balsa wood.
* When you start to carve, remember that the end with the small hose is the rocket nose.
* A potato peeler is good for carving the shape.
* To help increase the rocket's spped reduce the wall thikcness to a minimum of 1/8 inch. Do not weaken the area around the hanger (carrier) or carve away the nose button circle.
* Do not apply too much apint to the outside unless you sand between each coat.
* Be careful not to get glue on the plastic carrier, especially in the holes through which the monofilament line runs. Glue can interfere with smooth operation.
* Make the propeller shaft as short as possible by bending it close to the prop. Cut off the excess wire with wire cutters.
* Test the rocket's balance by hanging it from a string through the hole of the hanger fitting. If the rocket is nose-heavy, carve or sand a little wood off of the end. It it's tail-heavy, remove wood from the tail area.

Dens may wish to secure a 100-foot length of 50-pound monofilament fishing line for test runs in the backyard before the derby. Tie the line to a tree or post and string the rocket carrier on it. Tie the other end to a tree about 100 feet away. Make the line as tight as possible.

Sample Space Derby Program

* 7:00 Inspection and registration of rockets.
* 7:30 Opening ceremony.
* 7:45 Cut ribbon and start heats. Award ribbons and other prizes to heat winners during the running of the derby.
* 8:30 Recognition ceremony. Recognize champions; then make advancement awards.
* 8:45 Closing ceremony.

Sample Space Derby Rules

all rockets must pass the following inspection to qualify for the race:

* Only basic materials supplied in the kit may be used.
* The rocket body may be no longer than 7 inches, not including the propeller and fins.
* There are no restrictions on the weight or design of the rocket.

Space Derby Procedure

1. Every boy brings his rocket to the inspection table to have his entry checked and numbered.
2. Then he goes to the registration table where his name and rocket's number are entered on a heat sheet.
3. Contestants report to the gatekeepers, who line them up in the order in which they will compete. At this point, each boy starts to wind the rubber-band motor of his ship.
4. As his name is called, the boy hooks his rocket on the guideline assigned to him, centering the rocket between the vertical dowels and locking the propeller behind the horizontal dowel on the starting gate.
5. The gatekeeper starts the countdown and fires at zero by lifting the starting gate frame, which releases the rockets.
6. The race is run in heats, up to four contestants at a time. Each boy gets to try at least twice instead of being eliminated from competition from after the first race. For example, in a six-boy den, try heats of three boys each. The winner of each heat goes into the den finals. Then race the other four again with the winner competing with the other heat winners for the den championship and entry into the pack finals.
7. The winner takes his rocket to the registration table for recording, then to the awards platform for recognition. He then returns to the spectator area to wait until his name is called again.
8. Run as many quarter-final and semifinal heats a necessary to determine the contestants for the final.
9. As ships are eliminated, make sure the contestants are applauded for their efforts.

Tips for Preparing for Flight

* Lubricate the rubber bands before the derby. This prolongs the bands' life and power and will help reduce the possibility of breaking during the competition. They can be soaked overnight in castor oil. Or mix two parts green soap, one part glycerin, and one part water and rub the mixture on the rubber band about an hour before racing.
* Have extra boxes of rubber bands on hand. Remember, it takes three rubber bands to fly each ship properly.
* Experienced rocket racers "warm up" their space ships by gradually winding the rubber band motor to its full capacity-first 50 turns, then 100, then 200, etc. Release the propeller between each winding.
* A small hand drill is excellent for winding rubber bands. It also helps speed up the event. Check the ratio of the drill by making one revolution of the crank handle and cout the number of times the chuck turns. Most drills average a one-to-four ratio, thus it would take 40 turns of the crank to give 160 winds on the rubber-band motor. When using the hand drill winder, it's best for one person to hold the rocket and propeller while another stretches the bands about 12 to 15 inches beyond the rocket tail and turns the rubber bands, he gradually shortens the distance between him and the rocket.
* For a more evenly matched race, wind all rocket motors the same number of turns. For 100-foot launch lines, 150 to 170 winds should be sufficient.

Special Space Derby Events

* Speed. First rocket to reach the finish line wins.
* Endurance. Last rocket to reach the finish line wins.
* Relay. Use two or more guidelines. Boys form teams of twos. The first boy releases his rocket, and as soon as it reaches the other end of the line, his teammate removes it, rewinds it, puts it back on the guideline, and releases it. The first rocket to return wins.
* Altitude. String a guideline which is about 12 inches from the ground at the starting line and 5 feet at the finsh line. Gradually, raise the high end of the line until all rockets have been eliminated. The one which climbed the highest wins.
* Just For Fun. Have rockets break balloons at the finsh line. Do this by inserting several straight pins through a piece of cardboard. suspend the cardboard from the finish line and place a balloon in front of the pins. The rocket will drive the balloon into the pins.

Plans included in the Cub Scout Space Derby Kit

Read complete instructions and review the plan to identify the various parts of the kit. Each kit contains the following parts: one each the propeller, brass bushing, nose button, plastic tube, wire propeller hook, hanger fitting, plastic dowel and a number sheet, plus two balsa body blocks, four rubber bands and three plastic sheets for wing or fins; instructions and plans.


Pliers to bend the wire, paint brushes, and medium and fine sandpaper to shape the rocket (No knife)


First cement the two balsa body blocks together, using only water based wood glue. Before the glue dries, align the blocks evenly, and then insert the nose button temporarily in place, to be used as a guide when sanding the rocket. After glue is completely dry, shape the rocket body, using only sandpaper (no knife). Grooves for the hanger fitting and fins can be scored into the balsa, using a pointed object such as a pencil (see plan for location). Coat rocket with at least two coats of base paint. While paint is drying you can cut the fins to your design and assemble the propeller unit as shown in the drawing. When paint is thoroughly dry, sand entire rocket with a fine grade sandpaper, then finish painting the rocket in your favorite color and design. Now carefully glue the hanger fitting and fins in place, using the same glue as is used for the body blocks.

Note: The fin and hanger fittings can be glued in place either before or after you paint the rocket. You may find it easier to glue the fins and hanger in place, after painting, but care must be taken not to use too much glue, or you can mar your finish.

The rubber band motor is most important for achieving top performance. The rubber should be lubricated with a rubber lubricant. In the test flight, first try two rubber bands to determine if they provide enough power for the weight of your rocket lf not, increase to three rubber bands. An extra rubber band is provided in the kit. Do not over wind your motor on your first flight. Wind fifty (50) turns, then release; wind one-hundred (100) turns, then release, etc., until you are satisfied with the performance.

Maximum wind should be approximately 150 turns The more turns in the rubber band motor, the faster the rocket will fly, but remember, the rubber has just so much elasticity before it will break. Therefore, those few extra turns can produce either a winner or a broken rubber band. BE PREPARED!

The rocket design shown is only a suggestion. You can design your own rocket, but you must use the materials provided in the Space Derby kit.


Rockets are flown on guide lines of 50 lbs. test monofilament fishing line. The suggested length is 40 feet suspended between two posts as tight and as level as possible. Lines can be lengthened at your discretion. No rocket carrier is included in this kit. If you wish to test your rocket prior to the race, you may wish to purchase your own Rocket Carrier (Catalog #17098) at your Scout Distributor. For a pack Space Derby, see instructions and information on the Launching Rack described in the 'Cub Scout Leader-How To' book (catalog #S33831).


A small hand drill, as illustrated, is excellent for winding the rubber band motor, and also helps to speed up the event. When using a mechanical winder, it is advisable to have one person hold the rocket and propeller while the other person stretches the band about twelve (12) inches. Then as you wind, gradually shorten the distance between the winder and the rocket (see illustration). Winder fitting and the hook for inserting the rubber band are hand made from coat hanger wire. They are not included in this kit (see Space Derby Accessories). When using the wire winding fitting, remove any sharp edges on the tips.

Space Derby Instructions

© Boy Scouts of America 1980

Space Derby Hints

Hints - From a Father and Son experience!

Lighter is definitely better.

There is a limited amount of force and energy in two (2) rubber bands wound 100 times so minimizing the mass of the unit can only help. We've seen a number of winners and the shapes of those winners differ dramatically. One thing in common with both of them is their weight. Both were very light and well balanced. The key is making it light without removing so much material that the winding of the rubber bands actually splits the ship in two or causes serious cracking. That's happened to potential winners for both of the last two years and the kids are pretty upset when it does.

The shape is not the key.

We have seen a number of different shapes and the winners were very different. One was cigar-like while the other was more like a Klingon® vessel (from Star Trek©). A lot of shuttle look-a-likes have been used and various other configurations. As long as the vehicle is symmetrical and light then it seems to perform well.

No glue on the propeller assembly.

Never use glue on the propeller assembly. Other than the fact that you may slip a bit and get some glue on the prop itself or on the bushing underneath, if you break a rubber band you have to be able to remove the propeller. During the Space Derby this year we had a number of problems including the rubber bands breaking during the winding and the actual propeller breaking. If that happened to a space vehicle where the assembly were glued in place it would have much more difficult to replace.

Make sure the propeller is on correctly.

Several Space vehicles this year had the propellers on backwards. When looking at the hub (center) of the propeller closely, there will be rounded end and a rougher end that is not even. The rounded end goes towards the rocket ship and should be touching the small metal bushing. The rougher end has a little protrusion that is designed to catch the wire when it is bent over. Which leads to the next tip...

Don't cut the bent over wire too short.

We were guilty of this one. In the attempt to be neat I cut it too short and then during the winding, the propeller can slip and spin around. Leave a little more than you think is necessary and you should be fine. Just bend it over to form an inverted 'U', with plenty to grab the prop, and then there should be no trouble.

Make sure the red plastic liner covers the entire hook.

The red plastic sleeve that slips over the metal hook (on the inside of the propeller assembly) MUST be put in place. That is there to prevent the metal hook from cutting through the rubber bands during the winding. It sometimes takes a little effort to pull it all the way on but it can be done. You can always grab the end of the wire with some pliers and work it on slowly, but make sure it goes all the way to the end of the hook.

Don't glue in the tail unit that holds the rubber bands in place.

Basically for the same reason. The rubbers bands can't be altered in any way without disassembling the unit. This actually happened to one Scout's vehicles and repairs were difficult.

The tail unit needs notches to prevent spinning.

After you are all done with your space ship make sure there are two depressions, of 'V's cut into the tail to prevent the end unit from spinning during the winding or once the rubber bands start to unwind. It may wind up okay but when the pressure is released slightly it may start to spin. If you cut them to deep you will be essentially shortening the spaceship and decreasing the pull on the rubber bands. It's more of a trial and error type thing. Start shallow and increase as needed.

Various fin/wing sizes and configurations work.

We personally haven't had a lot of luck in this department - I guess I have to read up on my aerodynamics. What I've seen is winners with small fins all over the ship and winners with just two big wings and a tail like the space shuttle. The bigger wings seem to cause less spinning when the ship is released for a more level flight, while the smaller fins seem to allow the ship to carry its speed a bit better. The bottom line is they both seem to work if everything else is done right. My personal opinion is that the bigger wings seem a bit better but you'll have to figure that one out on your own. Why we keep using the small fins is a mystery to me.

Have fun.

Remember, it's only a game and this is for fun.

Space Derby Rocket Assembly Tips

Space Derby Rocket

1. Glue the two halves of the rocket body together, shape with a potato peeler, then sand. Carefully align and glue the two halves of the rocket body with Elmer's glue, or something similar. After the glue dries for 15 minutes, shape the body with a potato-peeler until it looks roughly like a rocket. Then sand it into its final shape with medium grit sandpaper. Wrap sandpaper around the body, holding it with one hand while you twist the fuselage with your other hand. Design tips: Fast rockets are smooth, aerodynamically shaped, and lightweight. Make the shell of the rocket thin, but thick enough to hold the hanger that will be attached in step 4 and thick enough to support the pressure of a tightly wound rubber band.
2. Cut notches for the plastic dowel. The rubber bands will slip without these notches. Do NOT glue the dowel onto the body! The dowel will be held in the notches by the rubber bands - and must be removable so that broken rubber bands can be replaced.
3. Hold the body upright on a nail when you paint. Tap a long nail a few millimeters into a block of wood. Set the block on a newspaper-covered floor or table with the nail pointing straight up. Slide the rocket onto the nail, inserting the nail into the rocket’s hollow center. Paint with a couple coats of primer, sanding lightly with fine sandpaper after each coat. Next spray on a topcoat. Don't use too much paint, you want a light rocket.

Assembled Rocket
4. (TAKE SPECIAL CARE WITH THIS STEP!) Attach the hanger, making sure that the rounded end points forward and that the hanger doesn't protrude into the rocket’s hollow center chamber. Glue it on with generous amounts of glue. Cut a grove for the hanger in the top-center of the rocket body. This 1" grove should be centered, 3" from the front and 3" from the rear of the body. Press the hanger into this groove, rounded end forward. The hanger must not protrude into the hollow chamber in the center of the body or it will interfere with the rubber band. The hanger must be firmly glued in place or it may detach during launch with disastrous consequence. Use a generous amount of glue to affix the hanger to the rocket body and allow the glue to dry overnight; a couple hours dry time may not be enough for Elmer's glue. Warning: the rocket pictured on the front of the space derby kit box has an incorrectly attached hanger. Don’t use it as a guide.

Don't forget.
1. The hanger’s rounded end must point forward.
2. The hanger must not protrude into the rubber-band chamber.
3. The hanger must be very firmly glued on.
5. Cut and attach the fins. Shape the fins with scissors, then cut slits in the rocket and press the fins into the slits. Glue in place. Design tip: some claim that the fins should be angled upward very slightly. In theory this lifts the rocket slightly off the line during flight, reducing friction.
6. Trim and balance the propeller. Sand loose pieces of plastic from the propeller. If the propeller is unbalanced, one side will swing to the floor when it is placed in a horizontal position. Sand the edges of the propeller to balance it.
7. Don't tighten the cable tie. The rubber bands have already been attached to the dowel and a loop made from a cable tie has been added. Well use this loop to wind rockets at the races. Don't tighten it. (Don't panic. This pre-assembly and the cable-tie are NOT part of the standard kit. Some packs/troops add this before kits are handed out.)
8. Pull rubber bands through with a wire hook. You can make a hook from coat hanger wire.
9. Fine tune. Test the rocket's balance. Hold it lightly by the hanger with your fingers. If the rocket is nose-heavy, carve or sand a little wood off that end. If it's tail-heavy, remove wood from the tail area or from the fins. You may be able to unobtrusively take wood from the rocket's hollow center chamber. Some advocate lubricating the propeller with a touch of graphite at the point where it touches the bushing. Other lubricants may melt the plastic.