Mystic 'Rocket Man' builds Saturn V replica to mark moon anniversary

Mystic — Longtime Mystic resident Jon Sproul wanted to honor the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, whose astronauts first walked on the moon 50 years ago, and his lifelong fascination with space, but he wasn't sure how.

He decided the best way would be creating an 11-foot scale model of a Saturn V rocket and displaying it in his front yard.

"I knew I wanted to display it," he said. "I wanted people to see it. Now I don't want people roaming into my yard, but I hope it maybe inspires a kid. If a kid walking down the road looks up from their phone and gets inspired, it'll be worth it."

Sproul, at the time just shy of 8 years old, and his family missed the Apollo 11 launch because they were on vacation, but they all rushed home to Mystic to view the landing on July 20, 1969. His family only had a black and white television, so they decided to go to a friend’s home in Stonington to view the broadcast on a color TV. About a dozen people huddled around to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to take steps on the moon.

For Sproul, the Apollo missions set off a lifelong passion for rockets and space.

"When I was a kid, I was either launching rockets or watching rocket launches," he said.

He was given his first telescope, a Tasco reflective, by his father in 1968 and got a new one a few years later as his interest in astronomy grew. One of his birthdays was simply spent launching model rockets in a vacant lot with friends. Sproul and his friends would go to Lee’s Kiddyland — today Lee’s Toy and Hobby — in Groton to buy model rockets.

“The only other option was to order directly from the model rocket supplier in Colorado, but that required sending cash with maybe a few coins taped to a card, placing it in an envelope, and waiting for what seemed to be an eternity for the package to arrive,” he said.

After the moon landing, Sproul remembers waiting for National Geographic with the latest Apollo mission pictures. He remembers parents bringing in televisions to his elementary school to watch other Apollo launches. He hung a poster over his bed with blueprints and details of the first lunar landing. He would stare at the Saturn V rocket every night before bed.

In 1983, he was featured in The Day for building an antenna capable of picking up signals from 550 miles away that he used to build weather maps. Back then, he said, he chose to build it because he was curious.

Today, Sproul says he built his rocket "because it was fun."

During the '90s, he taught his niece and nephews about rockets while launching models with them like when he was growing up. In the 2000s, he collected more than 150 books about the age of the Space Race. He described building the rocket “as an escape” and a way to get back in touch with his passion.

"To me, the Saturn V rocket was one of the great technical achievements of the 20th century," he said. "The size of it, the technology that went into it, I mean I think we all heard of the spinoffs and technology that came out of the program. I also think it's a really beautiful rocket. It's iconic; you see it and you know exactly what it is. You see all the rockets today, you're not sure what company it's from, what country it's from, but when you look at a Saturn V, you know exactly what it is."

In college, he made his own models in the machine shop. These were much smaller and actually capable of launch.

“Problem with those rockets was they didn’t have parachutes,” he recalls, laughing. “They were basically ballistics. It was like lawn darts.”

He started planning and ordering parts for the new rocket in late May. He spent his weekends working on every aspect of the project. He finished last Saturday by putting all the stages together, exactly one week before the 50th anniversary of astronauts walking on the moon. He used blueprints and schematics he found online as a base for his model and did all the math to scale it down.

The engines are fashioned from bowling pins. The different sections of the rocket are made from HVAC duct piping of various sizes. The command module is just a funnel. He made the launch escape system out of wood. The rocket is held together with an iron pipe and a screw-on flange that runs through the center of the rocket. He looked online to find lettering and flag prints. He even made a launch pad, complete with display lights that he found on Amazon. All in all, Sproul estimates that the rocket cost him $450. Despite the everyday parts, he is pleased with the final product.

"My wife and I are taking pictures, my family is taking photos," he said. "And then I took a photo with the moon and I said, 'Wow that looks kind of realistic.'"

He says that one of his only regrets on his space journey is never being able to see a Saturn V rocket launch in person. He saw a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral while he was working down there. Today, he works as a senior project leader in the Strategic Systems Engineering Division at Draper, based in Cambridge, Mass. The company played a vital part in the Apollo missions, most notably by creating the Apollo guidance computer.

Sproul is not sure what he plans to do with the rocket next.

"It would be nice to display it," he said. "I have to be careful that people aren't up and pushing it. It's not ready to be publicly displayed without some sort of barrier. If I had another six weeks or six months, I could add a lot more detail to it but I'm done with it for now. I got to move on to different things. I got to enjoy the summer."

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