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1 balloon (round ones will work, but the longer "airship" balloons work best)

1 long piece of kite string (about 10-15 feet long)

1 plastic straw


1. Tie one end of the string to a chair, door knob, or other support.
2. Put the other end of the string through the straw.
3. Pull the string tight and tie it to another support in the room.
4. Blow up the balloon (but don't tie it.) Pinch the end of the balloon and tape the balloon to the straw as
shown above. You're ready for launch.
5. Let go and watch the rocket fly!

So how does it work? It's all about the air...and thrust. As the air rushes out of the balloon, it creates a
forward motion called THRUST. Thrust is a pushing force created by energy. In the balloon experiment, our
thrust comes from the energy of the balloon forcing the air out. Different sizes and shapes of balloon will
create more or less thrust. In a real rocket, thrust is created by the force of burning rocket fuel as it blasts

from the rockets engine - as the engines blast down, the rocket goes up!

The project above is a DEMONSTRATION. To make it a true experiment, you can try to answer these
1. Does the shape of the balloon affect how far (or fast) the rocket travels?
2. Does the length of the straw affect how far (or fast) the rocket travels?
3. Does the type of string affect how far (or fast) the rocket travels? (try fishing line, nylon string, cotton
string, etc.)
4. Does the angle of the string affect how far (or fast) the rocket travels?

Balloon rocket
A balloon rocket is a balloon filled with air. Besides being simple toys,
balloon rockets are a widely used teaching device to demonstrate physical
principles and the functioning of a rocket.[1]
To launch a simple rocket, a person releases the opening of a balloon,
which is then propelled somewhat randomly by the escape of the air which
creates thrust. The flight altitude amounts to some metres. The balloon
rocket can be used easily to demonstrate simple physics, namely Newtons
third law.[2]
A common variant of the balloon rocket consists in adding other
components such as a string, a drinking straw and adhesive tape to the
balloon itself. The string is threaded through the straw and is attached at
both ends to objects of some kind, such as a doorknob on one end and
a chair on the other. The straw is then taped to the side of the air-filled
balloon, with the open end of the balloon touching one of the objects. When
the balloon is released, the thrust from the opening propels it along the
length of the string. Alternatively, a balloon rocket carcan be built.[3]
The balloon can also be filled with gases other than air, with similar results.

Under Pressure: Launch a Balloon

Kagen McLeod
Key concepts
Propulsion and thrust
From National Science Education Standards: Motion and forces
Have you ever wondered how a space shuttle launches all the way into outer space? It
takes a lot of energy to make such a heavy object (4.5 million pounds at liftoff) go from
standing still to blasting off toward space at more than 17,000 miles per hourin just
For real space launches rocket scientists figured out special fuel to make enough energy
to get a heavy shuttle off the ground. You, too, can use the same principle (but without
dangerous rocket fuel) to propel a balloon rocket across the room.
Complex chemical formulas aside, rocket fuel is based on a simple idea: create enough
power to push an object forward. This movement works in part because the power
created by burning fuel is focused in a single direction. By controlling the direction that
force goes, you can create thrust. During a space shuttle launch, the power is focused
down, forcing the shuttle to move in the opposite direction.
In this activity we are working with air instead of rocket fuel, but we use the same idea
of force in one direction moving an object in the opposite direction. When you blow up a
balloon, you force extra air into it, creating higher air pressure inside the balloon than
outside of it. Given the chance, the air molecules will move to a lower-pressure
environmentwhich is why, if you let go of a balloon's opening without tying it off, air
you added will rush out again.

If you were to pop a full balloon, the air from inside goes in all directions, distributing
the force so that none of it is that strong in any one direction. But if you allow the air to
exit through only one small hole, the force will be strong enough to propel the
lightweight balloon in the opposite direction.
Balloon (Long ones work best, but a round one will do, too.)
Piece of string at least 10 feet long
Plastic straw
Two chairs or sturdy door handles about 10 feet apart (with clear space in between)
Balloons of other shapes and sizes (optional)
Other thin materials that can work as a guide wire, such as fishing line, ribbon or
twine (optional)
Stopwatch or clock that indicates seconds (optional)
Tie one end of the string to a chair, handle or other steady object.
Thread the string through the plastic straw.
Making sure the string is taut, tie it to another chair or handle at least 10 feet away,
keeping it at the same height so there is no upward or downward slope, and making sure
the area around the string is clear.

Blow up your balloon (this is the part thats like filling a rocket engine with fuel) and
pinch the opening with your fingers to keep the air inside. (Don't tie it off.)
While you are pinching the end of the balloon, secure it onto the bottom of the plastic
straw with a few pieces of tape.
Pull the full balloon with the straw to one end of the string, so that its opening faces
in the opposite direction from the clear line of string ahead of the balloon.
What do you think is going to happen when you let go of the balloon opening?
Let go of the balloon, then release its opening.

What happened when you let go of the end of the balloon?

Which directionand how fardid it go?
Try it again with the balloon only half inflated. How fast and how far do you think it
will go?
What are other ways you could get a balloon to go faster or sloweror longer or
shorter distances?
Extra: Try other sizes and shapes of balloons. How do they perform?
Extra: Try using other types of thin materials as your line, such as ribbon, twine or
fishing line. Do these make a difference in balloon rocket speed or distance?
Read on for observations, results and more resources.
Observations and results
How far did your balloon rocket travel?
Even though you did not fill the balloon with rocket fuel, it was able to blast off just like
a space shuttle. In fact, the balloon is so light that all it needs is a jet of air to create
enough thrust to get it to move through space.
Of course, if you blow up a balloon and let go of the end without sending it along a
string, it might zip around in several directions, but it probably won't travel as far in any
one direction. Keeping it moving along a string focuses the power from the balloon's air
in a single direction, generating more concentrated thrust and helping it travel as far as
possible in one direction.
If you have balloons of other sizes or shapes (or even if you just try filling one with more
or less air), which ones travel farthest or fastest? You can also try setting up two parallel
strings and having balloon races!
What other forms of transportation use thrust? Have you ever seen a hovercraft? It uses
a giant fan mounted on the back of the boat, which helps it move forward using only air.
Although the fan is powered by fuel, it generates air thrust just like your balloon rocket.
Some animals even use the principle of propulsion to get around. Squids, octopuses and
jellyfishes, for example, can fill part of their flexible bodies with water and force it out

through a smaller opening, propelling them throughand even out ofthe water.
Humans have studied these natural forms of propulsion to get ideas for our vehicles and
technology. Scientists were able to take this simple principle and combine it with
knowledge of chemical reactions to create much stronger boostslike those found in
Share your balloon rocket observations and results! Leave a comment below or share
your photos and feedback on Scientific American's Facebook page.
Remove the straw from the balloon if you plan to reuse the balloon (but be careful for
weak spots from the tape). Take down the string and reuse it for something else.
More to explore
"Can You Explain How Jet Propulsion Engines Work?" from Scientific American
"Can a Squid Fly out of Water?" from Scientific American
The Space Place site for kids from NASA
"Beginner's Guide to Rockets, Rocket Propulsion Activity" from NASA
Move It!: Motion, Forces and You by Adrienne Mason, ages 48
365 More Simple Science Experiments with Everyday Materials by Judy Breckenridge,
Anthony D. Fredericks and Louis V. Loeschnig, ages 912
Up next
Talk through a String Telephone
What you'll need
Two large paper cups (disposable plastic cups will also work)
Two paperclips or toothpicks
Length of cotton string or fishing line approximately 10 to 30 feet long
Quiet area


Rubber Balloons

Binder clip

String or Thin Rope



Cloth Tape Measure

Two Posts (At least three feet tall and fifteen feet apart)



Graph paper



1. Tie the string or rope to one of the posts at the height of at

least three feet. Leave the other end loose.
2. Cut some straws into lengths that will fit on your balloon. One
third of a straw is usually a good length.
3. Inflate a balloon and seal the air inside by folding the neck
over once and clamping it shut with a binder clip.
4. Measure and record your balloons circumference by
wrapping your tape measure around the balloons widest
point. You might need your helper to lend a hand:

4. Keeping the balloons opening shut, tape a straw to your

inflated balloon. Make sure the straw and the nozzle of the
balloon are parallel to each other.
5. Thread the loose end of your string through the straw so that
the neck of the balloon is facing towards you.
6. Pull your string taut and line it up with your second post.
Measure a point off the ground thats the same height as the
knot holding the other end of the string to the first post. Be
sure to hold the string at this height whenever youre
conducting a balloon launching trial. Why do you think
holding your end of the string at the same height is important?

7. Count down to zero, and let the rocket fly! Have your helper
use the tape measure to measure and record the point on the
string at which the balloon stopped.
8. Repeat steps 5-8 with two more balloons inflated to the same
circumference as your first balloon.
9. Average the distance traveled for all three trials.
10. Repeat steps 5-10 with three balloons inflated to a
circumference 5cm greater than your first balloons were.
11. Keep conducting trials using balloons inflated to
progressively bigger circumferences. You can use a table like
this as a guide:

13. paper, plot your trials on a line graph. The x axis should be
circumference in centimeters. The y axis should be distance
travelled in feet.
14. Look at your graph. What is it telling you?

If you had a large enough difference between your

smallest and largest circumferences, you should see
the average distance traveled go up very quickly as
the balloons circumference increases.