Laws & Regulations
- Safety Codes
- Minimum Ages
- User Certification
- Explosives Permits
- Launch Site Requirements
- Airspace Clearance
- Ignition Safety
- Motor Certification
- Shipping of Rocket Motors
- Related Documents
The hobby of sport rocketry is well recognized as a safe and legal activity under the laws and regulations of the Federal government and of every state. There are, however, significant limitations and conditions on the activity, which every hobbyist must understand and obey. Strict compliance with the law and cooperation with public safety officials has always been a hallmark of the National Association of Rocketry and its affiliated individuals and Sections. It is vital to the future health of the Association and its credibility as a responsible spokesman for the hobby that we all remain fully informed of the applicable laws and set the example for the public in following them.
This article summarizes those Federal or nation-wide laws and regulations, which the average hobbyist is likely to encounter; there are a few more (not mentioned here) that apply only to those few who are manufacturers, dealers, or amateur motor-makers. Some states and local jurisdictions also have more restrictive laws or ordinances, so it is wise to check with a local fire marshal prior to holding a new Section’s first public or organized launch event.
The hobby of sport rocketry is divided into two general “classes”, model rocketry and high-power rocketry. The dividing line between them is based on two factors: rocket motor characteristics, and rocket liftoff mass. Rockets using motors above the ‘G’ power class (or motors with an average thrust greater than 80 Newtons regardless of power class), having combined total impulse greater than 320 Newton-seconds, or having a liftoff mass above 1500 grams are always called “high power rockets”.
There are two foundations for the hobby’s regulatory coverage: the Codes of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The NFPA is a non-governmental public-safety organization dedicated to writing safety codes and model laws for fire prevention. These Codes are recognized nationwide as the single authoritative public safety source for fire marshals; most (but not all) states and local jurisdictions adopt them unchanged–check with your local fire marshal about your area. Both the NAR and the Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA) belong to the NFPA and participate in writing its codes governing sport rocketry safety. The Code of Federal Regulations is the multi-volume set of regulatory details produced by the various enforcement agencies of the Executive Branch that “flesh out” the implementation of laws passed by Congress. The CFR’s have the force of law. As a result of decades of work by the NAR and manufacturers, special and fairly liberal rules for sport rocketry are specifically mentioned in numerous spots in the various volumes of the CFR.
This article is divided into sections based on specific regulatory topics. The applicable legal basis is noted in the discussion under each topic and all are listed in the references. Launch safety and its associated regulations and lessons-learned are covered in a whole section of the NAR website; this includes the NAR Safety Codes for Model Rocketry and High Power Rocketry.
The NAR has two Safety Codes, one for model rockets and another for high-power rockets. The main differences are in the specified distances everyone must stand back from a launch, and in the extra rules for high power requiring user certification and compliance with FAA airspace rules. The NAR Model Rocket Safety Code follows Chapter 2 of NFPA Code 1122, Code for Model Rocketry while the NAR High Power Rocket Safety Code follows Chapter 2 of NFPA Code 1127, Code for High Power Rocketry. Both the NAR and TRA High Power Rocket Safety Codes are virtually identical because they are based on the specific requirements for rocket construction and operation. NAR insurance does not cover accidents resulting from violations of the safety codes, and such violations are illegal in states that have adopted the NFPA Codes as law.
There is no minimum age for purchasing or flying model rockets and most types of model rocket motors under Federal regulations or NFPA Codes, although most manufacturers recommend adult supervision for those under 10 years of age. Some states (such as California) and local jurisdictions have minimum age requirements for purchasing motors, particularly ‘D’ and larger sizes.
While model rocket motors are specifically exempted from regulation under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) law by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) under paragraph 1500.85(a)(8) of Title 16 of the CFR, larger or metallic motors are not exempted. Motors above ‘F’ power class and all motors that use metallic casings (including reloadables), regardless of power class, may only be sold legally to those 18 years of age or above. The FHSA requires that non- exempted items such as these motors be classified as “banned hazardous substances”, and such items may not legally be sold to minors.
Under NFPA Code 1127, “high power motors”–motors above ‘G’ power class, and any motor whose average thrust is above 80 Newtons –may be sold to or possessed by only a “certified user”. This certification may be granted by a “nationally recognized organization” to people who demonstrate competence and knowledge in handling, storing, and using such motors. Currently only the NAR and TRA offer this certification service in the U.S. Each organization has slightly different standards and procedures for granting this certification, but each recognizes certifications granted by the other. In either case, certified users must be age 18 or older.
Hobby rocket motors (including high power) no longer require a Federal explosives permit to sell, purchase, store, or fly. Certain types of igniters as well as cans or other bulk amounts of black powder do require such permits. A Federal Low Explosives User Permit (LEUP) from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) is required to purchase these items outside one’s home state, or to transport them across state lines. These items, once bought under an LEUP, must thereafter be stored in a magazine that is under the control of an LEUP holder. A “Type 3” portable magazine or “Type 4” indoor magazine (described under NFPA Code 495) is required, and it can be located in an attached garage. The BATFE must inspect such magazines.
Federal permits can be obtained from the BATFE using their Form 5400.13/5400.16, available online or from the ATF Distribution Center, 7943 Angus CT., Springfield, VA 22153. These are issued only to U.S. citizens, age 18 and older, who have no record of conviction of felonies and who pass a background check conducted by the BATFE. This check includes a personal interview by a BATFE agent.
Launch Site Requirements
The first requirement for any launch site is permission of the owner to use it for flying rockets! Use of land–even public property–without permission is usually illegal and always a bad example for a NAR member to demonstrate responsible citizenship. The NAR will issue “site owner” insurance to chartered Sections to cover landowners against liability for rocket-flying accidents on their property– such insurance is normally required.
The NAR safety codes and NFPA Codes establish some minimum requirements for the size and surroundings of launch sites. Model rocket launch sites must have minimum dimensions which depend on the rocket’s motor power as specified in Rule 7 of the model rocket safety code and its accompanying table. The site within these dimensions must be “free of tall trees, power lines, buildings, and dry brush and grass”. The launcher can be anywhere on this site, and the site can include roads. Site dimensions are not tied to the expected altitude of the rockets’ flights.
According to the high-power safety code, high-power rocket launch sites must be free of these same obstructions, and within them the launcher must be located “at least 1500 feet from any occupied building” and at least “one quarter of the expected altitude” from any boundary of the site. NFPA Code 1127 establishes further requirements for the high-power site: it must contain no occupied buildings, or highways on which traffic exceeds 10 vehicles per hour; and the site must have a minimum dimension no less than either half the maximum expected rocket altitude or 1500 feet, whichever is greater–or it must comply with a table of minimum site dimensions from NFPA 1127 and the high power safety code.
While model rocketry and high power rocketry, when conducted in accordance with the NAR Safety Codes, are legal activities in all 50 states, some states impose specific restrictions on the activity and many local jurisdictions require some form of either notification or prior approval of the fire marshal. It is prudent and highly recommended that before you commit to a launch site, you meet with the fire marshal having jurisdiction over the site to make him aware of what you plan to do there and build a relationship with him just as you did with the land owner. The fact that NAR rocketry is recognized and its safety and launch site requirements are codified in Codes 1122 (Model Rockets) and 1127 (High Power Rockets) by the National Fire Protection Association, will be a very powerful part of your discussion with any fire marshal.
In those states which have adopted a law implementing all NFPA codes, either by adoption of NFPA Code 1 or the International Fire Code (IFC), then the NFPA Codes 1122 and 1127 on rocketry are specifically in effect state-wide unless overridden by a specific state or local law. The NFPA 1/IFC states are the following:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Pennsylvania (specifically adopted NFPA 1122 & 1127)
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Washington (state)
- West Virginia
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has jurisdiction over the airspace of the U.S. and whatever flies in it. Their regulations concerning who may use it and under what conditions are known as the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) — which are also called Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR). Both NFPA Code 1127 and the NAR high-power safety code require compliance with all FAA regulations.
Title 14, Chapter 1, Subchapter F, Part 101, Subpart C – Amateur Rockets, specifically defines unmanned rockets as either a:
Class 1 – Model Rocket
Which is an amateur rocket that:
- Uses no more than 125 grams (4.4 ounces) of propellant;
- Uses a slow-burning propellant;
- Is made of paper, wood, or breakable plastic;
- Contains no substantial metal parts; and
- Weighs no more than 1,500 grams (53 ounces), including the propellant.
Class 2 – High-Power Rocket
Which is an amateur rocket:
- other than a model rocket that is propelled by a motor or motors having a combined total impulse of 40,960 Newton-seconds (9,208 pound-seconds) or less.
Class 3 – Advanced High-Power Rocket
Which is an amateur rocket:
- other than a model rocket or high-power rocket.
Class 1 rockets require no prior FAA approval or Air Traffic Control (ATC) facility notification as long as they are “operated in a manner that does not create a hazard to persons, property, or other aircraft.”
Class 2 & Class 3 rockets may not be flown in controlled airspace without the applying for and granting of a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), commonly known in the rocketry community as a “waiver”, by the FAA. Such a waiver grants permission to fly but does not guarantee exclusive use of the airspace. It also requires that you notify a specific FAA contact to activate a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) at least 24 hours prior to launch.
The waiver is requested using FAA Form 7711-2 which is available from the FAA website. This form must be filled out and submitted electronically 45 to 60 days or more in advance of the launch, and requires supplemental information to be sent with it. There are no fees involved with the process. The NAR provides step-by-step instructions on filing out the form as well as what supplemental information is required. Visit the Filing For FAA Launch Authorization page for more information.
The NAR safety codes and the NFPA Codes both require that rockets be launched from a distance by an electrical system that meets specific design requirements. Ignition of motors by a fuse lit by a hand-held flame is prohibited, and in fact, both NFPA Codes prohibit the sale or use of such fuses. All persons in the launch area are required to be aware of each launch in advance (this means a PA system or other loud signal, especially for high-power ranges), and all (including photographers) must be a specified minimum distance from the pad prior to launch. This “safe distance” depends on the power of the motors in the rocket; the rules are different for model rockets and high-power rockets. Both the field size and the pad layout at a rocket range–particularly a high-power range–must take into account and support the size of the rockets that will be allowed to fly on the range.
For model rockets, the “safe distance” depends on the total power of all motors being ignited on the pad: 15 feet for 30 N-sec or less and 30 feet for more than 30 N-sec. For high-power rockets, the distance depends on the total power of all motors in the rocket, regardless of how many are being ignited on the pad, and on whether the rocket is “complex”, i.e. multi-staged or propelled by a cluster of motors. The distance can range from 100 feet for a rocket with a single ‘H’ motor to 2000 feet for a complex rocket in the ‘O’ power class. These distances are specified in a table in NFPA Code 1127 and the NAR high-power safety code.
Both NAR safety codes and both NFPA Codes require that fliers use only “certified” motors. This certification requires passing a rigorous static testing program specified in the NFPA Codes. The NAR safety codes and insurance require that NAR members use only NAR certified motors; and since the NAR currently has a reciprocity agreement with TRA on motor certification, this means that TRA-certified motors also have NAR certification. The NFPA Codes recognize certifications granted by any “approved testing laboratory or national user organization”, but only the NAR and TRA can provide this service in most parts of the country. The California Fire Marshal has its own testing program for motors in that state. Motors made by private individuals or by companies without proper explosives licenses, and motors not formally classified for shipment by the U.S. Department of Transportation, are not eligible for NAR certification and may not be used on a NAR launch range.
Shipping of Rocket Motors
Sport rocket motors generally contain highly flammable substances such as black powder or ammonium perchlorate, and are therefore considered to be hazardous materials or explosives for shipment purposes by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). There are extensive regulations concerning shipment in the DOT’s section of the CFR–Title 49, Parts 170-179. These regulations cover packaging, labeling, and the safety testing and classification that is required prior to shipment. These regulations are of great concern to manufacturers and dealers, and there are severe penalties for non-compliance. Basically, it is illegal to send rocket motors by UPS, mail, Federal Express, or any other common carrier–or to carry them onto an airliner–except under exact compliance with these regulations. The reality of these regulations, and the shippers’ company regulations, is that it is virtually impossible for a private individual to legally ship a rocket motor of any size. Transportation of motors on airlines is very difficult to do legally and should be avoided if at all possible. It takes weeks of advance effort with the airline, and in the post-September 11 world is probably not even worth attempting.
Sections are insured as a group for a year and the insurance is coincident with the Section charter and therefore expires on or around April 4th of each year. Site owner insurance is available to all active Sections for free. Each site owner insurance certificate covers only a single site (launch field, meeting room, etc.).
NAR insurance covers only activities that are conducted in accordance with the NAR safety code and using NAR-certified motors. It provides $5 -million aggregate liability coverage for damages from bodily injury or property damage claims resulting from sport rocket activities such as launches, meetings, or classes and $1 million coverage for fire damage to the launch site. It is “primary” above any other insurance you may have.
- National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
- NFPA Code 495, Explosive Materials Code
- NFPA Code 1122, Code for Model Rocketry
- NFPA Code 1127, Code for High Power Rocketry
- Code of Federal Regulations
- Title 14, Chapter 1, Subchapter F, Part 101, Subpart C – Federal Aviation Regulations for Amateur Rockets
- Title 16, Chapter 2, Subchapter C, Part 1500, 1500.85(a)(8) – Consumer Product Safety Commission exemption for Model Rockets Motors
- Title 27, Chapter 2, Subchapter C, Part 555, Subpart H, 555.141(a)(10) – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms exemption for Model Rockets Motors
- Title 49, Subtitle B, Chapter 1, Subchapter C, Parts 171-177 – Department of Transportation Hazardous Material Shipping Regulations.
- National Association of Rocketry
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