CATO -- acronym?

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Dec 19 08:05:01 UTC 2009

Michael J. Sheehan wrote:
> Model airplane clubs announce CATO! when a plane crashes. Some say it
> is an acronym (crash on takeoff, catastrophe on takeoff, etc.). Others
> say it is an abbreviation of CATastrOphe. Can anyone document a
> reliable source?

Randy Alexander wrote
> I'm in Hong Kong away from my reliable sources, but I'm sure I have books
> and magazines that document this: catastrophe on takeoff, in the field of
> model rocketry.

Herb Stahlke wrote:
> I have copied the question to the Academy of Model Aeronautics,
> headquartered in Muncie, IN.  Any responses I get I will post.

The meaning of a CATO event is relatively clear, but the precise
method used to extract the four letters C, A, T, and O from a
description of the event is not very clear. I am posting this here so
that others do not have to repeat this preliminary investigation.

The 2009 United States Model Rocketry Sporting Code (also known as the
"pink book") that is published by the National Association of Rocketry
(NAR) contains the term CATO in an appendix:

CAT Catastrophic Failure (CATO)

Below is a link to a PDF of the pink book. The CATO term is not
directly presented as an acronym based on a string of initial letters
in this document or the next document below.

In a 2005 report on the NAR website titled "Launching Safely in the
21st Century" the term CATO appears in a table with the following

Catastrophic rocket motor malfunction ("CATO")

In 2002 an NAR member named Jack Hagerty compiled a "Glossary of Hobby
Rocketry Terms". He investigated the term CATO but was unable to fully
resolve its origin. Here is an excerpt:

Opinions on the meaning of the acronym range widely. Some say it's not
an acronym at all, but simply a contraction of "catastrophic" and
should be pronounced "Cat-o" (which sounds better than "cata" over PA
systems). Others maintain that it is an acronym but disagree on the
meaning, offering a broad spectrum of "CAtastrophic Take Off,"
"Catastrophically Aborted Take Off," "Catastrophe At Take Off" and the
self referential "CATO At Take Off." The acronym crowd pronounces it
"Kay-Tow," like the Green Hornet's side kick. It has been pointed out,
though, that all of the above are "post-hoc" definitions since LCO's
were using the term over range PA systems long before any formal
acronym was established.

Opinions on the origins say that it is either from the military rocket
programs of WW II, the post war development era, or even a modroc-only
term which originated with the MESS (Malfunctioning Engine Statistical
Survey) performed by NAR's Standards and Testing committee. There is
also a claim that it started with the Boston Rocket Club and that the
spelling has evolved over the years. It supposedly started out as
"KATO" which, of course, stood for KABOOM At Take Off!

(The term LCO used above refers to the "Launch Control Officer: the
individual responsible for the safe launching of the rockets on the
range." Modroc refers to model rocket.)

Here is a link to the PDF of the Glossary of Hobby Rocketry Terms:

The term CATO appears in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document
of the Usenet newsgroup Rec.Models.Rockets. Several versions of the
FAQ are available at the Internet Archive. Below is a link to the 1999
version. However, the section covering CATO is based on the research
of Jack Hagerty and the glossary above presents the same information:

Wikipedia lists CATO on a disambiguation page, and the history of the
web page illustrates uncertainty regarding the origin of the term. It
also shows the transitory nature of some Wikipedian information.

On 23 April 2005 Wikipedia gave one explanation for the CATO term:
CATO stands for CATastrOphic failure of a rocket engine.

On 16 April 2007 Wikipedia gave another explanation for the CATO term:
CATO (rocketry), Catastrophe At Take Off -- the catastrophic failure
of a rocket engine

The Usenet archive contains discussions of CATO in the
Rec.Models.Rockets newsgroup. Some of the discussants have apparently
been in the model rocketry community for decades.

Here is a 1992 post by Jack Hagerty where he describes his initial
findings about CATO.
Here is 2001 message from a sender identified as Bob Kaplow who says
that CATO is not an acronym based on initial letters.

The citations I found in Google Books, Google News Archive and the
NewspaperArchive were not very helpful. It was hard to filter out the
false hits. Most cites were after 2000 and presented one of the
explanations given in the glossary entry above without elaboration.
Alternatively, some cites stated that the etymology was uncertain.

Here is an example from 1996 in the Google News Archive:
Greensboro News and Record - NewsBank - Sep 3, 1996
"There are two major things that kill a rocket," Walden says. "A CATO:
a catastrophic take-off, the engine blew. And a shred: a failure of
the rigid airframe. A shred is the most dangerous thing that can

National Association of Rocketry was founded in 1957. Contacting NAR,
examining the early documents of the organization, and interviewing
members might yield insights.
Good luck to future investigators,

The American Dialect Society -

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