Rocketeers—the definition of a blast!

by thebradmiskell

Underground Diaries, Part 35

The first of my two articles for Underground on model rocket enthusiasts.

rocketeers--the definition of a blast

Amateur rocketeers are n-n-n-nut-jobs.

That was my impression of the handful of Rocketry Organization of California (ROC) members with whom I stood shivering in the 3° F-F-F-Fahrenheit February dawn on a vast, windswept expanse of scorched earth in the Mojave Desert, known as Lucerne Dry Lake.

Granted, it was a first impression, based solely on the fact that they’d all left warm beds in the middle of the night in order to shamble about that godforsaken landscape at sunrise.

All the same, I prepared myself for a cold day in Hell.

Then the doors swung open on a trailer laden with rebar rods, spools of cable and pennant rope… and Hell began a-poppin’.

Men and boys soon had a far-flung public address system in place on the ancient lakebed. Tiered firing lines were laid out with maybe 20 launch pads spaced along them. Tables for rocketeer check-in and rocket launch control were set up. Individual pads were linked to a central control console.

A flagged line was stretched hundreds of yards in either direction across the flat marking a safe boundary between the launch zone and observation area. A steady flow of incoming cars and trucks pulled up to it and parked, and a host of mini skunk works began coalescing around tailgates and card tables up and down the line.

Before long, the Launch Control Officer was counting down over the PA and — PPSSHHOOOO! PPSSHHOOOO! PPSSHHOOOO! — a fusillade of model rockets shot from the first tier of launch pads into a cloudless sky. It was nice but not especially spectacular; the rockets were modest, their flights lowish and slowish.

I found ROC’s VP, Wedge Oldham, a rocketry vet known for launching experimental craft, at his truck phoning the FAA to say the launch was getting under way, in compliance with the waiver granting them permission. The waiver covers flights up to 6,300 feet in altitude. From what I’d seen, that was overkill by orders of magnitude.

KKKKWWWRRRRROOAARRRRR! A rocket roared off a launch pad behind us. I looked up from my duck-and-cover crouch in time to see the ship disappear into the heavens… along with any lingering doubts I had about attending the launch. “YOU PEOPLE ARE AWESOME!” I may have screamed at Wedge, though I don’t think I actually hugged him…

Tens of thousands of awesome people across America and around the world regularly attend regional rocket club launches like that one sponsored by SoCal’s ROC. ROC holds launches on the dry lake once a month, year round. Their frigid, February ‘07 launch was attended by close to 100 obviously terminal rocketry fans and family members.

“Because of the time of year, this won’t be a really big launch,” ROC’s president, Dok “Final Jeopardy” Hanson, had told me days before that wintry launch. “But we’ll have kids. ROC is very family oriented.”

He wasn’t lying. There were fathers and sons in attendance — a preponderance of them. But there were kid sisters and moms, too, and grandfathers and granddaughters. There were teachers with students, and students sans teachers. Some were ROC’ers, some weren’t (non-ROC members pay a $10 launch fee).

Those intrepid rocketeers came from all over SoCal — from the Valley, from the OC. A Boy Scout troop from Lake Elsinore was there for their rocketry merit badges (though I have to believe sending projectiles shrieking into the sky was the bigger draw for the boys).

The projectiles amateur rocketeers send shrieking into the sky tend to be of two categories: model rockets made from kits, and experimental craft made from whatever the hell else someone thinks might be amusing to blast off.

Most kits contain everything you need to make a model rocket except the engine (which is generally purchased separately). But the word “kits” is misleading. Yes, there are kits for 16-inch models like the Estes rockets readers may remember from childhood. But there are much larger kit rockets available now. Much.

At a launch put on by Tripoli Rocketry Association’s Central Cal chapter, I watched Cliff Sojourner and son Aidan send an 11-foot Nike Smoke (a popular Polecat Aerospace kit rocket) 8,000 feet into the wild blue yonder. The M-class motor Team Sojourner used that day is the most powerful allowed in California. It was most impressive.

Experimental rockets, too, can be impressive. I saw several cable spools sent aloft simply because they were spools. Repeated attempts were made to launch a rubber chicken and even a teriyaki rice bowl at the Tripoli event (neither went well or I’d have tried to pass off photos of them as UFOs).

Pushing the experimental-craft-envelope is hardly confined to low-power pranks. Wedge Oldham and Andy Woerner, owner of Polecat Aerospace, teamed up at the dry lake to see how large an engine they could stuff in a Kelly green Polecat Goblin rocket before it CATO’d (rocketeer for catastrophic failure).

“We are now going to find out what the structural integrity of epoxy is at high speeds,” their fellow ROC’er, John Van Norman, informed me seconds before the goblin left the premises.

That “motor wearing a rocket”, as the launch control officer described the over-powered goblin, shot from the launch pad like a bullet and it returned to Earth intact.

The terminal speed of epoxy was eventually found: Goblin brothers Wedge and Andy upped the ante and engine size of the rocket for a second launch. That time around, the goblin hit the wall (it CATO’d), but not before hitting what Woerner figured was Mach 3 (or 2284 mph). As the kit-maker, he could fairly claim their antics were a “stress test” for the rocket. I thought they were a kick in the ass.

Warmer weather brings larger crowds to rocket launches. It also brings big and extreme rocket events with delirious names like “Large, Dangerous Rocket Ships” and “Balls.” These events, held on remote Nevada dry lakes, feature extreme and experimental craft that soar as high as 100,000 feet.

Read on, to find out more about some of the different rocketry events.

Onboard rocketry video courtesy of Eric Gates and Gates Brothers Rocketry


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