5...4...3...2...1...HEADS UP

part 2 of 2
As anyone familiar with rocketry knows, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This week in Argonia, that particular law of physics appears in the shape of Rick Wills. Wills, who designs airplane cockpits for the Air Force, is the owner of Midwest Rocket Inc., of Dayton, Ohio.

This morning Wills has set up a table in front of his tent. Half of it is piled high with reprinted NASA pamphlets he is trying to unload. They have catchy names like "Solid Rocket Motor Ignitors" and "Check Valves, Burst Disks and Explosive Valves." On the other half of the table is what looks like a pile of old plumbing.

A local woman is attempting to sell him some homemade beef jerky. He offers a deal. "You buy a few of these numbers," he says, nodding to the plumbing. "About ten of them together and you could take a ride."

"Maybe if I were younger," the woman says, and leaves.
Wills's plumbing turns out to be the components of liquid and hybrid rocket engines.While federal regulators are just now discovering the popularity--and sophistication--of the solid-propellant high-power hobby, many amateurs already have moved on.

Currently, a few hundred garage scientists across the country are building liquid- or hybrid-fueled rockets. They gather mostly in small, discreet clubs with names like the Reaction Research Society and the Pacific Rocket Society, both of which are based in California.

Attraction No. 1 of these fuels is that they are not regulated. Even more appealing is that regulation would be practically impossible. The motors simply combine liquid oxygen and either alcohol or kerosene in an internal-combustionlike chamber. Although the ingredients are highly explosive and together far more dangerous than solid propellants, all are readily and cheaply available.

Another selling point is that liquid motors are extremely powerful. The California clubs set off their rockets either at government test-flight bases (little-known fact: You, too, can rent a federal test range!) or at a forty-acre site in the Mojave Desert that the clubs purchased nearly fifty years ago and which is surrounded by federal Bureau of Land Management lands.

Official recognition of how advanced this technology has become arrived last year, when the National Space Society, a private educational and lobbying organization based in Washington, D.C., gave $10,000 to the Pacific Rocket Society to build a sophisticated rocket. The goal: to show that it doesn't take billions of dollars and a huge bureaucracy to fire a rocket into space.

PRS treasurer George Morgan says his organization is in the process of putting the finishing touches on a twenty-foot-tall, handmade aluminum rocket hauling a complex global positioning system to keep track of it. If all goes well, it will fly fifty miles straight up, the frontier of space. The launch, which will be in Black Rock, Nevada, is scheduled for the end of this October. So far, the project is under budget.

"This is the foundation, where rocketry came from," says an excited Margaret Jordan, who, as an NSS boardmember, pushed for the grant. "A lot of the engineering breakthroughs traditionally have come from amateurs--[rocket pioneer] Robert Goddard was an amateur. We feel that amateur rocketry can serve as a spark plug to bring advances to the science."
In Argonia, Wills's devices are just beginning to attract attention, and the space around his table has turned into a sort of verbal boxing match based loosely on the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Man No. 1: "I've been playing around with nitrous oxide."
Rick: "So have I. We're going to have a 500-pound thrust, 10-second-burn hybrid on the market within a year. We'll probably go up to 1,000 pounds soon. People will want to go there."

Man No. 2: "Are you familiar with Davis's Chemistry, Powder and Explosives?"
Rick: "Yeah, I've seen that around."
Man No. 1: "We use bismuth catalysts."
Rick: "What are they?"

Man No. 1 (savoring sweet victory): "Just try picking up some tri-phenyl bismuth sometime. Mix it in with the resin, add perchlorate. It kicks it pretty good."

Later, Wills waxes optimistic. "All this is not so much a matter of sophistication," he says. "It's just a matter of cost. This NASA stuff I'm selling is 1960s technology. The space shuttle is from the '70s. The technology in rockets used to be unimaginably complex and was considered so secretive that it was classified. Now I'm selling it."

He concludes: "We have as much chance of growing commercial space technology here as anybody."

"Heads up," the loudspeakers call. "We have a rocket heading toward the spectator area."
I have gotten used to the announcement, so I glance up casually. There is a silver fuselage plummeting directly toward my head. I dive to my left. The rocket slams tail-first into a canopy set up next to us, bounces off and lands on the ground about six feet away. A crowd rushes over and begins taking pictures.  

Wills is on a roll and barely notices. "I've written a paper on manned flight," he says. "I think we could do it. The technology is here. We've just got to make it happen." (Left unspoken is that this would constitute an egregious breach of Tripoli's ethics. Rule No. 11 of the association's Code of Safety explicitly states, "I will not fly a vertebrate animal in a High Power Rocket.")

Excited by his idea, Wills says he recently called the federal Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which regulates space flights, and told them of his plan. "They said they'd be `interested' if I were to launch a human," he recalls.

Of course, he adds, "the crucial thing would be the recovery system. That could be important."

Here is why some people vacation in Argonia, where the south breezes actually make the 105-degree heat seem more oppressive, and where a fine coat of red dust has begun to color our skins dark.

Al Jackson, short, bearded and thin-lipped, from Bellaire, Texas, and right now toting a four-foot-long yellow missile over his shoulder, recalls the exact moment he fell in love with rockets. It was when he picked up the Spring 1953 edition of Collier's magazine, which featured a cover painting of an imagined moon landing.

"I was twelve years old," he says. "And I was transported. I saw that and thought, `That's what I've got to do.'"
Twelve years later Jackson had a master's degree in physics and was working for NASA at the Johnson Space Center. After the Apollo XI moon landing, he burned out and returned to school for a Ph.D. He eventually was rehired by NASA, where he now does research collecting cosmic dust.

Always interested in model rockets--he started out gluing fins onto fireworks as a kid--three years ago he wandered into a hobby shop and saw how large and powerful the motors had grown. He has since fashioned from scratch aluminum rockets of greater and greater complexity and performance, if not size. "I don't want to build big stuff," he says. "I'm into finesse; cardboard doesn't do much for me.

"These people," he says, looking around the launch site, "remind me of bikers. Bikers with dynamite."
Later today, Jackson's rocket will explode off a homemade launchpad at about Mach 1.3--1,000 miles per hour.

Rick Wills: "We're all children of the Apollo program. Shooting rockets is egotistical. And it fills all the senses. Only in rocketry can you fill every sense you have completely. It deafens you. The smell. You can taste the stuff in the air. You can feel the vibration. After experiencing that, it's hard not to do it.

"Rocketry," he concludes, "doesn't draw the meek."
Robert Robinson, a former telephone-company worker and current owner of Robby's Rockets, Elkhart, Indiana, which makes motor ignitors out of flashbulbs, remembers: "Back when I was a kid--in the early 1950s, when the space race seemed to be the thing of the future--I began making my own motors from black powder. I was lucky to get them up fifty feet. Mostly, it would just burn up my rockets. I would have loved to have been an astronaut, but as time went on, it became too late."

While in the Army, he was sent to Germany, where he served as an artillery surveyor for an unwieldy, bulbous-nosed nuclear missile called the Honest John. "The Honest John has always been my first love," he says. "The roar, the excitement--it's hard to describe the ground shaking, the massive roar of this thing lifting off the launch rail. Since then, I've followed all the space launches."

This year he built--and transported from his home in Indiana--a half-scale model of the Honest John missile; it stands about twenty feet high and is eighteen inches in diameter. Unfortunately, high winds knock it off the launchpad in Argonia and it never gets off the ground.

Reid Williams, boy-faced with owl glasses and a straw boater, is part of a team of engineers that has made the trek to Argonia from Dallas. Their pride and joy is a sleek black rocket called "38 Special." Its cone contains a complex series of computers that measure altitude and thrust, among other calculations. One of Williams's companions has written a computer program that predicts, in tenths of seconds, a half-dozen variables during the rocket's flight performance (the group still has to plug in today's wind speed and direction, as well as the barometric pressure).

"I got involved in model rocketry in the 1960s, but quit in the '70s when it became nerdy," says Williams. "I got reinvolved recently when my son had to do a science project. I saw a flier for a Dallas-area Tripoli launch, and went out of curiosity. They were flying rockets with motors I had no idea even existed. Since then, I've spent thousands and thousands of dollars."
The reason: "I do it for the acceleration. It's the acceleration."  

"Morning," says Allan Swayze, the Klingon. He nods toward his tray of biscuits and gravy and coffee. "Solid propellant and rocket fuel."
Friday, and even more people have streamed into the field outside of Argonia. Yesterday reached 105 degrees, and today doesn't look much better. I join Range Safety Officer Jim Balliro just as a large rocket with three I-size motors lifts off the pad behind him. It rises too slowly, tilts ominously. Black smoke pours out of the fuselage. It flips, twists and pounds into the ground.

"We have death," says Balliro. "Death and destruction."
As with nearly everyone else whom I have asked about the possibility of a destructive marriage between high-power rockets and terrorism, Balliro says it is unlikely as long as model rockets continue to turn and twist unpredictably because of design flaws or weather. In other words, without a reliable guidance system, model rockets do not make particularly good weapons.

Which is where Denver's Richard Speck comes in.
Today, Speck looks uncannily like a scientist double from a Gary Larson cartoon. A water-balloon belly pokes from between his suspenders. The pocket protector in his pink button-down shirt contains exactly five pens. His face is surrounded by a wild nest of hair and covered by a floppy khaki hat. He has thick spectacles and a huge smile.

After earning a degree in physics from Yale, Speck went to work in Denver's Honeywell plant. When it closed, he bought out its research-and-development lab and formed his own company, Spectron Engineering, which designs and builds remote-sensing devices.

"I got interested in rockets one late night in July of 1969 watching television," he says. "Later, with Tripoli, I discovered that there's legal and accessible ways to put experiments inside rockets."
"What I'm really interested in," he adds, "is getting into space. But you're not going to do it without a guidance system."
As if on cue, a smallish black-and-red rocket shoots up off a green launchpad, quickly spins into a loop-de-loop and plows into the Kansas sod. A second later the parachute pops out with a burp. "That," observes Speck, "is some ergonomic instability."

Even rockets that appear to fly straight rarely do, he says. So, working on his own time and with hardware-store materials, Speck last year fashioned a small gyroscope-based guidance system. It has worked surprisingly well. On two separate occasions, both in Colorado, the device has proven successful in straightening a rocket's trajectory in flight. With such advances happening all the time, Speck says that he has high hopes for amateur rocketry.

"Over the years, I've been associated with quite a few universities; Yale, CSU, the University of Colorado Medical Center, the School of Mines. And I can tell you that these guys here"--he nods toward the launch site--"are doing real research. They just don't know it. They think they're just having fun. But in reality, they get more done than many universities. I mean, when you make a supersonic, three-ounce rocket frame out of cardboard, super glue and fiberglass strips, that's cutting-edge technology."
"Unfortunately," he concludes, "society's not real positive about people doing dangerous things for fun. But Tripoli's safety record is really quite good." He pauses. "Strangely."
Still, Speck readily concedes that model rockets eventually could be used to make a destructive terrorist missile. "Of course," he adds, smiling, "you'd need a good guidance system."

Noon and relentless sun. Heat waves roil across the fields like shimmering, transparent tumbleweeds. Pizza sales at the After Prom committee remain brisk, but people are letting slices get as cold as possible before eating them. I wander over to the desolate field where Dennis Lamothe has been banished to set up his launchpad, about a mile from the official site.

Lamothe has a wide, fleshy face and thick glasses. His natural beefiness seems somehow enhanced by his plain white T-shirt. (Rocketeers in general appear to be a pretty unhealthy lot. As is the case with many gas- station attendants, there also seems to be a direct correlation between a person's proximity to highly explosive materials and the intensity of his nicotine addiction.)

Lamothe got into model rockets in 1983 with his young son. Four years later he saw his first big rocket and became hooked. "It's kind of been like Tim Allen on Home Improvement," he says. "You know, `MORE POWER! BIGGER IS BETTER!'" That thinking has turned Lamothe into a kind of folk hero among amateur rocket scientists, and a huge draw at launches.  

It also has made him intolerant of others who can only talk about building big rockets. "Theorists piss me off," he sneers. "It's about time they shit or get off the pot. Build the goddamn thing and make it fly; light the fucking thing up."

As for the people who concentrate on small, swift models--well, what's the point? "I like really big rockets because they go up slow--relatively, anyway--and you can watch them," he explains. "These altitude shots are like a premature ejaculation: It's there, it's up and it's gone."

He has turned his Florida garage into a rocket workshop, complete with a metal lathe that he is just beginning to learn how to use. He also makes his own giant motors there. "I'd kind of like to stay away from talking about that, though," he says. "I live in a residential area, and I don't want to alarm anyone. Just say it's the same solid rocket fuel used in the space shuttle."

Most of Lamothe's workshop now appears to be in the back of his new pickup truck. Drills, wrenches, hardware, a winch and a gas-powered generator spill out of the bed. Lying side by side in the middle of it all are the three gleaming motors.

Scott LaForge, who heads Tripoli's Kansas division and who has wandered by to assist Lamothe, picks one up. "Shit," he says, grinning uncontrollably. "Shit." Lamothe acknowledges the compliment. "I build good toys," he says.

As Lamothe finishes sliding the giant explosive tubes into the rocket frame, a shimmering mirage materializes from the north. It moves closer, and it soon becomes apparent that it is a man, staggering across the plowed fields, which look like lumpy chocolate pudding and are about as easy to walk in. He is waving his arms over his head. "Water!" he yells hoarsely. "Water!"

He arrives and staggers against Lamothe's truck, nearly falling. "God!" he pants. "I got lost looking for my rocket. Christ, I need some water."

Saturday, 5:45 a.m. and already 80 degrees. The Weather Channel reports that yesterday's temperature reached 105 again and that today will be even hotter. Last night the beginning of a rich tan again washed off in the shower.

Still, today turns out to be the busiest of the launch. Almost from the moment the range opens, at 8, the sky is full of rockets. I station myself next to the launch table.

Almost immediately, a three-foot rocket stokes off the pad with a shower of fire. It hits its apogee, tips and deploys a red parachute perfectly. "Ohhh," says the an-nouncer. "That's cuter than a speckled pup under a red wagon."

Next up is the Astroblaster, a glider model with winglike tailfins sporting an oversize motor and radio-controlled parachute deployment. It launches with a WHOOSH. About fifteen feet off the rod, it literally explodes, almost as if it were designed specifically for total self-destruction. The owner just stares, stunned. "That was hundreds of hours of work," he says in a mono-tone. "Hundreds of hours."

One of the RSOs spots a small airplane on the horizon; launches are halted for a few minutes while it putters out of range. "We don't want to shoot down a Piper Cub," the announcer notes. "The FAA frowns on that."

A bit later Reid Williams walks by, carrying his 38 Special under his arm. I ask him how the flight went. "Oh, it was worth it all," he says in wonderment, still in a blissful state. "It just had the most unbelievable sound." He opens his mouth wide and screeches like a banshee: "EEEEEEEEEE! It was great!"

Jim Balliro, too, is almost religiously satisfied with his rocket's performance. "Did you see it?" he asks, whispering. "The launch? I told you all you'd see was a speck disappearing." His rocket has a radio transmitter in the cone that emits a `beep' for tracking it down. Headphoned and holding an old TV antenna, Balliro wanders off to find it.

About midmorning the head of the Colorado Tripoli group, Mike Kunetka, arrives. He has brought his young son who, to his dismay, appears totally uninterested in rockets. "Here, look at this one," Mike says, excitedly, pointing to a ten-foot model. Instead, the boy wanders off to look at bugs and to complete his project of taking pictures of all the different license plates parked in the field. Mike is disgusted. "We drive eleven hours to see rockets, and he wants to look at bugs."

But today's main event belongs to Lamothe. Over in his private field, he already has begun prepping his massive missile. This morning he has been joined by his wife, Terri, who shows up just as Dennis plows a drill bit into his finger.  

"Ow!" he says.
His wife is unmoved. "Put some masking tape on it. Wimp."
Terri is in a foul mood. Two nights ago someone swiped a crucial part of her rocket from the trailer behind Dennis's truck, which was parked outside a Wichita hotel. Although no one says it directly, the feeling is that it has to do with politics. Dennis is on Tripoli's board of directors, an unpopular body these days among the membership. It has something to do with by-laws, and it's resulted in a nasty spat that has consumed conversation here and the Letters to the Editor page of High Power Rocketry.

"If I ever catch who did it," Terri vows, "I'll use my N motor in a new way. It'll bring a whole new meaning to `fire in the hole.'"
Somehow, it comes as no surprise that Terri's father raced dragsters and that she is ex-Air Force. "I considered the Marines," she says. "But I didn't like their blue uniforms. They didn't go with my hair."

She is wearing a stylish straw hat and lipstick. Her shirt has a picture of a monkey pondering two buttons. One shows a rocket and is labeled "launch." The other depicts a banana with the word "lunch." The caption: "An understandable error." She points to it. "This is what I think of the men who fly rockets."

Later, she softens and explains her philosophy. "If it goes on the ground or goes in the air and it's fast, then I'm all for it," she says. Recently, she has attempted to win a position on the Tripoli board. But she has lost three years in a row, something she attributes to the hobby's traditional testosterone requirement.

As the day passes, Dennis assembles his rocket with the help of two local farmers. It seems to be made mostly of wood, fiberglass tubing, PVC plumbing pipe and duct tape. Close to 6 p.m. it is eased onto a thirty-foot-tall launchpad that Dennis has made himself. The process takes twenty men and looks like a Great Plains version of the Iwo Jima flag-raising.

By 7:20 the rocket still rests on the launchpad while Dennis does some final fussing. Although it is getting late and Tripoli is sponsoring a banquet tonight in Wichita, no one moves. "I was supposed to be at a wedding at seven," says one of the farmers who has helped assemble the project. "But I'm not about to leave now."

Twenty minutes later, after two false launches, Dennis pushes a red button on his homemade launch console about 200 yards away. After a five-second delay, a giant tongue of flame bursts out of the bottom of the rocket. It clears the launch rail and rises almost in slow motion.

At about 200 feet up, it turns slowly to the right. Tips. A lick of fire appears on the side of the fuselage. A fin blows off. The rocket moves slowly horizontal. The nose cone pops off and begins to float to earth under a parachute.

Meanwhile, the twenty-foot-long tube has slammed into a small patch of grass between the field and the road, about thirty feet from the launch site, where a small but white-hot brushfire starts. The aluminum motors continue to spit hot flame; after a while they split open and begin to melt.

Up at the spectator area, there is complete silence. After a long minute a chubby teenager gets up the nerve to approach Dennis Lamothe. In what appears to be heading toward a moving scene out of a bad baseball movie, he plaintively asks, "What happened, Dennis?"

Lamothe, though, will have none of it. "Well, how the fuck should I know?" he says.

end of part 2

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