part 1 of 2
To many people, Dennis Lamothe would seem to pose an unacceptable risk. For starters, on this scorching Saturday morning he is busy loading three solid-propellant motors inside his very large--two stories high, 350 pounds--homemade rocket.
The motors are encased in shiny aluminum tubes. They weigh about forty pounds each. Each one is several times more powerful than the propellants used to fire your basic off-the-shelf surface-to-air missile used by, say, the United States Marines. They also have a different manufacturing history from most government missiles: They were made in Lamothe's garage, which is nestled in a quiet residential suburb in Florida.
If that's not scary enough, consider that Dennis Lamothe works for the U.S. Postal Service. And that today he is wearing white knee-high gym socks that say "Rockets" on them.
At the moment, however, Lamothe appears calm. In fact, the moment has drawn him into a sort of patriotic reverie. "How many people in the world can go into their garages, build a 25-foot rocket, take it out somewhere and fly it legally?" he asks. "Only in the United States of America."
Specifically, in south-central Kansas, seven miles outside of Argonia ("Home of America's First Woman Mayor!"), which is nineteen miles west of Wellington ("Wheat Capital of the World!"), which is some fifty miles southwest of Wichita. Even more specifically, in a blank wheat field that is bordered only by horizon and that currently bakes at a par-for-August-in-Kansas temperature of 100-plus degrees.
The truly unnerving part--but only if postmen with Sidewinder-size missiles concern you--is that Dennis Lamothe and his monster rocket are hardly alone. This weekend, approximately 300 people from the Tripoli Rocketry Association have gathered in a remote corner of the heartland to show off rockets they have spent the past year designing and building.
Forget about finding your twelve-inch Cub Scout projects here. Some of this year's models will fly nearly five miles into the atmosphere (Tripoli must acquire a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration, which directs airplanes away from the site during launching hours so they don't get pierced by speeding rockets). Others, made only of cardboard, fiberglass and epoxy, will break the sound barrier and send sonic pops over the spongy, freshly plowed fields. Several will explode into pieces no larger than confetti. One will start a healthy brushfire.
This year's launch is officially known as LDRS XIII. The Roman numerals stand for the number of times the convention has been held, beginning in 1982. Until recently, the letters officially stood for the words "Large Dangerous Rocket Ships."
These days Tripoli is struggling to convince people--particularly alarmed officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--that they are not psycho pyros who have an unnatural fascination with potentially lethal missiles. In some cases, though, that is not far from the truth. So the organization's campaign that LDRS really means "Let's Do Rockets Safely!" has left most of the bureaucrats unmoved.
The BATF is particularly concerned with people like Lamothe, probably the godfather of gigantic garage rockets. Two years ago, at the LDRS launch held in Nevada, he and two partners launched a three-story, 850-pound rocket 3,000 feet into the desert sky before it disgorged three Army-issue parachutes and drifted back to earth.
That rocket was called "The Downright Ignorant." Lamothe's wife, Terri, helped select the name. "If you think about it," she explains, "you've got three guys who are not in the aeronautics industry building a 35-foot-high rocket in one of their father's machine shops. It's kind of scary. I mean, what if they get pissed off?" She laughs because that is a joke.
Last year Lamothe launched a two-story rocket. It exploded off the Kansas turf, Apollo-perfect, and traveled nearly a mile straight up. "Unfortunately," he recalls, "it had a recovery problem. But," he shrugs, "who hasn't had a problem with recovery?"
Except that Lamothe's machine hit the earth like, well, a 400-pound missile dropped from about a mile up. When the assembled Tripoli crowd eventually discovered the landing site, all they saw was the bottom engine mount, flush with the soil. A local farmer, Earl Cagle Jr., donated his winch to pull out what remained of the 25-foot frame.
"With last year's flight," Cagle recalls, "Dennis became one of the biggest planters in Kansas."
This year Lamothe is trying again. But now it's personal. The flight of the Downright Ignorant has become legendary. (It was so stirring that High Power Rocketry magazine dedicated a poem to it. Sample stanza: "She rose with grace and a trail of fire/that imprinted upon my brain/and I heard the low crescendo roar/of a woman in childbirth pain."). Lamothe has since split from his partners. A successful big-rocket flight this year would prove he alone is The Rocket Man.
Unfortunately, no one thought to alert the fire department.
If the Kansas plains ever had a use for something other than growing wheat and being a nice place to unwind after Oz, high-power rocketry probably is it. Outside Argonia, population 650, the landscape spreads and stretches until nothing but a straight line separates the quilted fields and the sky. Never mind model rockets--the space shuttle could land here unnoticed.
Which, points out my guide, Pat Michl, is the whole idea. Michl used to maintain nuclear missiles at Lowry Air Force Base. He recently joined the Colorado division of the Tripoli Rocketry Association. "Sometimes," he explains, "it's difficult to find people who'll let you do this sort of thing."
Tripoli has discovered, largely through trial and error, that western states generally make for better launch sites. Michl says a major event in Illinois was moved recently because the old site was directly between a federal penitentiary and an interstate highway. At another eastern site, in Battle Park, Virginia, nearby homeowners have begun confiscating rockets that plummet or drift into their yards.
During an eleven-hour drive from Denver, Michl has patiently explained some of the ground rules for Tripoli launches. For instance, this year, as with last, members are being strongly encouraged not to bring their rocket motors into their hotel rooms. If they can't sleep without them, then they are urged not to bring in their ignitors. This is a nod to the phenomenon of random static electricity, which could set off a chain reaction.
Other unofficial rules: When a rocket crashes, it is entirely acceptable to sift through the debris out of professional curiosity. But it is bad form to point and laugh--partially a recognition that everyone at one time or another will destroy a rocket of his own.
More important, however, is that the group is trying to get away from what recent High Power Rocketry editorials termed an "attitude problem." Which is that, while it is viscerally understood how remarkably cool it is to detonate a highly explosive propellant in a plume of smoke and a loud, rumbling WHOOSH, watching a parachute deploy with a small "pop" is considered a bit of a letdown.
(One California company still produces a series of hot-selling home videos called Men and Their Rockets, which is to rocketry what The NFL's Greatest Hits is to football. "This is THE crash and burn video," reads one advertisement. "From the start you're immersed in disaster. Awesome! Watch Bill Morrow crash his beautiful 12-foot-tall rocket! Guess what happens to Daun Barber's lovely 11-foot-tall Excalibur? He destroys it!")
As a result, the concept of a peaceful landing has taken a distant second in the hearts and minds of rocket hobbyists to violently satisfying liftoffs. With the recent Let's Do Rockets Safely! campaign, Tripoli is trying to stress the importance of recovering one's rockets rather than planting them. (A hot debate still rages over a record-setting 35,000-foot-high flight last year. The rocket was never recovered, and there is muttering that its owner never even bothered to include a parachute.)
Other important preparatory information provided by Michl: A "land shark" is a rocket that doesn't quite lift off but still has considerable thrust behind it and skitters along the ground like a vicious, jet-propelled dachshund. A "cato" is short for "catastrophe," which occurs when a motor explodes rather than ignites. This is exciting to see, pyrotechnics-wise. But experience shows that it is bad for a rocket's structural integrity, which generally disintegrates.
The LDRS launch site is in a field owned by a local wheat farmer named Rick Nafzinger, a tall, soft-spoken man with basset-hound eyes and a purple seed-company cap. He agreed to hold the launch on his 160-acre field after attending a local rocketry gathering and overhearing several members lament that if only they had a bigger field, they could get a less restrictive FAA waiver and shoot their rockets higher.
"My neighbors were a little skeptical at first," recalls Nafzinger, who has lived in Argonia all his life. "They couldn't believe that people would come all the way from California just to shoot off rockets." The locals were quickly won over, particularly after Lamothe's 25-foot rocket climbed into the air on a giant plume of smoke during the final day of last year's meet. Sighs Naf-zinger, "It was the most beautiful sight."
Californians are hardly the only ones to-ting rockets to this year's launch. By 8 a.m. cars from Florida, Georgia, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Wyoming and Washington already are parked along a narrow strip of grass dividing two fields.
Near the dirt road is a giant blue-and-white tent. Inside, the local Kiwanis Club has set up a booth to sell iced tea and cold soda. They are soon joined by the Argonia High School's After Prom committee, which is raising money by hawking Pizza Hut slices at an obscene markup.
Up the grass strip a bit, a local artist has parked his brown van. In celebration of this year's event, he has donated to a local raffle what appears to be a rocket he carved out of a tree stump. It must weigh 150 pounds and looks like a giant wooden pickle springing out of a hill of dirt. "I'd buy a ticket," Michl says, "but I'm afraid I might win."
Even at this early hour, a number of men carrying rockets--balanced over their shoulders, hugged like infants, cradled like guns--already have begun moving about the field. A T-shirt reading "As a Matter of Fact, I Am a Rocket Scientist" seems to be a favorite.
The actual launch site is west of the parking area, about 25 yards into the soft, clod- covered field. Three sets of launchpads are electronically connected to a wooden box that resembles an ancient soundboard sitting on a folding card table. The pads--tall poles with round metal disks at the bases--are color-coded: Green, which is closest, is used for smaller, proven rockets. Larger models lift off the yellow pads.
The red pads, a good 100 yards from the launch table, are for the huge, garage-built numbers, many of whose launches are referred to euphemistically as "heads-up flights." In case this is too vague, the announcement over the P.A. system of a heads-up flight usually is followed by the words "Be prepared to run."
Sitting along the border of the grass strip and the field is another card table. This morning it is attended by a heavy man with short legs and a goatee. He looks suspiciously like a Klingon. In fact, he is wearing a laminated tag. "Star Fleet Academy," it says. "Admiral." Lying in front of him on the table is a plastic ray gun. His shirt reads: "Speed Limit 186,000 MPH. It's not just a good idea. It's the law."
A man toting a modest fire-hydrant-size missile appears at the table. The Klingon looks at the man's name tag. "Nick," he says. "Please hand me your rocket." Nick looks baffled by the formality. "I'm polite," the Klingon explains. "I always ask for people's permission to touch their rockets."
The Klingon turns out to be Allan Swayze. His official title this morning is Range Safety Officer, and his job is to inspect every rocket on the launchpad for flaws. "What you're looking for," he explains, "is cracked fins, loose fins, an engine that might not be able to loft the rocket--anything that would make the flight unsafe."
"Take Dennis Lamothe's rocket," adds another RSO manning the table--Jim Balliro, a vascular surgeon from Florida. "His motors this year will be pushing the equivalent of three air-to-air missiles. So, you know, it's important that everything hangs together."
Behind us a rocket leaps off a pad. It peaks, tips and begins to plummet back to earth, more or less directly toward us. "That's dead," Balliro says clinically. But a small white puff of smoke appears and the parachute pops out.
"Hah," says Swayze. "Premature diagnosis, Bones."
"Most of us," continues Balliro, who is wearing a cap with a Lawrence of Arabia neck protector attached to it, "are born-again rocketeers. We flew Estes models as kids. I personally like it because it's a technical challenge."
This year Balliro has brought with him a sixty-inch handmade rocket designed to hit 40,000 feet in two stages. It is built from a fiberglass compound he says is stronger than steel. "My rocket would go right through a commercial airplane," he says. "Just BOOM!--right through. They'd never know what hit them."
Another WHOOSH behind us. A fourteen-foot rocket zooms to approximately 3,000 feet. "Excellent flight, excellent flight," observes Balliro. Then...nothing. "Uh-oh," he says. "Look out."
The warning is repeated over the range's loudspeaker system as the rocket drifts down sideways and surprisingly slowly, as if it were under water. It smacks the turf about 200 yards away. Its tailfins shatter like dinner plates. Balliro sighs. "That's tragic, tragic. That was ugly."
"Actually," he says, "if you think about it, rocket science is pretty straightforward. It's only a little physics and chemistry mixed in with a bit of thermal and fluid dynamics. Unfortunately, though, a lot of people in high power don't come from technical backgrounds. And the trend is toward higher power and more complexity."
A gigantic sizzle as another rocket shoots up loud and high. "Butt-kicker," exclaims Swayze. "I like it. More rockets! More motors!"
"Keep your eyes open," the announcer says over the loudspeaker. "We've lost it."
In the beginning, Tripoli president Chuck Rogers explains, there was the National Association of Rocketry. Rogers, a white-haired aerospace engineer from Louisiana who works for the Air Force's Office of Research Projects, is lounging under an open tent. Next to him sits Bruce Kelly, who publishes High Power Rocketry out of Salt Lake City. He is wearing a "Let's Do Launch" T-shirt.
NAR (originally called the Model Missile Association) was founded in Denver in 1957 by G. Harry Stine, considered the father of model rocketry. NAR, which has relocated to Wisconsin, has steadfastly maintained its mission of promoting the hobby of building small rockets out of paper, balsa and plastic, powered by smallish, mass-produced motors. Beginning in the 1970s, though, a group of more serious rocket guys began gathering in a dry lake bed in California to shoot off models of their own design.
Many early models were powered by a combustible combination of zinc and sulfur. Many blew up. Frank Kosdon, an MIT-trained physicist who is trying to start a big-motor business out of his home in California, recalls experimenting not so successfully with various explosive powder combinations. "Actually," he recalls, "it was more like inventing pipe bombs than setting off rockets."
In 1981 a group of enthusiasts calling themselves the Tripoli Federation (in honor of a collection of Libyan coins they sold for start-up cash) decided to gather in Medina, Ohio, in the Woodstock of high-power rocketry. But when they invited NAR members to join them, the older organization declined and urged its members to boycott, warning that the Tripoli meet would be rife with "large dangerous rocket ships." Tripoli, of course, promptly named the event LDRS I.
The organization has considered a name change only once. According to lore, that was when representatives of the association sought support from Jake Garn, the former conservative senator from Utah and an early space fan. But when Garn's secretary heard the caller was from Tripoli, she informed them that the senator didn't deal with Libyans, who, she explained, were terrorists. Still, when Rogers suggested changing Tripoli's name several years ago, the membership soundly thrashed the idea.
Over the past five years Tripoli's popularity has exploded, from about 500 members nationwide to nearly 1,800. High Power Rocketry boasts a circulation of 23,000. According to Rogers, two-thirds of the organization's membership attended college; the average Tripolian is 35 years old.
Many of the group's members are content to fly grown-up versions of the small models that kids have enjoyed for years. They patronize a handful of new companies with names like Dynacom ("When You're Serious About Rockets"), Dangerous Dave's and Public Missiles Ltd., which make kits for rockets up to ten feet tall.
Other companies, such as AeroTech, of Nevada, and Vulcan Manufacturing, in Colorado Springs, construct powerful motors for large-scale missiles. (In a clear sign of a growing industry, AeroTech last year sued Estes Industries, based in Penrose, in U.S. District Court in Denver. At issue was AeroTech's development of a reloadable rocket motor, similar to a refillable rifle cartridge. In 1992 a mysterious video began making its way around high-power launches; in it, AeroTech's reloadables are graphically depicted blowing up in violent fireballs. In the lawsuit, the company fingers Estes--which stands to lose sales of its one-shot motors--as the culprit.)
Increasingly, such models have proven unsatisfying for many men (high-power rockettes are rare), who are left flaccid by the off-the-shelf models. The result has been a surge in the use of hand-built rockets that are based on recently declassified U.S. Army and NASA specs and are propelled by incredibly powerful motors.
Motors are graded by letters. The thrust doubles as you move through the alphabet; for example, a D motor is twice as powerful as a C. The largest motor Estes Industries manufactures for its popular kids' models is an E.
These days, however, it is not uncommon to see J, K, L and even M motors pushing garage-built rockets several miles into the sky. It is difficult to conceive of their strength. Consider, says Balliro, that a standard U.S. Army-issue shoulder-launched missile carries the equivalent of a J motor; a K motor is 20 percent larger than an Apache anti-tank missile.
At last year's LDRS meet, also held in Argonia, Frank Kosdon detonated an O motor he built in his Ventura, California, home. It stood six feet high, cost $1,500 and, with its 2,000 pounds of thrust, could have dragged a Volkswagen into the air. Instead, it propelled Kosdon's aluminum rocket to more than 35,000 feet at nearly twice the speed of sound.
Not surprisingly, such devices have caught the eye of people who are not necessarily interested in rocket science. Police across the country say (and honest rocketeers concede) that smaller motors are a favorite among arsonists looking for a reliable, cheap, hot burn. When producers for the NBC newsmagazine Dateline were scouting for a way to set a GMC truck afire to dramatize the model's alleged dangers during a crash, they turned to an Estes solid model-rocket motor.
The most alarming incident, however, occurred nearly five years ago--before many of today's more powerful motors were even available. That's when Cheryl Tindell of Houston received a phone call from the FBI. She recalls the conversation was short and cryptic; the San Francisco-based agent on the other end of the line said only that the FBI "would like to talk to my husband, Edward, and that President Bush was aware of what was going on."
The reason for the call turned out to be that, at the time, Ed was president of Tripoli. The FBI was looking for information on a new member named Christina Reid, a San Francisco State electrical-engineering student with a history of supporting radical causes. One of them was the Irish Republican Army.
Reid, it would turn out, had joined Tripoli to become certified by the organization. Certification, which requires one successful launch and recovery at a Tripoli-sanctioned event, permits association members to then purchase high-power rocket motors as part of a research organization.
In July 1989 FBI agents arrested Reid, along with three men, and charged them with conspiring to build and sell surface-to-air missiles to the IRA to be used to down British helicopters. (Hearing that some of the model-rocket motors could propel a missile at up to 1,000 miles per hour, one of the would-be terrorists gloated that British pilots "won't have time to blink.") A handmade but functional shoulder launcher was confiscated from the group.
Ed Tindell, who turned over association records on Reid to the FBI, testified at the trial that the powerful rocket motors used by Tripoli members indeed could easily be turned into terrorist weapons. For his efforts, he won a commendation from the FBI. For her efforts, Reid was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
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Predictably, the several federal agencies (California is the only state with specific laws restricting the possession of high-power rocket motors) long content to ignore the hobby--or simply unaware of it--recently have become interested in Tripoli and its members' toys.
In rules put into place last year, the Department of Transportation now requires special licenses for motor manufacturers to ship their wares to Tripoli members across the country. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is in the process of assessing whether some of the rocket motors should be considered Class B explosives, in which case association members themselves would need licenses to possess them.
end of part 1