Let's Do Launch

By Jeffrey Kluger
Dec 1, 1993 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:35 AM


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If you want to be unpopular in the technology community, there’s no better way to do it than to become a rocket designer. For centuries rocketeers have consistently ranked near the top of most people’s Least Favorite Inventors list, and with good reason.

The problems with rocketry started in the tenth century, when the Chinese first discovered that mixing charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate could lead to sudden explosions--as well as to late-night calls from Japan, Korea, and Mongolia wanting to know what the heck the racket was all about and if China had any idea what time it was. The Chinese soon learned how to use their explosive mixture to produce the world’s first gunpowder, bombs, and solid-fuel rockets, leading to more calls from Japan, Korea, and Mongolia saying that maybe they were a little too hasty in bothering China before and, honest, it was Thailand that made them call.

After the Chinese, rocket science plodded along slowly until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the liquid-fuel rocket was developed. Although a lot of people tinkered with them, liquid rockets were perfected principally by Robert Goddard, an American engineer, and Wernher Boom Boom von Braun, a German visionary who had always dreamed of traveling to the planets but whose rockets kept winding up at destinations just short of there--like Trafalgar Square.

Fueled mainly by hydrogen (H2), liquid oxygen (lox), and kerosene (cream cheese), liquid rockets flew farther and faster than any missiles ever had before, but their inventors did not always receive the appreciation they deserved. Von Braun, who had expected to be handsomely decorated after World War II, instead surrendered to the Allies and was invited to move to New Mexico to build rockets for the United States. Given the choice between the Land of Enchantment and Nuremberg, Von Braun packed his bags and headed west, mostly because the health benefits and vacation package were better. (Goddard’s fate has been even worse. Fully 72 percent of all college-age adults still appreciate him less for his ingenious multistage rockets than for his 1959 cinematic tour de force Breathless.)

But though things have always been tough for rocket professionals, the amateurs, at least, haven’t been discouraged. So I discovered this past summer when I traveled to the town of Argonia, Kansas, to witness the annual orgy of model missile launching organized by the Tripoli Rocketry Association, a national organization of backyard rocketeers.

As anyone who grew up male and American during the early years of the space race could tell you, model rocketry was once something of a childhood rite of passage. At least two years in the life of every 1960s boy were devoted to building and launching lightweight rockets made of balsa-wood nose cones, balsa-wood fins, and cardboard bodies remarkably reminiscent of paper-towel tubes. While giving an airborne ballistic device to a preteen who can’t yet be trusted with the keys to the Toro riding mower might seem like a bad idea, the hobby was in fact relatively safe-- mostly because the government prohibited model rocket builders from using engines that contained more than about two ounces of propellant. Bigger engines were available, but they were designated Class B explosives and could be purchased only by universities, nonprofit research groups, businesses building commercial rockets, and insane terrorists demanding independence for Pago Pago. Twelve years ago, though, a group of adult rocketeers in Medina, Ohio, formed their own high-power rocketry club, and- -lacking the money to qualify as businessmen or the ski masks to qualify as domestic guerrillas--declared themselves a nonprofit research organization and have been building and flying ever larger rockets ever since.

Determined to find out how America’s grass-roots rocketeers are faring, whether there might be another Von Braun or Goddard out there somewhere, and what would happen when several hundred midwestern men armed with small explosives and coolers of Meister Bräu got together in a wheat field in Kansas, I flew out to the Great Plains to see for myself.

The town of Argonia is located about 50 miles southwest of Wichita. The event itself was held outside of town on the farm of Rick Nafziger--a sort of Max Yasgur of the rocketry set--who works 3,000 acres of Kansas farmland and who volunteered to set 30 of them aside for the weekend use of the rocketeers. Nafziger’s land, like most of Kansas, is perfect for launching rockets for one reason: it is completely flat-- utterly free of mountains, hills, cliffs, knolls, bluffs, bumps, moguls, or, as far as I could tell, even compost heaps. From almost any point in Kansas it’s possible to look due north and tell when a guy in Nebraska is setting up a lawn flamingo in his front yard.

On Nafziger’s farm, this user-friendly terrain was being exploited to its fullest. On the south end of the 30-acre plot were ranks of parked cars, vans, Winnebagos, campers, and, it seemed, the occasional Lunar Excursion Module. Most of the vehicles had tents or tarps set up behind them, and most of the tents were filled with the largest collection of rocket bodies, nose cones, fins, and engines in any one spot this side of Los Alamos. About a hundred yards away in a field was a small table covered with makeshift consoles and control panels and surrounded by a dozen or so men; another hundred yards beyond that was a row of 24 tripodlike launchpads holding rockets that averaged about three feet in height. The whole spread had much the look of a miniature Cape Canaveral on launch day--with the exception that Cape Canaveral doesn’t have Port-O-Sans and a refreshment tent.

As I got out of my car in a parking area reserved for nonrocketeers, I was just in time to hear a voice on the launch site public-address system counting down from five to zero, and in the distance I saw what appeared to be a rocket ascending about 2,000 feet into the air. The trajectory of the flight looked good, but after a few seconds the rocket arced over and seemed, to my alarm, to be heading back toward the ground without benefit of parachute.

Incoming! Incoming! yelled the voice over the public-address system. We have an uncontrolled rocket coming down beyond the prime viewing area!

Looking around and recognizing that I was alone in the parking lot, I shrewdly concluded that I was probably well beyond the prime viewing area and dove back inside my rental car--a ’93 Ford Taurus with tape deck, air-conditioning, and, I dearly hoped, a reinforced steel roof. Peering out the window, I saw the rocket complete its reentry somewhat less ceremoniously than the old Mercury and Apollo spacecraft, returning to Earth somewhere between a ’91 Chevy Lumina and an ’88 Jeep Cherokee.

Already I had seen all I cared to see of the Tripoli gathering. I enjoy watching rockets as much as the next guy; I just don’t enjoy watching them close in on me from 2,000 feet. Nevertheless, I had come here to meet rocketeers, and in search of information--or at least names for subsequent legal action--I figured I should talk to at least a few.

Wandering into the parking area reserved for the rocket launchers, I instantly realized that the members of the Tripoli club are nothing if not hardy. The event was being held in mid-August, when the temperature in Kansas is just below the smelting point of copper. Inside the tents it was even hotter, and by 10 A.M. most of the nearly all-male crowd had already stripped down to a handsome ensemble of shorts, sneakers, and T-shirts tied kerchieflike around their heads, giving each of them less the look of an American rocketeer than a sort of Lawrence of Argonia.

As I approached the guys at the control table, I could see that, of the men still wearing shirts, most were also wearing lapel stickers with HELLO, MY NAME IS . . . printed at the top. None of them had written the name Strangelove, Oppenheimer, or Hussein underneath, and this I took as a net plus. The first person who stopped me to say hello, however, had written Moose, and my optimism quickly faded.

Moose Lavigne, however, turned out to be a very friendly fellow and quite the rocketry professional. In his weekday life outside Argonia, Moose is a field site engineer at Cape Canaveral who helps launch Delta rockets. Why anybody who works all week firing off big rockets would spend his weekends firing off little ones was beyond me, though the Lavigne family is probably grateful for small favors. If Moose’s specialty were proctology, the whole clan would no doubt be getting bundled off for Labor Day weekends at a high-colonic clinic. Moose’s fascination with model rocketry, however, appears to go beyond the strictly professional.

People who launch rockets are intrigued by the challenge of it, Moose told me. When you’re launching full-size rockets, you’re working as part of a team; this means that any rewards and any setbacks are shared. When you’re launching model rockets, however, you’re working all by yourself, so the success or failure is all yours.

Standing with Lavigne was Gerald Kolb, whose attachment to all things airborne is much more down to earth. Kolb is one of the partners of Public Missiles Ltd., a corporation doing business in Mount Clemens, Michigan. What the company manufactures and sells, not surprisingly, is high-power rockets.

Like most people here, I started building model rockets as a kid and quickly went as far with them as the kits and engines could take me, said Kolb. When high-power rocketry got started, I jumped right into that. A few years ago I joined Public Missiles and have been building and marketing mail-order kits ever since.

Kolb explains that his customers--like most high-power rocketeers--are a fairly homogeneous group: mostly male, mostly professional, mostly former sixties rocketeers now falling into the 35-to- 45 baby boom group. Nationwide, high-power rocketeers are divided into chapters (or prefectures) that periodically hold their own local gatherings (or launch meets) on farms or vacant land where there are few neighbors (or plaintiffs) to be disturbed.

High-power rocketry is something that a lot of us never get enough of, Kolb said. National gatherings like this are the high point of the year for rocketeers, but across the country plenty of people in plenty of prefectures spend as much of their off-work time as they can doing nothing but this.

On Nafziger’s farm, this romance with the rocket was everywhere in evidence. While I spoke to Lavigne and Kolb, the launch site was kept constantly busy with rocketeer after rocketeer--some of them wearing T- shirts reading AS A MATTER OF FACT I AM A ROCKET SCIENTIST--carrying his model out to the pad, prepping it for flight, and then retreating mistily like a parent dropping off a child on the first day of school. When each new rocket was in place, the public-address announcer would read off its height, weight, thrust, engine size--and, I eventually expected, its order of finish in the swimsuit competition--and the crowd would stop what it was doing and turn to watch the flight. Most of these rockets, however, were small--about one foot to three feet high. What I had come to Argonia to see were the real macromissiles, and I decided to go off in search of them.

Wandering into the rocketeers’ tent area, I caught sight of my first jumbo rocket, a yellow and black monster that looked like a dead ringer for a little four-inch missile--known as a Mosquito--that I had built during my own brief rocketeer career in the 1960s. The only difference between this Mosquito and my Mosquito was that this one was just a bit taller--seven feet taller, to be exact. The oversize rocket was built by Jim Cornwell, a cabinetmaker from Phoenix, Arizona, and from his first words it was clear that this was not a guy who would be content spending his leisure time collecting commemorative plates.

I’ve built a lot of big rockets before, Cornwell said, but this is the biggest. The body was made from a cardboard tube used as a mold for pouring concrete pillars. The nose cone is made of Kevlar and fiberglass, and the fins are a combination of fiberglass, balsa wood, aircraft foam, and birch ply. The whole thing weighs about 75 pounds.

The solid fuel Cornwell uses to fly his Mosquito, like the solid fuel used by most of the assembled rocketeers, consisted of ammonium perchlorate mixed with a rubberlike binder. There was enough propellant in Cornwell’s Mosquito to produce 500 pounds of thrust for 5.2 seconds, carrying the rocket to an altitude of 4,000 feet and a speed of Mach .6. Cornwell hadn’t actually flown his Mosquito yet, and though he was eager to do so this weekend, he would only if the wind and weather conditions were precisely right.

Last year I built a 54-inch version of this rocket, but the recovery system failed, he said. It flew three times but then disappointed me and crashed twice. Ultimately I just got fed up with it, sawed the top half off, and turned it into a pedestal for a coffee table. Want to bet the kids in the Cornwell family make it a point to bring home good grades?

Next to Cornwell was another rocketeer tent, belonging to Edward Conger and Benjy Levy. Conger and Levy were laboring over a few rockets-- all nearly as tall as the Mosquito--but unlike Cornwell’s tent, theirs was littered not just with fins, nose cones, and glue pots but also with circuit boards, laptop computers, and floppy disks, creating an overall impression of two people concerned less with launching a few cardboard rockets than putting a Macintosh into low Earth orbit.

Most of the electronic hardware, I learned, had to do with a very basic aspect of both model rocketry and real rocketry: determining how high your missile has flown. A couple of decades ago, I generally gauged the distance my rockets had traveled by using such crude measurements as Over the Sappersteins’ house or Onto the Sappersteins’ house or Into one of the Sappersteins. Predictably, these units of measure were difficult to compute accurately, were impossible to convert to the metric scale, and eventually began to annoy Mr. and Mrs. Sapperstein. These days, however, model rocketeers have better ways of doing things.

Inside our rockets, Conger said, is an atmospheric sensor mounted on a circuit board and connected by aquarium tubing to a porthole near the nose cone. As the rocket rises, the tubing allows the sensor to sample the pressure of the outside air. Chips on the circuit board then record the readings and tell us how high the rocket traveled.

Beyond the Conger-Levy line, the rockets in waiting just got further and further removed from the tiny playthings of my youth. There was Richard Zarecki’s 9-foot red, white, and blue Aurora, a model he had been designing and refining for 25 years. There was Mark Drass’s Nike Smoke, a 10-foot-tall half-scale model of the Army’s Nike sounding rocket. Finally, towering over both these brutes, there was John Baumfalk’s 200-pound full- scale model of the 17-foot Patriot missile, the eagerly anticipated star of the Argonia show.

Though the crowd had applauded appreciatively when the smaller missiles went up, it was not until these big missiles started to fly that the real excitement began. Baumfalk’s cardboard and balsa-wood Patriot was rolled out to the pad and--true to its advertising--needed only a plywood Colin Powell and a wax Wolf Blitzer to make it indistinguishable from the real thing. The PA announcer urged the spectators to give the rocket some room, and the spectators followed the advice instantly--moving en masse in the general direction of Colorado. After a five-second countdown, the engine ignited, the rocket shuddered on the pad, and, to the astonishment of no one more than Baumfalk, it leapt into the air and rose about 1,000 feet before falling to Earth beneath two huge chutes. Mark Drass’s 10-foot Nike flew even more smoothly, although it took two countdowns to get it right. During the first one the nose cone alone took off, with a resounding pop reminiscent of a champagne cork. Next year, so rumors have it, Drass plans to launch an absolutely fabulous little Moët & Chandon, vintage ’75 if he can possibly get hold of it.

But most impressive was Cornwell’s Mosquito. With the threat of spending eternity as a piece of rumpus room furniture no doubt running through its fiberglass head, the rocket soared smoothly off the pad and climbed to about 4,000 feet, flying in what might have been the truest arc of the day. As it turned out, however, the weather wasn’t as perfect as Cornwell thought, and after deploying its chutes at the peak of its flight, the Mosquito caught an air current and drifted off in a southeasterly direction, requiring Cornwell to leap into his truck and race off in pursuit, hoping to intercept the rocket before it left Kansas altogether and wound up somewhere between Oklahoma City and Munchkin City.

During the course of the three-day expo, at least 300 rockets were brought out to the pad; some met with disaster but most managed to make it into the sky and back to the ground with their fins, nose cones, and owners’ egos still intact. Even before this twelfth annual event ended, the group announced that it had already scheduled its thirteenth, once again planned for summer and once again to be held on Nafziger’s farm. From what I’ve seen, it’s a good thing the rocketeers will be back--obviously the amateurs in Kansas could teach the professionals at NASA a thing or two. Wouldn’t a shuttle made of paper-towel tubes at least be worth a try-- if only so we could call the newly built ship the Bounty? Wouldn’t NASA rocketeers named Moose--as well as Bullwinkle, Rocky, and Boo-Boo--seem more user-friendly? Wouldn’t the space station Freedom make a terrific coffee table? In Argonia, at least, such ideas seem to fly.

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