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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 40 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 19 miles west of Wellington ("Wheat Capital of the World!"), which is some 50 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 mail carriers 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 12-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, fiber glass 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 brush fire.
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.
ATF 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.