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The actual launch site is west of the parking area, about 25 yards into the soft, clod-covered field. Three sets of launch pads 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 PA 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 launch pad 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."
Another safety officer--Jim Balliro, a vascular surgeon from Florida-- adds, "Take Dennis Lamothe's rocket; 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 60-inch handmade rocket designed to hit 40,000 feet in two stages. It is built from a fiber-glass 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 14-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 tail fins 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" tee 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.