By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
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.
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' 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 40-acre site in the Mojave Desert that the clubs purchased nearly 50 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 20-foot-tall, handmade aluminum rocket hauling a complex global positioning system to keep track of it. If all goes well, it will fly 50 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 board member, 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' 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, ten-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' Chemistry of 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 triphenyl 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.