By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Wills is on a roll and barely notices. "I've written a paper on manned flight," he says. "I think we could do it. The technology is here. We've just got to make it happen." (Left unspoken is that this would constitute an egregious breach of Tripoli's ethics. Rule No. 11 of the association's Code of Safety explicitly states, "I will not fly a vertebrate animal in a High Power Rocket.")
Excited by his idea, Wills says he recently called the federal Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which regulates space flights, and told them of his plan. "They said they'd be 'interested' if I were to launch a human," he recalls.
Of course, he adds, "the crucial thing would be the recovery system. That could be important."
Here is why some people vacation in Argonia, where the south breezes actually make the 105-degree heat seem more oppressive, and where a fine coat of red dust has begun to color our skins dark.
Al Jackson, short, bearded and thin-lipped, from Bellaire, Texas, and right now toting a four-foot-long yellow missile over his shoulder, recalls the exact moment he fell in love with rockets. It was when he picked up the Spring 1953 edition of Collier's magazine, which featured a cover painting of an imagined moon landing.
"I was 12 years old," he says. "And I was transported. I saw that and thought, 'That's what I've got to do.'"
Twelve years later, Jackson had a master's degree in physics and was working for NASA at the Johnson Space Center. After the Apollo 11 moon landing, he burned out and returned to school for a Ph.D. He eventually was rehired by NASA, where he now does research collecting cosmic dust.
Always interested in model rockets--he started out gluing fins onto fireworks as a kid--three years ago he wandered into a hobby shop and saw how large and powerful the motors had grown. He has since fashioned from scratch aluminum rockets of greater and greater complexity and performance, if not size. "I don't want to build big stuff," he says. "I'm into finesse; cardboard doesn't do much for me.
"These people," he says, looking around the launch site, "remind me of bikers. Bikers with dynamite."
Later today, Jackson's rocket will explode off a homemade launch pad at about Mach 1.3--1,000 miles per hour.
Rick Wills: "We're all children of the Apollo program. Shooting rockets is egotistical. And it fills all the senses. Only in rocketry can you fill every sense you have completely. It deafens you. The smell. You can taste the stuff in the air. You can feel the vibration. After experiencing that, it's hard not to do it.
"Rocketry," he concludes, "doesn't draw the meek."
Robert Robinson, a former telephone-company worker and current owner of Robby's Rockets, Elkhart, Indiana, which makes motor igniters out of flash bulbs, remembers: "Back when I was a kid--in the early 1950s, when the space race seemed to be the thing of the future--I began making my own motors from black powder. I was lucky to get them up 50 feet. Mostly, it would just burn up my rockets. I would have loved to have been an astronaut, but as time went on, it became too late."
While in the Army, he was sent to Germany, where he served as an artillery surveyor for an unwieldy, bulbous-nosed nuclear missile called the Honest John. "The Honest John has always been my first love," he says. "The roar, the excitement--it's hard to describe the ground shaking, the massive roar of this thing lifting off the launch rail. Since then, I've followed all the space launches."
This year he built--and transported from his home in Indiana--a half-scale model of the Honest John missile; it stands about 20 feet high and is 18 inches in diameter. Unfortunately, high winds knock it off the launch pad in Argonia and it never gets off the ground.
Reid Williams, boy-faced with owl glasses and a straw boater, is part of a team of engineers that has made the trek to Argonia from Dallas. Their pride and joy is a sleek, black rocket called "38 Special." Its cone contains a complex series of computers that measure altitude and thrust, among other calculations. One of Williams' companions has written a computer program that predicts, in tenths of seconds, a half-dozen variables during the rocket's flight performance (the group still has to plug in today's wind speed and direction, as well as the barometric pressure).
"I got involved in model rocketry in the 1960s, but quit in the '70s when it became nerdy," says Williams. "I got reinvolved recently when my son had to do a science project. I saw a flier for a Dallas-area Tripoli launch, and went out of curiosity. They were flying rockets with motors I had no idea even existed. Since then, I've spent thousands and thousands of dollars."
The reason: "I do it for the acceleration. It's the acceleration."
"Morning," says Allan Swayze, the Klingon. He nods toward his tray of biscuits and gravy and coffee. "Solid propellant and rocket fuel."
Friday, and even more people have streamed into the field outside of Argonia. Yesterday reached 105 degrees, and today doesn't look much better. I join Range Safety Officer Jim Balliro just as a large rocket with three I-size motors lifts off the pad behind him. It rises too slowly, tilts ominously. Black smoke pours out of the fuselage. It flips, twists and pounds into the ground.