By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"We have death," says Balliro. "Death and destruction."
As with nearly everyone else whom I have asked about the possibility of a destructive marriage between high-power rockets and terrorism, Balliro says it is unlikely as long as model rockets continue to turn and twist unpredictably because of design flaws or weather. In other words, without a reliable guidance system, model rockets do not make particularly good weapons.
Which is where Denver's Richard Speck comes in.
Today, Speck looks uncannily like a scientist double from a Gary Larson cartoon. A water-balloon belly pokes from between his suspenders. The pocket protector in his pink button-down shirt contains exactly five pens. His face is surrounded by a wild nest of hair and covered by a floppy khaki hat. He has thick spectacles and a huge smile.
After earning a degree in physics from Yale, Speck went to work in Denver's Honeywell plant. When it closed, he bought out its research-and-development lab and formed his own company, Spectron Engineering, which designs and builds remote-sensing devices.
"I got interested in rockets one late night in July of 1969 watching television," he says. "Later, with Tripoli, I discovered that there's legal and accessible ways to put experiments inside rockets."
"What I'm really interested in," he adds, "is getting into space. But you're not going to do it without a guidance system."
As if on cue, a smallish, black-and-red rocket shoots up off a green launch pad, quickly spins into a loop-de-loop and plows into the Kansas sod. A second later, the parachute pops out with a burp. "That," observes Speck, "is some ergonomic instability."
Even rockets that appear to fly straight rarely do, he says. So, working on his own time and with hardware-store materials, Speck last year fashioned a small, gyroscope-based guidance system. It has worked surprisingly well. On two separate occasions, both in Colorado, the device has proved successful in straightening a rocket's trajectory in flight. With such advances happening all the time, Speck says that he has high hopes for amateur rocketry.
"Over the years, I've been associated with quite a few universities; Yale, CSU, the University of Colorado Medical Center, the School of Mines. And I can tell you that these guys here"--he nods toward the launch site--"are doing real research. They just don't know it. They think they're just having fun. But in reality, they get more done than many universities. I mean, when you make a supersonic, three-ounce rocket frame out of cardboard, super glue and fiber-glass strips, that's cutting-edge technology.
"Unfortunately," he concludes, "society's not real positive about people doing dangerous things for fun. But Tripoli's safety record is really quite good." He pauses. "Strangely."
Still, Speck readily concedes that model rockets eventually could be used to make a destructive terrorist missile. "Of course," he adds, smiling, "you'd need a good guidance system."
Noon and relentless sun. Heat waves roil across the fields like transparent tumbleweeds. Pizza sales at the After Prom committee remain brisk, but people are letting slices get as cold as possible before eating them. Dennis Lamothe has been banished to set up his launch pad, about a mile from the official site.
Lamothe has a wide, fleshy face and thick glasses. His natural beefiness seems somehow enhanced by his plain white tee shirt. (Rocketeers in general appear to be a pretty unhealthy lot. As is the case with many gas- station attendants, there also seems to be a direct correlation between a person's proximity to highly explosive materials and the intensity of his nicotine addiction.)
Lamothe got into model rockets in 1983 with his young son. Four years later, he saw his first big rocket and became hooked. "It's kind of been like Tim Allen on Home Improvement," he says. "You know, 'MORE POWER! BIGGER IS BETTER!'" That thinking has turned Lamothe into a kind of folk hero among amateur rocket scientists, and a huge draw at launches.
It also has made him intolerant of others who can only talk about building big rockets. "Theorists piss me off," he sneers. "It's about time they shit or get off the pot. Build the goddamn thing and make it fly; light the fucking thing up."
As for the people who concentrate on small, swift models--well, what's the point? "I like really big rockets because they go up slow--relatively, anyway--and you can watch them," he explains. "These altitude shots are like a premature ejaculation: It's there, it's up and it's gone."
He has turned his Florida garage into a rocket workshop, complete with a metal lathe that he is just beginning to learn how to use. He also makes his own giant motors there. "I'd kind of like to stay away from talking about that, though," he says. "I live in a residential area, and I don't want to alarm anyone. Just say it's the same solid rocket fuel used in the space shuttle."
Most of Lamothe's workshop now appears to be in the back of his new pickup truck. Drills, wrenches, hardware, a winch and a gas-powered generator spill out of the bed. Lying side by side in the middle of it all are the three gleaming motors.