By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
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.
Which, points out my guide, Pat Michl, is the whole idea. Michl used to maintain nuclear missiles at Lowry Air Force Base. He recently joined the Colorado division of the Tripoli Rocketry Association. "Sometimes," he explains, "it's difficult to find people who'll let you do this sort of thing."
Tripoli has discovered, largely through trial and error, that western states generally make for better launch sites. Michl says a major event in Illinois was moved recently because the old site was directly between a federal penitentiary and an interstate highway. At another eastern site, in Battle Park, Virginia, nearby homeowners have begun confiscating rockets that plummet or drift into their yards.
Michl patiently explains some of the ground rules for Tripoli launches. For instance, this year, as with last, members are being strongly encouraged not to bring their rocket motors into their hotel rooms. If they can't sleep without them, then they are urged not to bring in their igniters. This is a nod to the phenomenon of random static electricity, which could set off a chain reaction.
Other unofficial rules: When a rocket crashes, it is entirely acceptable to sift through the debris out of professional curiosity. But it is bad form to point and laugh--partially a recognition that everyone at one time or another will destroy a rocket of his own.
More important, however, is that the group is trying to get away from what recent High Power Rocketry editorials termed an "attitude problem." Which is that, while it is viscerally understood how remarkably cool it is to detonate a highly explosive propellant in a plume of smoke and a loud, rumbling WHOOSH, watching a parachute deploy with a small "pop" is considered a bit of a letdown.
(One California company still produces a series of hot-selling home videos called Men and Their Rockets, which is to rocketry what The NFL's Greatest Hits is to football. "This is THE crash and burn video," reads one advertisement. "From the start you're immersed in disaster. Awesome! Watch Bill Morrow crash his beautiful 12-foot-tall rocket! Guess what happens to Daun Barber's lovely 11-foot-tall Excalibur? He destroys it!")
As a result, the concept of a peaceful landing has taken a distant second in the hearts and minds of rocket hobbyists to violently satisfying liftoffs. With the recent "Let's Do Rockets Safely!" campaign, Tripoli is trying to stress the importance of recovering one's rockets rather than planting them. (A debate still rages over a record-setting, 35,000-foot-high flight last year. The rocket was never recovered, and there is muttering that its owner never even bothered to include a parachute.)
Other important preparatory information provided by Michl: A "land shark" is a rocket that doesn't quite lift off, but still has considerable thrust behind it and skitters along the ground like a vicious, jet-propelled dachshund. A "cato" is short for "catastrophe," which occurs when a motor explodes rather than ignites. This is exciting to see, pyrotechnics-wise. But experience shows that it is profoundly detrimental to a rocket's structural integrity.
The LDRS launch site is in a field owned by a local wheat farmer named Rick Nafzinger, a tall, soft-spoken man with basset-hound eyes and a purple seed-company cap. He agreed to hold the launch on his 160-acre field after attending a local rocketry gathering and overhearing several members lament that if only they had a bigger field, they could get a less-restrictive FAA waiver and shoot their rockets higher.
"My neighbors were a little skeptical at first," recalls Nafzinger, who has lived in Argonia all his life. "They couldn't believe that people would come all the way from California just to shoot off rockets." The locals were quickly won over, particularly after Lamothe's 25-foot rocket climbed into the air on a giant plume of smoke during the final day of last year's meet. Sighs Nafzinger, "It was the most beautiful sight."
Californians are hardly the only ones toting rockets to this year's launch. By 8 a.m., cars from Florida, Georgia, Washington, New York, New Jersey and Wyoming already are parked along a narrow strip of grass dividing two fields.
Near the dirt road is a giant, blue-and-white tent. Inside, the local Kiwanis Club has set up a booth to sell iced tea and cold soda. It is soon joined by the Argonia High School's After Prom committee, which is raising money by hawking Pizza Hut slices at an obscene markup.
Up the grass strip a bit, a local artist has parked his brown van. In celebration of this year's event, he has donated to a local raffle what appears to be a rocket he carved out of a tree stump. It must weigh 150 pounds and looks like a giant wooden pickle springing out of a hill of dirt. "I'd buy a ticket," Michl says, "but I'm afraid I might win."
Even at this early hour, a number of men carrying rockets--balanced over their shoulders, hugged like infants, cradled like guns--already have begun moving about the field. A tee shirt reading "As a Matter of Fact, I Am a Rocket Scientist" seems to be a favorite.
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.
The organization has considered a name change only once. According to lore, that was when representatives of the association sought support from Jake Garn, the former conservative senator from Utah and an early space fan. But when Garn's secretary heard the caller was from Tripoli, she informed them that the senator didn't deal with Libyans, who, she explained, were terrorists. Still, when Rogers suggested changing Tripoli's name several years ago, the membership soundly thrashed the idea.
Over the past five years, Tripoli's popularity has exploded, from about 500 members nationwide to nearly 1,800. High Power Rocketry boasts a circulation of 23,000. According to Rogers, two-thirds of the organization's membership attended college; the average Tripolian is 35 years old.
Many of the group's members are content to fly grown-up versions of the small models that kids have enjoyed for years. They patronize a handful of new companies with names like Dynacom ("When You're Serious About Rockets"), Dangerous Dave's and Public Missiles Ltd., which make kits for rockets up to ten feet tall.
Other companies, such as AeroTech, of Nevada, and Vulcan Manufacturing, in Colorado Springs, construct powerful motors for large-scale missiles. (In a clear sign of a growing industry, AeroTech last year sued Estes Industries in U.S. District Court in Denver. At issue was AeroTech's development of a reloadable rocket motor, similar to a refillable rifle cartridge. In 1992, a mysterious video began making its way around high-power launches; in it, AeroTech's reloadables are graphically depicted blowing up in violent fireballs. In the lawsuit, the company fingers Estes--which stands to lose sales of its one-shot motors--as the culprit.)
Increasingly, such models have proved unsatisfying for many men (high-power rockettes are rare), who are left flaccid by the off-the-shelf models. The result has been a surge in the use of hand-built rockets that are based on recently declassified U.S. Army and NASA specs and are propelled by incredibly powerful motors.
Motors are graded by letters. The thrust doubles as you move through the alphabet; for example, a D motor is twice as powerful as a C. The largest motor Estes Industries manufactures for its popular kids' models is an E.
These days, however, it is not uncommon to see J, K, L and even M motors pushing garage-built rockets several miles into the sky. It is difficult to conceive of their strength. Consider, says Balliro, that a standard, U.S. Army-issue shoulder-launched missile carries the equivalent of a J motor; a K motor is 20 percent larger than an Apache antitank missile.
At last year's LDRS meet, also held in Argonia, Frank Kosdon detonated an O motor he built in his Ventura, California, home. It stood six feet high, cost $1,500 and, with its 2,000 pounds of thrust, could have dragged a Volkswagen into the air. Instead, it propelled Kosdon's aluminum rocket to more than 35,000 feet at nearly twice the speed of sound.
Not surprisingly, such devices have caught the eye of people who are not necessarily interested in rocket science. Police across the country say (and honest rocketeers concede) that smaller motors are a favorite among arsonists looking for a reliable, cheap, hot burn. When producers for the NBC newsmagazine Dateline were scouting for a way to set a GMC truck afire to dramatize the model's alleged dangers during a crash, they turned to an Estes solid model-rocket motor.
The most alarming incident, however, occurred five years ago--before many of today's more powerful motors were even available. That's when Cheryl Tindell of Houston received a phone call from the FBI. She recalls the conversation was short and cryptic; the San Francisco-based agent on the other end of the line said only that the FBI "would like to talk to my husband, Edward, and that President Bush was aware of what was going on."
The reason for the call turned out to be that, at the time, Ed was president of Tripoli. The FBI was looking for information on a new member named Christina Reid, a San Francisco State electrical-engineering student with a history of supporting radical causes. One of them was the Irish Republican Army.
Reid, it would turn out, had joined Tripoli to become certified by the organization. Certification, which requires one successful launch and recovery at a Tripoli-sanctioned event, permits association members to then purchase high-power rocket motors as part of a research organization.
In July 1989, FBI agents arrested Reid, along with three men, and charged them with conspiring to build and sell surface-to-air missiles to the IRA to be used to down British helicopters. (Hearing that some of the model-rocket motors could propel a missile at up to 1,000 miles per hour, one of the would-be terrorists gloated that British pilots "won't have time to blink.") A handmade but functional shoulder launcher was confiscated from the group.
Ed Tindell, who turned over association records on Reid to the FBI, testified at the trial that the powerful rocket motors used by Tripoli members indeed could easily be turned into terrorist weapons. For his efforts, he won a commendation from the FBI. For her efforts, Reid was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
Predictably, the several federal agencies (California is the only state with specific laws restricting the possession of high-power rocket motors) long content to ignore the hobby--or simply unaware of it--recently have become interested in Tripoli and its members' toys.
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.
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.
"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.
Scott LaForge, who heads Tripoli's Kansas division and who has wandered by to assist Lamothe, picks one up. "Shit," he says, grinning uncontrollably. "Shit." Lamothe acknowledges the compliment. "I build good toys," he says.
As Lamothe finishes sliding the giant explosive tubes into the rocket frame, a shimmering mirage materializes from the north. It moves closer, and it soon becomes apparent that it is a man, staggering across the plowed fields, which look like lumpy chocolate pudding and are about as easy to walk in. He is waving his arms over his head. "Water!" he yells hoarsely. "Water!"
He arrives and staggers against Lamothe's truck, nearly falling. "God!" he pants. "I got lost looking for my rocket. Christ, I need some water."
Saturday, 5:45 a.m. and already 80 degrees. The Weather Channel reports that yesterday's temperature reached 105 again and that today will be even hotter.
Still, today turns out to be the busiest of the launch. Almost from the moment the range opens, at 8, the sky is full of rockets.
A three-foot rocket stokes off the pad with a shower of fire. It hits its apogee, tips and deploys a red parachute perfectly. "Ohhh," says the announcer. "That's cuter than a speckled pup under a red wagon."
Next up is the Astroblaster, a glider model with winglike tail fins sporting an oversize motor and radio-controlled parachute deployment. It launches with a WHOOSH. About 15 feet off the rod, it explodes, almost as if it were designed specifically for total self-destruction. The owner just stares, stunned. "That was hundreds of hours of work," he says in a monotone. "Hundreds of hours."
One of the safety officers spots a small airplane on the horizon; launches are halted for a few minutes while it putters out of range. "We don't want to shoot down a Piper Cub," the announcer notes. "The FAA frowns on that."
A bit later, Reid Williams walks by, carrying his 38 Special under his arm. I ask him how the flight went. "Oh, it was worth it all," he says in wonderment, still in a blissful state. "It just had the most unbelievable sound." He opens his mouth wide and screeches like a banshee: "EEEEEEEEEE! It was great!"
Jim Balliro, too, is almost religiously satisfied with his rocket's performance. "Did you see it?" he asks, whispering. "The launch? I told you all you'd see was a speck disappearing." His rocket has a radio transmitter in the cone that emits a 'beep' for tracking it down. Headphoned and holding an old TV antenna, Balliro wanders off to find it.
About midmorning the head of the Colorado Tripoli group, Mike Kunetka, arrives. He has brought his young son who, to his dismay, appears totally uninterested in rockets. "Here, look at this one," Mike says, excitedly, pointing to a ten-foot model. Instead, the boy wanders off to look at bugs and to complete his project of taking pictures of all the different license plates parked in the field. Mike is disgusted. "We drive 11 hours to see rockets, and he wants to look at bugs."
But today's main event belongs to Lamothe. Over in his private field, he already has begun prepping his massive missile. This morning he has been joined by his wife, Terri, who shows up just as Dennis plows a drill bit into his finger.
"Ow!" he says.
His wife is unmoved. "Put some masking tape on it. Wimp."
Terri is in a foul mood. Two nights ago someone swiped a crucial part of her rocket from the trailer behind Dennis' truck, which was parked outside a Wichita hotel. Although no one says it directly, the feeling is that it has to do with politics. Dennis is on Tripoli's board of directors, an unpopular body these days among the membership. It has something to do with bylaws, and it's resulted in a nasty spat that has consumed conversation here and the Letters to the Editor page of High Power Rocketry.
"If I ever catch who did it," Terri vows, "I'll use my N motor in a new way. It'll bring a whole new meaning to 'fire in the hole.'"
Somehow, it comes as no surprise that Terri's father raced dragsters and that she is ex-Air Force. "I considered the Marines," she says. "But I didn't like their blue uniforms. They didn't go with my hair."
She is wearing a stylish straw hat and lipstick. Her shirt has a picture of a monkey pondering two buttons. One shows a rocket and is labeled "launch." The other depicts a banana with the word "lunch." The caption: "An understandable error." She points to it. "This is what I think of the men who fly rockets."
Later, she softens and explains her philosophy. "If it goes on the ground or goes in the air and it's fast, then I'm all for it," she says. Recently, she has attempted to win a position on the Tripoli board. But she has lost three years in a row, something she attributes to the hobby's traditional testosterone requirement.
As the day passes, Dennis assembles his rocket with the help of two local farmers. It seems to be made mostly of wood, fiber-glass tubing, PVC plumbing pipe and duct tape. Close to 6 p.m. it is eased onto a 30-foot-tall launch pad that Dennis has made himself. The process takes 20 men and looks like a Great Plains version of the Iwo Jima flag-raising.
By 7:20 the rocket still rests on the launch pad while Dennis does some final fussing. Although it is getting late and Tripoli is sponsoring a banquet tonight in Wichita, no one moves. "I was supposed to be at a wedding at 7," says one of the farmers who has helped assemble the project. "But I'm not about to leave now."
Twenty minutes later, after two false launches, Dennis pushes a red button on his homemade launch console about 200 yards away. After a five-second delay, a giant tongue of flame bursts out of the bottom of the rocket. It clears the launch rail and rises almost in slow motion.
At about 200 feet up, it turns slowly to the right. Tips. A lick of fire appears on the side of the fuselage. A fin blows off. The rocket moves slowly horizontal. The nose cone pops off and begins to float to earth under a parachute.
Meanwhile, the 20-foot-long tube has slammed into a small patch of grass between the field and the road, about 30 feet from the launch site, where a small but white-hot brush fire starts. The aluminum motors continue to spit hot flame; after a while, they split open and begin to melt.
Up at the spectator area, there is complete silence. After a long minute, a chubby teenager gets up the nerve to approach Dennis Lamothe. In what appears to be heading toward a moving scene out of a bad baseball movie, he plaintively asks, "What happened, Dennis?"
Lamothe, though, will have none of it. "Well, how the fuck should I know?" he says.