'It's All About Fire, Smoke, and Noise'
You know those little rockets made of wood and glue that you can stuff a motor in and launch from the field next door? These aren't them.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, January 2004
(Page 3 of 5)
By 1981, Piper’s big-iron launches in the Nevada desert were so legendary—or notorious, depending on your perspective—that past National Association of Rocketry national champion Chris Pearson flew out from Cleveland to see one for himself. “Half of the rockets blew up on the pad,” Pearson recalls. “But I came home determined to put on a high-power rocket meet.” The next year, he staged the inaugural Large and Dangerous Rocket Ships in Medina, Ohio.
From the beginning, the name was tongue in cheek. Nevertheless, NAR’s high priests went ballistic. They excommunicated LDRS participants and declared anybody involved in high-power rocketry a heretic. And to be fair, there were big problems associated with the small community. “We had people moving from model rockets to high-power who thought they could continue to use paper tubes and white glue on wood fins,” says Bruce Kelly of Orem, Utah, who edits and publishes High Power Rocketry magazine.
Some oversight was needed. Since NAR wasn’t willing to provide it, the Tripoli Rocketry Association, which had been formed by enthusiasts in Pittsburgh, reconfigured itself as a national organization and became the governing body of high-power rocketry. Tripoli and NAR have long since kissed and made up and have created a rigorous certification process for rocketeers who want to fly high-power motors. Generally speaking, though, NAR focuses on model rocketry, roughly defined as motors size H and smaller, while Tripoli concentrates on high-power and experimental (homebuilt) motors.
Most rockets are built from kits that must be assembled, sanded, painted, and so on. Estes dominates the entry-level market, selling small wood-and-glue kits and black-powder motors that cost as little as $3. Naturally, bigger motors require stronger airframes, typically fiberglass or a heavy-duty reinforced cardboard called phenolic. Also, higher altitudes demand more sophisticated recovery systems. A high-power rocket equipped with two parachutes and a fully equipped electronics bay can fly to 5,000 feet on an expendable J motor for less than $350. But as the motors get bigger, prices soar.
Rocket motors are built for aluminum cylinders that come in standard diameters, from 29 to 98 millimeters (about an inch to nearly four inches). The propellant is molded into fuel grains (also known as slugs or chunks), which look like spools and feel like pencil erasers. The grains are sized to ensure an even burn, and there are usually several in each motor instead of one big one. The grains are loaded in the case like batteries in a flashlight. Close both ends, attach a graphite exhaust nozzle, and the motor is good to go. And in the 1980s, once it went, it was gone for good.
Enter the reusable motor. “I knew motors would cost a lot less if we could just sell the part that burned off—the fuel grains,” Rosenfield says. “And I felt that people would enjoy putting their motors together.” Aluminum cases last forever if they’re not lost or damaged in a CATO, which rhymes with “Playdough” and is short for “catastrophic failure.” The hardware for a 54-millimeter (two-inch) motor like the one the Bobcat uses is about $60. But Braye’s principal cost per flight is the reload kit, which runs $90.
LDRS isn’t the Promised Land for amateur rocketry extremists: That would be Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where Tripoli holds an annual National Experimental Launch. But the LDRS offers more variety than any other gathering.
Of the 1,200 rockets launched during six days of flying, 37 go up during a single high-power drag race. Solo launches include a model of The Big One featured in the movie Toy Story and an even bigger model painted in black and white blotches and named Udder Madness. (Alas, it CATOs on the pad.) One joker lights off a rocket made of cardboard packing material secured with Postal Service tape. Another flies a rocket made of Legos. Ky Michaelson goes both of them one better. The self-proclaimed Rocket Man, who built 13 rockets for the celluloid paean to amateur rocketry, October Sky, flies a Porta-John on a pair of M500s.