'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 4 of 5)
After several failed attempts, a group from Dallas launches a quarter-scale model of NASA’s never-flown X-30 lifting body. It’s one of a small number—perhaps five percent—of the rockets flying at LDRS with a hybrid HyperTEK binary-fuel motor. Although hybrids are disparaged as “farting rockets” because of their flatulent roar, they’re less expensive than the more closely regulated AP motors. (And after 9/11, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives wants to clamp down even more on AP, which it classifies as an explosive.) Barry Lynch, owner of LOC/Precision, a leading mid-range kit maker, says: “I think hybrids are the wave of the future.” After the X-30’s HyperTEK stops passing gas, its pilot Dave Schaefer takes over the radio controls and greases the landing.
The last two days are devoted to experimental rocketry—the homebuilt motors. Composite propellant isn’t particularly difficult to whip up in home labs. But the process demands a substantial amount of time, space, equipment, supplies, patience, and precision. Bob Brown, vice president of Kloudbusters, the Tripoli chapter sponsoring LDRS XXII, explains: “We say that we save money by flying experimental motors, but that’s not true. We spend the same amount of money. We just fly bigger motors.”
Besides being cheaper than their commercial counterparts, experimental motors can be designed to achieve specific goals. “They give you more flexibility,” says Jeff Taylor of Milford, Connecticut, who runs Loki Research and hosts how-to seminars all over the country. “You can tailor the thrust performance to your needs. For higher altitudes, you want a longer burn. For a booster that’s part of a two-stage rocket, you want to accelerate as fast as possible. You can even adjust the color of the flame.” And rocketeers like color, which is why they add sodium to produce an orange flame, strontium for red, magnesium for white, and titanium chips for sparks. “It’s all about fire, smoke, and noise,” Rosenfield says.
Taylor has machined a lot of the hardware that is used in the motor of LDRS’s star attraction, the Aurora. The immaculately finished, 20-foot-tall, carbon-fiber body shrouds sophisticated avionics and telemetry systems, a camera, and the gargantuan P motor, with 1,800 pounds of thrust derived from 50 pounds of Polish Rojo, a wicked homebrew made by motor builder Pat Gordzelik of Canyon, Texas.
The Aurora is the brainchild of Gordzelik and Dan and Terry Stroud, father and son, both of whom live in suburban Dallas. And even though they’ve been planning to fly it for months, the project turns into a last-minute thrash. Work continues until 3:30 a.m. Monday, and the rocket isn’t hauled out on a flatbed trailer to the remote launch pad until after 9 a.m. The FAA waiver is only eight minutes from expiring by the time the launch control officer finally pushes the ignition button.
For what seems to be an eternity, nothing happens. The crew members huddled near the launch pad are deathly silent. The Aurora finally lights, but still the crew says nothing; this is when a CATO is most likely. The rocket launches at a slight angle, and the crew holds its collective breath.
Then the fins right the Aurora’s trajectory, and the rocket arrows straight up at Mach 1.81. The crew is still silent, but now with awe. It isn’t until the rocket is a tiny speck in the sky that the cheering commences. “Oh my God!” Dan Stroud says. “Holy cow! That is awesome!”
The burn lasts 7.81 seconds, and the rocket doesn’t run out of momentum until reaching 29,985 feet. A handful of amateurs have just sent a homemade object five and a half miles into the atmosphere and retrieved it, no worse for the wear, after a 28-minute flight.