‘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.

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AT FIRST GLANCE, IT'S A SCENE STRAIGHT OUT OF A Norman Rockwell painting: father and son bonding as they kneel to insert an igniter into the base of a model rocket. But the kid isn’t nine-year-old Nick Braye; it’s his dad, Randy. And their toy rocket isn’t one of those lightweight jobs you can set off in your back yard. It’s a fearsome eight-foot-tall projectile powered by a solid-propellant motor similar to those in the space shuttle’s 126-foot strap-on boosters, and it appears to be fully capable of taking on cargo–or taking out an F-16, for that matter. Ideally suited, in other words, to the mega-launchfest known as Large and Dangerous Rocket Ships.

Despite the ominous name, LDRS isn’t a workshop for budding Dr. Strangeloves. It’s the world’s largest annual celebration of high-power rocketry—serious projectiles, launched by serious adults, that fly exponentially higher, faster, and farther than the balsa-and-Elmer’s-glue creations of yore. The first LDRS, an outlaw event held 22 years ago, drew 47 entrants, onlookers, and groupies. This year’s gathering, in Argonia, Kansas, featured thousands of spectators and more than 500 rocketeers, flying everything from scale-model V-2s to a technological marvel that has a Federal Aviation Administration waiver to exceed 30,000 feet.

With more than 150 pounds of thrust, Braye’s Bobcat—so named because it wears the colors of his Marshalltown, Iowa high school—represents the heart of high-power rocketry. So too does the middle-aged Braye. “I was a child of the Space Age,” he says. “I flew my first rocket in 1968, built three Saturn Vs, had a National Geographic map of the moon on my wall so I could plot where every mission landed. But then I found out about girls and cars, and I forgot about rockets in 1971. I didn’t get back into them until 1997. I wanted to buy my son a birthday present, and when I started snooping around the Internet, I couldn’t believe how much rockets had changed. I thought to myself, Wow, they’ve got some really big stuff now.”

Braye is what’s known as a BAR—a born-again rocketeer. Hundreds of others with eerily similar stories have braved 100-plus-degree heat to congregate in a field an hour southwest of Wichita in what is, if not technically the middle of nowhere, then not far from it. The organizers of LDRS XXII have set up 50 launch pads, each wired to a central launch control panel. The smallest rockets are lit off a few yards from the viewing area. The biggest boomers, meanwhile, must be trucked to a pad a half-mile away.

Braye and his son secure the Bobcat to a vertical launch rod welded to a metal plate that will shield the ground from the blast of the rocket. The rod is designed to guide the Bobcat into a vertical launch; otherwise it will slew sideways and become what rocketeers call a land shark—a rocket that comes off the launch rod and slides along the ground under power. Braye puts his ear to the Bobcat’s casing to make sure the altimeter is beeping properly. “Please work like you’re supposed to,” he murmurs before he and Nick clear the pad as the launch control officer prepares to trigger the ignition. The P.A. system announces: “Randy’s flying a scratch-built rocket on an AeroTech K695R motor. Randy’s rocket is going in 5-4-3-2-1.”

The rocket ignites with a sibilant roar. Liftoff has none of the gravitas of a Saturn V launch. One second, Braye’s rocket is on the pad; next, it’s 200 feet high, 500 feet, 1,000 feet, zooming on a bright red flame. After two and a half seconds, the motor cuts out, but the rocket silently keeps on climbing–4,000 feet, 5,000, 6,000. Braye and his son crane their heads and steeple hands against foreheads to follow the Bobcat’s progress. “C’mon, baby,” Braye urges. “Come on!”

Seconds later, Nick says, “I think we’ve got a chute.”

Like most high-power rockets, the Bobcat has a two-stage recovery system. Shortly after the altimeter senses that the ascent has ended, it ignites a black-powder charge that splits the rocket into two pieces (that remain connected by a nylon shock cord) and ejects a small drogue parachute. The full-size parachute will be deployed after a second charge causes the nose cone to separate when the rocket descends to a pre-determined altitude—in this case, 300 feet. At least, that’s the theory.

“Nothing’s coming out,” Braye says glumly as he tracks the Bobcat’s progress. “It’s all still together. Nothing’s coming out.”

Meanwhile, other rockets lift off. Whoosh: There goes a Performance Rocket packing a J350. Whoosh: Wave goodbye to a homebuilt flying on a honking M1850 Green Gorilla (so called because barium causes the flame to burn green). But Braye has eyes only for his Bobcat. “Now,” he whispers. “Now! Open now!”

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