North Coast Journal



The Rocketeers

by Timothy Martin


The sound hits you like a rush of adrenaline. A smoke plume, long and white, climbs into the sky. At the apogee of the flight an engine cuts off abruptly. A deployment chute opens with a "pop," and there is a gentle ride back to earth.

Jim Lowe stares up at the falling rocket, a look of luminescence in his eyes.

"That was Alan Anderson's 680-10 Blue Thunder," he announces. "The estimated altitude was approximately 2,850 feet."

Lowe, president of Redwood Rocket Club (REDROC), is a wizard of rocket technology. His mind is crammed with information about boost gliders, squibs, thrust-to-weight ratios and Newton seconds.

One would think a 36-year-old man would be past all that kid stuff, but one would be wrong. Lowe doesn't have that need to be adult -- responsible and mature -- at all times. What Lowe does have is a high-powered rocket capable of flying up to 22,000 feet.

"The rocket I have now can reach 750 miles per hour," Lowe said. "That's supersonic speed at sea level. I plan on putting it up to about 15,000 feet."

These big rockets are expensive. "The kit runs about $180, plus $50 more for finishing it," Lowe said of his super rocket. "Flying a reload motor, like this rocket has, costs about $60 each time."

Lowe was 12 when he discovered model rocketry. Like many children of the '60s, he was pulled into the general excitement surrounding the Apollo program. The enthusiasm lasted several years. After the astronauts had collected their last sample of lunar dust, Lowe put his rocketry activities aside for two decades.

He picked them up again in 1992.

"A few years ago I discovered high-powered rocketry," Lowe said. "It got me hooked!"

You've got to know the rules of rocketry, however, before you hit the skies.

"Rocket engines are rated A through P," Lowe explained. "A is the smallest size available, P is the largest. They are all fun to fly, but nothing over a G can be flown in California without a class 3 pyrotechnics license. To fly the big rockets you have to go to Black Rock, Nev."

Located in the high desert, Black Rock is the premier launch site for high-powered rockets. It is 10 miles wide, 60 miles long and very flat. This is where the land speed record (630 m.p.h.) was set. It is also where rockets fly higher than 50,000 feet, and at speeds in excess of Mach I -- the speed of sound. For amateur rocketeers, a trip to Black Rock is a spiritual experience.

"Six hundred shooters and over 2,000 spectators will show up in Black Rock in August for the Large Dangerous Rocket Shoot," Lowe said. "We expect a national altitude record.

"The current altitude record is 50,000 feet, set by University of Florida. It was done with a two-stage rocket."

The Earth's atmosphere ends at 250,000, at which point an object can be put into orbit if it's launched fast enough.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see an amateur group put a rocket into space in the next 10 years," Lowe said. "Not orbital, but at an altitude where it will achieve weightlessness."

In '94 Lowe went to Black Rock to obtain his license to fly high power.

"I flew an LOC Caliber ISP on a single-use I-95 motor to an estimated altitude of 4,200 feet and a maximum velocity of 689 feet per second," he said. "It sounded like an F-16 taking off -- very impressive. The rocket landed down range about two miles from the launch pad."

Big rockets are exciting, but Lowe has plenty of praise for small rockets, too.

"There is so much you can do with the little rockets," he said. "They are cheap to fly, adaptable to experimentation and need only a small area to fly. Plus, if you get into the competition part, members can compete up through D engines in an annual national meeting for low-powered rockets."

Low-powered rockets weigh no more than one pound and contain no more than 115 grams of propellant. After you exceed these limits, you're into a high-powered range.

According to Lowe, the best way to break into rocketeering is with an Estes rocket kit. Starter kits from Estes (the big name in rocketry) cost about $25 and include everything but paint and glue. Most starter rockets are made of materials like paper tubes, balsa and plastic.

They use black powder engines. The larger rockets use a composite fuel -- the same fuel used in the space shuttle booster rockets. While it's possible to spend hundreds of dollars on a high-powered rocket shot, low-powered rocket shots cost about $1 apiece.

Low-powered rockets look and perform just like the bigger models. REDROC Vice President Kim Glory says it's hard to tell them apart.

"In the movie 'Top Gun,' the Federal Aviation Administration allowed the film company to shoot only one full-sized rocket," Glory said. "The rest of the shots came from Estes model rocket kits. After the movie came out, the FAA accused them of using all big rockets; the Estes rockets looked that authentic."

Launching a rocket is not just lighting a fuse and standing back. Rockets must pass inspection by a range safety officer to ensure the rocket has a proper recovery system, the baffle is installed, fins are attached firmly and the motor sized correctly.

After that, the launch area is cleared and the skies checked for aircraft. Only then does the countdown begin.

According to Glory, safety wouldn't be such a high priority if all rockets went straight up and came straight down. They don't. At times they blow up, veer off course, whip around the sky, run into power lines and hit trees.

"In the early '50s we were just starting to get into space," Lowe said. "As they were televising it, a lot of adults and kids were experimenting, making home rockets, losing eyes, arms and even killing themselves.

"Then, in 1957, the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) formed and developed a 14-step NAR safety code. The safety instructions cover the proper use of materials, recovery systems, weight and power limits, launch sites, ignition systems, launch safety and flying conditionsä.

"Since then there have been over 5 million amateur launches with no serious accidents."

Safety is crucial, yes, but when you get to the heart of it, rocketeering is still about the exhilarating feeling of power and flight. Launching a rocket is like setting off a mammoth fireworks display. Ask REDROC member Yuma Lynch.

Lynch is not your average 9-year-old -- instead of Michael Jordan posters, he has pictures of constellations and posters of Stonehenge. Microscopes and chemistry supplies litter his table. Lynch is a faithful student of math, science and biology.

"Rockets are fun to fly," Lynch said. "The one I just built is a Sky Winder. It has an estimated altitude of 120 meters, a C63 engine and a helicopter recovery system. I really like being a member of the rocket club."

REDROC attracts kids like light does moths. "We have 5-year-old kids in REDROC," Lowe said. "Most are in the 10- to 11-year range."

Not only do club members get to fly "with a bunch of dedicated rocketeers", but Lowe noted the group offers classes, demonstrations, discounts, a newsletter, monthly rocket shoots and competitions.

"All of our local shots are done at the Collenberg Dairy on the Arcata Bottom," he said.

Lowe even teaches a class in rocketry at Pacific Union Elementary School.

"We spend about a week building the rockets and studying the safety codes, then we launch them," he said. "We're trying to get more girls involved. Girls take their time when working on their rockets. The boys want to slap something together, get out there and fly them. I don't want to stereotype, but girls seem to have more patience in building the rockets."

Ashley Lowe, 6, fits the stereotype. "I like to make them better than I do fly them," said Ashley. "Dad is helping me build my rocket. I'm building a Maniac. I'm going to fly it at the next launch."

Another female member of REDROC, Caroline Glory, 16, also prefers assembling rockets to launching them. Most of her rockets use "A" motors and are constructed with balsa wood cones and fins. She started building and flying rockets with her dad when she was 8.

"My dad and I would take them to Sunset School in Arcata and launch them. Eighty percent of my launches have gone OK. I've lost some of the ones I modified. But if you modify them, they go a little higher.

"I've had some rockets that have dug into the dirt so far you have to shovel them out. Those kind of crashes are called 'core sampling.'"

Nothing can make a rocketeer feel more frustrated than watching his or her precious rocket make a perfect ascent, arc over and crash into the ground. A rocket cruising at 200 m.p.h. makes a great post hole digger.

"Flight failures are caused by one or two things," Lowe said. "Either the motor malfunctions, or some component of the rocket itself is to blame. Most rockets are protected by tumble streamers, parachutes, gliders and helicopter recovery systems, which usually prevent crashes from taking place."

Todd Sobol, REDROC's NAR adviser, is an expert on the subject of flight failures. Sobol, a.k.a. "Capt. Cato" (short for catastrophe) is known for his string of bad luck at REDROC launches. His rockets have self-destructed on the pad and in spectacular collisions with the ground.

During his last launch, Sobol's scale model of a Tomahawk missile cruised to 2,850 feet, shot through the clouds ... and failed to come down. A search party was unable to find the rocket.

There is plenty of excitement at a REDROC launch, but when it's time for the egg launch, the excitement level climbs another notch.

Uncooked eggs are placed in the nose cones of rockets, launched as high as possible, and returned to earth, hopefully unbroken.

Launches continue until the last egg is scrambled or the last motor is extinguished -- whatever comes first.

After the final launch, no one goes home. Rocketeers hang around, talking and staring at the launch pad as if it were a dear departed friend. The members of REDROC agree that life is good, but to paraphrase Nietzsche, life without rocketry would be a mistake.

For more information about the Redwood Rocket Club, contact Jim Lowe at 822-6016.


Tim Martin is a heating and ventilation specialist at Humboldt State University.

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