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It's boom and often bust for rocketeers

What was once a simple hobby is now a subculture in pursuit of ever-greater altitudes. When things go wrong, 'it gets ugly quick.'

January 18, 2008|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

LUCERNE VALLEY, CALIF. — The pickup with "Official Rocket Recovery Vehicle" on its side bounced across the rutted dry lake bed kicking up silt. Andy Tryon glanced over his shoulder at his baby cradled in back.

In a few minutes, his crew would gently place the Desert Hawk on the launch pad and arm it with an igniter.

Showtime, and Tryon was nervous.

The rocket represented three months' labor. He needed to solve the engineering flaw that doomed the Desert Hawk's three previous launches. The camouflage paint job alone took two weeks. On the rocket's fins were inspirational quotes from the Bible, Shakespeare, the heavy metal band Molly Hatchet and the theme song from the television show "Star Trek: Enterprise."

"There's a heck of a lot of trial and error in this hobby," said Tryon, a 41-year-old from Victorville who drives a forklift for Wal-Mart and has the quirky earnestness of a Trekkie. "We refer to it as the bug; either it bites you or it doesn't. But when it bites, it bites in a big way. Did for me."

Tryon's goal is to make a name for himself in the ambitious world of model rocketry. If that conjures up images of a junior high science fair, think again.

The Desert Hawk is 10 feet tall and weighs 126 pounds. Launching it required high-altitude clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration. It's fueled by a mixture of ammonium perchlorate and synthetic rubber -- known as APCP, it's essentially what powers the space shuttle.

What was once a simple boyhood hobby spawned by the Cold War's space race has transformed into extreme rocketry, a subculture dominated by middle-aged men who harness technology, testosterone and their credit cards in the pursuit of ever-greater thrust and altitude.

"The final result of all the work is that you light a motor and there's a big old bunch of noise, smoke and flames," said Richard "Wedge" Oldham, who lives in the San Fernando Valley and builds replicas of Cold War-era missiles that break the sound barrier.

"That appeals to guys."

It also got the attention of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which in recent years has tightened regulations on the purchase and storage of APCP, even in small amounts, because the agency classifies it as an explosive. Heightened scrutiny since Sept. 11, 2001, threatens to affix training wheels to the hobby, said Ken Good, president of the Tripoli Rocketry Assn., which along with another group has been locked in an eight-year court battle with the agency.

"What's going to happen when an 18-year-old tells his parents 'I've got a new hobby, but I've got to get a low-explosive users permit, and oh, by the way, the ATF is going to inspect our house to make sure it's being stored properly,' " Good said. "The kid's parents are going to say 'Gee, can you find another hobby?' "

Or as Oldham put it: "The ATF is worried that someone could use these things as a weapon. We're lucky if we can hit the sky."

Oldham, a wiry 50-year-old with steel-blue eyes and a Marlboro Reds habit, is well known among extreme rocketeers. ("Wedge is somebody I'd aspire to," Tryon said.) He is among the fewer than 100 rocket builders who tackle projects big enough to warrant attention at international events such as the annual Large and Dangerous Rocket Ships convention and the descriptively named BALLS launch in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

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Oldham joined scores of rocketeers who gathered in November at the federally managed Lucerne Dry Lake east of Victorville for the twice-a-year ROCstock, an event sponsored by the Rocketry Organization of California.

As Tryon readied the Desert Hawk for launch, Oldham drew a crowd simply by displaying a motor he used last year to propel a 700-pound model of a Nike Ajax missile -- without a warhead, of course -- to 14,740 feet in 30 seconds.

The 6-foot-long Q motor delivered an impressive 3,500 pounds of thrust. Lying on a table, it looked like an innocuous sewer pipe.

"May I take a video of this?" one man said, gingerly approaching the Q. "Wow. Whose is it?"

"What'cha got there, Wedge? Is that a Q?" asked Paul Avery, 54, an Agora Hills rocketeer who is working his way up to take on such a motor.

"I don't have the experience," he explained. "It's serious stuff. The least little thing goes wrong and it gets ugly quick."

The Nike Ajax model cost Oldham $10,000 -- $8,000 from refinancing his home. His next project, a 45-foot-long replica of a Nike Hercules, will cost twice as much. It will have a first-stage thrust composed of four Q motors that will separate from the rocket at 10,000 feet.

Four seconds later, a more powerful S motor will ignite, propelling the Hercules to 30,000 feet. (Rocket motors double in power with each step through the alphabet.)

"It'll go supersonic. About Mach 1.1," Oldham said. "I don't know where the money is going to come from. I just know I'm going to build it."

Oldham stumbled onto extreme rocketry like many of his peers did -- in middle age when he introduced his childhood hobby to his teenage son.

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