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It’s boom and often bust for rocketeers

Times Staff Writer

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.”

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“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.

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“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.

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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.”

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

“As a kid in the early ‘60s, when the U.S. got into the space race, I was totally enthralled,” he said. “Eventually the Navy and girls got in the way.”

Unbeknown to Oldham, model rocketry had super-sized during the intervening years. It was no longer just a kid’s game. His son eventually grew bored with rockets. Oldham grew more intense.

“I wake up thinking about rockets, and I go to bed thinking about rockets,” said Oldham, a software engineer who has three framed photos of his most beloved projects. “It’s not a hobby. It’s a passion and obsession.”

Building a rocket from cardboard, plywood and fiberglass encompasses a variety of skills, including carpentry, electronics and aerodynamics. Rockets need to be light enough to fly yet structurally sound enough to hold together, especially when parachutes engage and exert a tremendous amount of force on a fragile fuselage.

Some rocketeers are focused on fuel -- building motors that run on exotic combinations of black powder, sugar, liquid oxygen, kerosene and nitrous oxide.

Just don’t call it an experiment.

“The insurance companies don’t like that,” said Mark Hanson, president of the Rocketry Organization of California, whose weekday job is lighting the sets of television’s “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.”

“For liability reasons, that’s frowned upon. So instead of experimental, now we call it research.”

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The history of modern rocketry is closely aligned with the dreams of amateurs. Before he built ballistic missiles for the Nazis and later became the face of the U.S. space program, Wernher von Braun was a teenager smitten with the sky. Aerospace engineers who grew up shooting off rockets are a dime a dozen.

“In high school, I’d buy aluminum tubes at the hardware store and mix up -- at great threat to life and limb -- some black gunpowder,” said 80-year-old David Elliott, who traveled the path from model rocketry to a career as a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. “The model airplane club watched from a safe distance.”

An article in Popular Mechanics about rockets lured Elliott to Caltech. While in college, he helped found the Reaction Research Society, a group of sophisticated hobbyists whose members still test high-powered rockets from blast bunkers in the desert near Edwards Air Force Base.

The science behind a homemade rocket that can travel more than 70 miles and rub shoulders with space -- as one did in 2004 -- has a lot in common with an actual missile.

“Same propellants on a much bigger scale,” Elliott said.

There is one key difference: Because model rockets don’t have guidance systems, they have to fly relatively straight or the owner risks a long hunt to retrieve it -- or something far worse.

At Lucerne Dry Lake, a spotter with a microphone counted down each launch. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. What happened next didn’t always go as planned.

Incoming! Incoming! Heads up!

It’s coming down! It’s a bomb!

Ohhhh. That’s going to leave a mark.

There it goes. . . . Victorville here we come.

“That’s always unfortunate,” Tryon said after one rocket cratered with a large thump. “But it’s a crowd-pleaser.”

As he waited his turn to launch, such misfortunes were never far from Tryon’s mind. The last flight of the Desert Hawk ended badly when the cord on its military surplus parachute ripped through the fiberglass nose cone. To correct the problem, Tryon looped together sections of the cord and wrapped them with masking tape. This time, when the chute deployed, Tryon hoped the tape, breaking in stages, would serve as a shock absorber.

This idea impressed his crew, which included Aldo Spadoni, a Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer, and Dave Eckhart, a 62-year-old retired drywall carpenter.

Spadoni helped with the Desert Hawk’s design and intends to do the same with Tryon’s next project: a model of a two-stage Delta Heavy satellite launch vehicle. “It’s the same as any aerospace project,” Spadoni said. “I can’t wait to see the look on people’s faces when we show up with a Delta rocket on our truck.”

Eckhart, a former co-worker who introduced Tryon to extreme rocketry, has been launching homemade projects on Lucerne Dry Lake since the 1950s. “We launched mice. Somehow or another they survived,” Eckhart said of his early missions.

“We made a cotton-padded capsule and when we opened it, there were lots of little black pellets in there,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

For Tryon, a lot was at stake. Time, money, but mostly pride. His peers were watching. Could he move up to the big leagues? Could he be certified, in essence, as an extreme rocketeer? Did he have the right stuff?

“If I have a catastrophic failure, I’ll just have to show the good-old English stiff upper lip,” Tryon said as he prepared to press a button that would send an electrical charge to the Desert Hawk and ignite its fuel.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Thick black smoke spewed from the rocket’s tail. It lurched from the desert floor and roared into the atmosphere straight and true until it nearly disappeared.

“Go, baby, go!” Tryon said, craning his neck, waiting for the parachute to deploy. When it did -- smoothly, this time -- a cheer erupted from the crowd. Tryon exhaled in relief.

“I almost had a heart attack.”

He had boldly gone where he had never gone before.

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mike.anton@latimes.com


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