The world of high-powered rocketry

COTTONWOOD - Standing on the edge of what was once a cotton field on the backside of the Estrella Mountains, Chris Spannagel watched intently as his friend Oz Bachman’s rocket rose from its launch pad and sped off into the sky.

He squinted and strained as best he could to keep the disappearing trail of smoke in view. But within about five seconds the rocket disappeared, taking with it every prior notion Spannagel’s ever had about hobby rockets.

No longer would a two-foot tall cardboard missile, wrapped in a shiny red cover and launched a few hundred feet above the neighborhood, satisfy his urge to watch thing blast into the sky.

What he was watching that day was big league. It was fun, times 10.

Seconds later, with his eyes still squinted and a smile glued to his face like a kid at the carnival, Spannagel watch as Bachman’s rocket floated back into view, gently swaying with the breeze, suspended beneath a billowing canopy of three brightly colored parachutes.

He realized this was something only a really big kid with a really big imagination could dream up.

What he witnessed was a demonstration of high-powered rocketry, a hobby that takes our childhood fantasies about launching stuff into outer space from our back yards and puts them considerably closer than we ever thought possible.

He may or may not have realized it at the time, but his idea of fun was about to get a tad bit more expensive.

Nevertheless, he says, “It sealed my fate.”

Getting there

The day of the launch was Oct. 24, 2009.

Bachman, who works for Spannagel at Best By Farr Plumbing in Cottonwood, spent four years and several thousand dollars getting his rocket to the launch pad.

On two previous occasions he had been required by the regulating body of high-powered rocketry to demonstrate his ability to launch smaller, less powerful rockets in a safe manner and prove he could also return them to earth in a condition that would allow them to be used again.

He also had to prove he understood the basics of rocket science, including such things as Newtons, thrust to weight ratios and how to calculate the effects of various fuels and motor sizes.

And he had to receive a permit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms so he could store his rocket motors, black powder, electric matches, thermite, and ammonium perchlorate in a manner that did not pose a danger to his neighbors.

Ready to launch

The rocket that so infatuated Spannagel was Bachman’s biggest and most complex to date. It measured 13 feet tall, 10 inches in diameter and weighed 70 pounds.

The solid fuel rocket engine that would send it skyward was an anodized aluminum cylinder, three inches in diameter and almost three feet long, packed with explosives.

It had taken him four hours to ready it for launch. There were electronics to wire in, including ignition switches and redundant altimeters. There were also the three parachutes to be packed, the largest one measuring 16 feet in diameter.

And three stages of the rocket body had to be assembled in such a manner they could withstand the violence that was about to take place at the missile’s business end. If the rocket returned with so much as one fin missing, it would be back to the drawing board.

Bachman and the other 100 or so racketeers launching that day were also required to obtain clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Two hours into his preparation he suffered a minor setback when one of the black powder ejection charges, used to separate the rocket’s stages, ignited, causing a loud bang, a minor ruckus and no small degree of embarrassment.

It was early afternoon when the replica of a Nike Smoke, a rocket once used by NASA to measure wind speeds in the upper atmosphere, lit up, eventually hitting an altitude of 4,300 feet before falling back to earth.

What can go wrong

Bachman’s performance that day would earn him a Level 3 certification from the National Association of Rocketry. In the world of amateur rocketry it means he can launch darn near anything he can afford.

And therein lies one of the keys to high-powered rocketry.

“It’s not something you want to be putting on your credit card,” says Bachman.

Bachman’s behemoth cost about $3,000 to build -- $500 for the basic kit and another $2,500 for all the equipment and electronics. It cost between $300 and $350 to pack the 3-by-32-inch rocket motor, prior to launch.

“It works out to about $70 per second on the way up. That’s as long as nothing goes wrong,” he says.

And things will go wrong.

“We have names for those things,” says Bachman, “;ike CATO, which stands for a catastrophic failure. If you have a CATO, it usually means you have to buy a new rocket. Less damage is called a shred, it generally means something has fallen off that wasn’t supposed to.

“If the parachute deploys on the way up, we call it skywriting. If it fails to deploy on the way down, your rocket becomes a lawn dart.”

Reaching the apogee

In April 2009, an amateur rocket builder/auto body repairman from Akron, Ohio, successfully launched a 36-foot-tall scale model of the Saturn V rocket that took men to the moon.

Using an array of nine motors, he sent the 1,648-pound behemoth 4,400 feet straight up into the Delaware sky.

Several amateur rocket makers, seeking altitude records, have launched into the 40,000-foot range.

And in 2004, a team of 25 amateurs using an experimental rocket motor (not considered in the same class as high-powered rocket fliers using specifically configured motors) reached 72 miles (380,000 feet) above the Nevada desert, surpassing the 62.14-mile limit, considered the border of space.

The rocket hit 4,200 miles per hour in just 10 seconds -- impressive but far short of the 25,000 miles per hours needed to escape the earth’s gravity and go into orbit.

Reality

Following Bachman’s Level 3 qualifying launch in 2009, Spannagel went out and bought own rocket. Four months later he passed his Level 2 qualification. He is taking his time building his own Level 3 qualification rocket.

In the meantime, the two are looking for someone with an inordinately large piece of land (twice the diameter of the anticipated altitude of the launch) on which they can launch their rockets without having to go to Phoenix.

They are also looking for anyone else in the valley interested in starting a high-powered rocket club.

They do, however, have a word of caution.

“It’s addicting. There is no doubt about it,” says Spannagel. “They don’t say it anywhere in the instruction books, but I have learned the two most important things for a successful launch are money and a very understanding wife.”

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