TCS Daily


America's Other Rocket Program

By Edward B. Driscoll - January 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Baby, it's cold out! And it's 6:30 in the &#*@%# morning! Oh, and did I mention we're in the middle of nowhere - the Mojave Desert in California?

But, on this bleary winter Saturday, we're here for a good reason. We're here to watch rockets launch. We're at America's "other" rocket launch facility, the Reaction Research Society's (RRS) test site, used by its 350 or so members.

Think of the RRS as a miniature version of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. Their launch facility has the same California high desert setting. In fact, it's directly south of Edwards Air Force Base. It has the same concrete cinderblock-lean-to-Godforsaken-out-in-the-middle-of-absolutely-nowhere atmosphere that Wolfe so hyperbolically described. And the same feeling of men taking basic technology to its absolute limit. Chuck Yeager isn't here, and there are no X-1s or manned rockets, but that pioneering, on the edge of space, do-it-yourself, rugged individualism is omnipresent. It may be on a slightly more modest scale, but The Right Stuff is here in spades - but of course!

These Aren't Estes Models

The cars pull in from about 6:30 in the morning until about 10:00 a.m. "Park over there, with your windshield AWAY from the launch pad." Gee, I hope my car insurance covers the odd liquid hydrogen explosion. The launch pad already has two rockets on it, a 15 foot high black solid fuel rocket, and an even taller red and white liquid fueled rocket that looks like an enormous Estes model rocket.

But these are not paper and balsa wood model kits. They may not be on the size of an Atlas or Titan missile (even if they occasionally use some of their parts), but these are serious rockets, custom built the same way a Savile Row tailor makes a suit - very slowly, by hand, and with loving attention to detail.

Dave Crisalli, the president of the RRS describes rocketry as basically having several stages (pardon the obvious and regrettable pun). The first stage is getting involved in the Estes rockets that everyone had as a kid, and may still enjoy today. "And the next step up from that is what they call high-powered model rocketry, and those are the bigger ones," Crisalli says. "But it's mostly, you buy the motors from somebody, and you buy the kits to put the vehicle together from somebody, and most of that is the fun of flying it, and putting the vehicle together."

"In amateur experimental rocketry", Crisalli says, "the whole purpose of it is the design and build the propulsion system itself from scratch, whether it's a solid, or liquid or a hybrid kind of system."

Reading the Riot Act

Behind the launch pads, there's a registration building that's the same sort of Quonset hut that Gomer Pyle would feel right at home in. Inside, a rocket powered by a surplus Atlas missile steering motor is being prepped for launch.

To the left of the launch pads is a three-story static test rig which Chuck Yeager or Scott Crossfield would probably have flashbacks to when they static tested their X-1 and X-15 engines.

At about 10:00 a.m., Crisalli reads the attendees the riot act. He tells them where it's safe to stand during the launch (very, very far away from the launch pad, or under a 12 inch thick concrete ceiling open walled semi-underground bunker many feet away from the launch pad). He tells them that he needs to get FAA approval as to when he can launch each rocket, lest a rocket and commercial aircraft cross paths. And he explains he also needs to coordinate with Edwards so we don't interfere with whatever secret stuff they are doing today.

Everybody there has already signed a release form that reads in part:

Disclaimer: I the undersigned, by my action in joining the Reaction Research Society, agree to indemnify and hold harmless the Reaction Research Society, its appointed pyrotechnic operators, each of its members, officers and agents from and against all claims, damages or injuries direct or consequential arising out of any participation in activities associated with rocket test operation. I understand the potential hazards involved with rocket launch and static test activities. I also recognize that violations or non-compliance with the directions (pertaining to safety) of the Pyrotechnic Operator in charge of any particular event may result in suspension of my participation in firing events.


Oh swell. Nothing like worrying about a liquid fueled rocket capable of Mach four and a 50,000-foot altitude, landing on your head.

As the huge temperature swing of the desert heats up, the jackets and sweaters come off. A scattering of Boeing and Rocketdyne T-shirts are on display, evidence that several of the members of the Reaction Research Society aren't just weekend warriors, but actively involved in the nation's government funded space programs.

But Crisalli, who himself is a former Rocketdyne employee, is quick to say that he doesn't see the RRS as playing any role in the private development of space. "I like to try and distance myself from that considerably. A lot of people ask me, 'are you trying to go to Pluto?' or whatever. There are a lot of amateur groups that are touting all that. But having worked professionally in the space propulsion industry for 20-odd years, I think I have a much better handle on how difficult that is. And I don't think anything that we do has the least impact on real space exploration, or even reducing costs, but where it does have an impact, is that it's a great training ground for young engineers who will go on to do other important things."

Crisalli can afford to be modest. He and eight other members of the RRS were involved in designing and flying an amateur rocket that has come closet to reaching space.

In November of 1996, they ventured out to Nevada's Black Rock desert, and fired a rocket that was certified by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as reaching a height of between 45 and 56 statute miles. 50 nautical miles is considered space by NASA, 100 kilometers, or 62 nautical miles is considered space by the rest of the international community. "Did we hit space? Probably not, by the strict definition", Crisalli says. "Did we get damn close? Yes, absolutely."

Most RRS members don't work in the aerospace business as a profession. One thirty-year member was a facilities plant manager for LAX airport for many years. Another member ran the water analysis lab for the Los Angeles Water District.

Get in the Bunker

At Mojave, the majority of RRS members head towards the open-walled bunker in anticipation of the first launch of the day, the black solid fuel rocket. A few go much further out, where it's supposedly safe to stand out in the open.

The RRS has an excellent mega-watt PA system for the countdown. FIVE. FOUR. THREE. TWO. ONE.

WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The solid fuel rocket tears off the pad, leaving a similar trail of smoke as the solid rocket boosters of NASA's Space Shuttle leave, and reaching close to the 50,000-foot limit that the RRS and the FAA agreed to. I'm later told that this particular rocket was carrying a payload of 75 pounds of steel ballast in it, just to keep it under that 50,000-foot limit.

After several seconds of flight, the solid fuel rocket eventually crashes to earth somewhere out in the dessert, proving why the RRS members like having many miles of desert between them and civilization.

The RRS's Wartime Birth

The solid fueled rocket is typical of the rockets launched by RRS since it was founded in 1943. With Nazi V-1s and V-2s in the news everyday that year, five or six high school kids living in Glendale, California decide they wanted to learn more about this new technology. Surely it could have peaceful experimental and exploratory aspects, as well as its obvious destructive power. The Glendale Rocket Club was formed. Soon, its name was changed to the Reaction Research Society.

"They started to build solid and liquid rockets, and actually had a very wide range of unusual projects," Dave Crisalli says. The two kids that did the most were a guy named David Elliot and Lee Rosenthal. Elliot still works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. David and Lee built a hydrogen peroxide monopropellant rocket, which was very sophisticated for the time (1948-1949), while they were in high school. They launched it in 1950 while both of them were freshmen at Cal-Tech."

The Society blossomed through the late 1940s and 1950s, with a membership that fluctuated between 50 to 150 members. At first, the RRS's test site was located between Lancaster and Mojave. By 1955, Lancaster had expanded to the point where the RRS risked having a rocket land in someone's backyard. So the RRS went out to Mojave, bought a piece of property and have been there ever since.

"By the luck of the draw," Crisalli says, "nobody's developed out there, so we can still flight test and static test, and nobody in the EPA has put us out of business, because we only deal things that are relatively benign. We've never had an accident or injury of any sort, so we've never been sued out of existence, either."

Building Rockets 101

The rockets launched by the RRS in December included rockets fueled by solid fuels, liquid oxygen and alcohol, liquid oxygen and kerosene, and even superheated water (steam propulsion). Nick Kirchner, the president of Massively Parallel Instruments Inc. and an RRS member, says, "For the most part, there aren't any custom parts available for building these rockets, so it becomes an educational exercise, along the lines of 'how can I do very complicated things, with parts I can purchase commercially, and inexpensively at the hardware store or at Home Depot?'"

Beyond the simple acquisition of parts, there's the physics involved. For example, to build a liquid rocket, it's necessary to pick an appropriate thrust level, whether it's a hundred or a thousand pounds of thrust, or anywhere in between. Then an appropriate propellant combination needs to be decided.

Of course, amateur rocketry does entail a certain amount of risk. One is that occasionally, things go BOOM! on the pad. The other (and more frequent) risk is that landing mechanisms don't work. Crisalli says, "we always joke that in amateur rockets (and it's true for professional rockets, by the way), 'the primary recovery system might be the parachute, but the back-up system's always a pick and shovel - and the backup system is the one that usually gets utilized.'"

Rocket propulsion technology hasn't changed all that much either since the days of Peenemunde. But Crisalli says "the explosion of technology outside of rocketry has provided the Tinker Toys necessary for a lot of amateur rocket guys to do some fairly sophisticated things that they couldn't do before. For example, micro controllers and electronic stuff: the whole possibility of being able to build an amateur rocket with a guidance system, has developed because I can go out now, and buy computer chips, and one thing and another that are made for commercial applications, but small enough and light enough, and can do the job of being able to control a rocket in flight."

Crisalli says that's great for today's students who get involved with the RRS, "because people who would never have considered learning anything about a guidance system in the amateur arena in the past, are not only learning about them, they're building them. I think that just the general level of technology has been a huge boon to the potential educational benefits of doing this."

When Worlds Collide

Teenagers aren't the only people attracted by the siren song of rocketry: while I visited the RRS's launch site, I watched a half dozen off-road motorcyclists tear-assing through the Mojave desert be asked to leave the area by the RRS, so as not to risk having a 20 foot high rocket land on top of them at several hundred miles an hour.

Initially, they didn't cotton to a bunch of geeks trying to limit their access to their wide-open spaces. But seeing the rocket on the pad, they slowly came in closer to the viewing area, and when the next rocket took off - they gasped, and were hooked. The bikers eagerly stayed at the launch site for the rest of the day, in order to look in awe at America's "other rocket program".
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