The Mojave Desert is widely known as a military and aerospace testing site for a variety of supersonic aerial projectiles. Alongside these military and commercial activities, amateur rocketeers, including scout troops, off-the-clock aerospace engineers, college and university rocketry club members and others congregate at several locations in the Mojave Desert to launch rockets, both large and small. This interest in amateur rocketry has paralleled aerospace and military weaponry development at regional research centers, such as the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, and Lockheed’s Skunk Works in Burbank, from the 1940s onward.
Considered the oldest of these amateur experimental rocketry groups, the Reaction Research Society (RRS) was founded in 1943. The group had originally evolved out of the Southern California Rocket Society of Glendale. By 1955, the non-profit RRS had obtained permits to operate on a public land holding near Cantil, California, near the northwestern edge of the Mojave Desert, where launch and static rocket activities have been continuously conducted since the society’s formation. Now owned by the RSS, this 40-acre site is referred to as the Mojave Test Area (MTA), located within the controlled military airspace of nearby Edwards Air Force Base.
A 1954 Popular Mechanics story on Southern California Rocket Society activities lists rocketry devotees from all walks of life: “Doctors, merchants, mechanics, housewives, stenographers and the like. There is a goodly smattering among them of technicians in the field of aeronautics, people employed by the aircraft and instrument companies.”
Indeed, many of today’s middle-aged participants were inspired to build and launch model rockets while growing up during the height of the Apollo space program from 1969 to 1972. Although this activity is completely affordable for weekend hobbyists, some of the more serious enthusiasts have spent thousands of dollars to launch their rockets in the desert. It is estimated that over 50,000 model rockets have been launched in the U.S. since the mid-twentieth century, when the hobby first took off.
For over twenty years, the Rocketry Organization of California (ROC) has hosted ROCstock, a two-day event where amateur rocketry enthusiasts commune at Lucerne Dry Lake just east of Victorville to launch their diminutive Estes rockets alongside human-sized mega-models capable of breaking the sound barrier. This event, whose motto is “Peace, Love and Rockets,” is one of the largest meet-ups for building and launching recreational amateur rockets in the world. ROCtober is held annually every October. ROCstock occurs twice a year during November and June. On average, these combined ROC events draw up to 600 to 700 young people, along with their parents, mostly from scout troops and civil air patrol groups, who participate or just take in the action.
Amateur rockets are fueled by solid, hybrid or liquid propellants. The rockets themselves range in size from small commercially-produced models to nine feet or taller monster projectiles. The larger rockets can reach upwards of 19,000 feet, the ceiling allowed by the FAA. Entire families come out to camp on the dry lakebed for the weekend. Vendors sell hobby-related wares and, of course, model rocket kits. There is a $20 fee to launch, but spectators are admitted free of charge. Everyone attending must sign a liability release form before entering the event site.
Amateur rocketeers are certified at three different levels allowing participants to operate progressively larger engines as they become more skilled. Trained ROC volunteers launch rockets under supervision, from thirty-six portable gantries or launch pads during the larger events. A seasoned commentator counts down each launch, adding information banter about the rockets and their owners. Participants control the various stages of the rocket, including the burn stage and parachute deployment via an altimeter that is read remotely. Many of the rockets pack geo-locative sensors, which read the altitude reached and help owners to locate them on the lakebed. Others mount cameras to record the fleeting glory of the flight.
As most of the rockets run on solid rocket propellant, rather than more volatile liquid fuels, explosions are rare. Still, rogue projectiles can do harm. Mike Bentley, a popular Boy Scout leader, was fatally injured in November 2015 during a rocket launch event he helped organize in Johnson Valley (just east of Lucerne Valley). A “mid-power” rocket he was visually monitoring struck him directly in the face, and he later died of his wounds. The ROC website states that they believe this to be the only fatality over the hobby’s seventy-plus-year history. Indeed, I witnessed a rocket haphazardly sidewinding out of control towards spectators while I was documenting the 41st annual event. Fortunately, no one was struck or injured.
Further west, in the rain shadow of the southern Sierra Nevada between Cantil and Randsburg at the edge of Kuehn Dry Lake, is the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR). This wind- and rain-sheltered desert location provides an excellent microclimate for launching rockets of all sizes.
Formed in 2003, FAR is a non-profit, privately funded organization, instituted to facilitate experimental rocket projects by individuals, hobbyists, student groups, businesses and other likeminded entities. Nearly every weekend, regional college-level student engineering teams test their research projects and prototypes, while rubbing shoulders with space industry pros that, in turn, provide mentorship and expert guidance. Scout troops also use FAR facilities to shoot off Estes kit rockets, or to witness big rockets being launched and tested. FAR’s primary mission is to foster rocketry-related education, and their facility provides much needed real-world experience that can’t be duplicated in a classroom.
The facility, located next door to the RSS site in the Mojave Test Area and adjacent to the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, features a permanent, fully developed rocketry staging area equipped with several horizontal and vertical static test stands, two launch towers, two steel-reinforced concrete block houses, observation bunkers, propellant storage vaults and a rocket assembly building—all built by volunteers. Most of this infrastructure was created for specific projects. FAR is permitted for the manufacturing and handling of high explosives by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Unlike ROC supported events, FAR specializes in testing and launching of large amateur and experimental rockets, along with static engine firings. The FAA provided FAR with an operational waiver to launch any size rocket up to 18,000-feet on weekdays and up to 50,000 feet on weekends. Like the RSS, FAR has been granted limited use of R2508 restricted airspace at Edwards Air Force Base. This agreement, plus the remote desert location, allows FAR “to conduct extensive testing that is not possible in many areas of the country.”
Clients of FAR include the non-profit Pacific Rocket Society and many regional universities. FAR also rents out its facility to commercial entities, including the Discovery Channel, which leased the property during 2004 to film a MythBusters episode, which attempted to determine whether Wan Hu, the purported Ming Dynasty Astronaut, could have successfully blasted into space while strapped to a chair. According to the myth, Wan Hu was never seen again.
Commercial aerospace companies, including Boeing, Polaris and Raytheon, have conducted black projects testing in the area. During a 2016 interview, FAR president Ken Baxter shared how SpaceX was formed “a few yards from here.” Elon Musk arrived via helicopter and in a matter of hours hired most of FAR’s mentors for his commercial spaceflight startup. Baxter wasn’t sore about the chain of events; rather, he was excited to have helped facilitate the transfer of talent to SpaceX.
The array of people testing rockets at FAR include father and son team Paul Breed and Paul Breed Jr., who build serious hobby rockets in their garage. The duo are upstarts in the amateur rocketry community and popularly known for their various prototypes of the Unreasonable Rocket, which vied for the $1 million NASA/Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander XPrize Challenge in 2007 and 2009. Although they lost to their friends at Team Masten Space Systems in 2009, the Breeds continue to develop and test innovative rocketry on a shoestring budget—as compared to behemoth NASA and the like. It is easy to see why the Breeds’ dedication and enthusiasm epitomize the DIY ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of amateur rocketry.
The Friends of Amateur Rocketry’s commitment to supporting aerospace innovation is impressive. In January 2017, they announced a jointly sponsored competition with the Mars Society to award $100,000 in prizes to any college or university engineering team in the world that could construct and successfully deploy a bi-propellant liquid-fueled rocket, designed, built and tested within fifteen months of the May 5, 2018 launch date.
FAR will grant $50,000 to the team “whose bi-propellant liquid-fueled rocket comes closest to reaching 45,000 feet (13,716 meters).” The Mars Society matching prize is for a rocket powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen that will attempt to reach the same altitude. FAR’s prize funding comes from an anonymous donor whose goal is to support and advance STEM education and human spaceflight. Information about contest rules, qualifications and payload requirements are available at FAR’s website.
ROCtober will be held on October 14 – 15, 2017. This year’s ROCstock is November 11 – 12. The event will held again during June 2018. Visit FAR’s website for an online form to request a visit to their facility. Opening video of a “sugar shot” or sugar and potassium nitrate powered rocket launched at FAR during June 2017. The rocket went well above Mach 2. Video courtesy of Chris Covany.