The rugged terrain and crystal clear airspace above of the Mojave Desert has served well 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, California, from the 1940s onward.
Considered the oldest of these amateur experimental rocketry groups, the Reaction Research Society (RRS) was founded in 1943, having evolved out of the Southern California Rocket Society of Glendale. By 1955, the non-profit RRS 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 RRS, this forty-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 spend 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 pastime 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 directly participate or drop in to watch the show.
Ranging in size from small, commercially produced models to nine feet or taller monster projectiles, amateur rockets are fueled by solid, hybrid or liquid propellants. The larger rockets reach upwards of 19,000 feet, the altitude limit allowed by the FAA. Families and scout groups 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 which allows 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, supplying information about the rocket’s specific build or the launcher’s past successes or failures. 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 help owners to locate them on the vast playa. Others mount cameras to record the fleeting glory of the flight.
Because the majority of amateur rockets run on solid rocket propellant (instead of more volatile liquid fuels), explosions are rare. Still, rogue projectiles can do a lot of 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 in flight that he had been visually monitoring struck him directly in the face. Bentley died later from injuries incurred during the accident. Although ROC’s website maintains that this accident is the only fatality of its kind occurring over the hobby’s seventy-plus-year history, I had 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 other weekend, regional college-level student engineering teams test their research projects and prototypes, while rubbing shoulders with space industry pros, which in turn, provide mentorship and expert guidance. Scout troops additionally use FAR facilities to shoot off their 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 RRS 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 to manufacture and handle high explosives by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Unlike ROC supported events, FAR specializes in testing and launching large amateur and experimental rockets, along with static engine firings. The FAA provided FAR with a certificate of authorization to launch just about any size rocket up to 18,000-feet on weekdays and up to 50,000 feet on weekends. Like the RRS, FAR has been granted limited use of R2508 restricted airspace at Edwards Air Force Base. This agreement, plus its remote desert location, allows FAR “to conduct extensive testing that is not possible in many areas of the country.”
Clients of FAR include just about all of the regional engineering 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, Microcosm and Raytheon, have conducted testing in the area. During a 2016 interview, former FAR president Ken Baxter remarked that SpaceX had formed “a few yards from here.” He described Elon Musk’s arrival via helicopter—within a matter of hours Musk had hired most of FAR’s mentors for his commercial spaceflight startup. Baxter wasn’t sore about this particular chain of events; rather, he was excited to facilitate the transfer of FAR’s talented volunteers to SpaceX.
The Breeds are considered upstarts in the amateur rocketry community, known for their cleverly named innovative prototypes including the Unreasonable Rocket, which vied for the $1 million NASA/Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander XPrize Challenge in 2007 and 2009. Although the Breeds lost to their friends at Team Masten Space Systems in 2009, the duo continues 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, FAR 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 launched at FAR.
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. To date, no university has won either prize.
In addition to this prize, in 2019, the same anonymous donor has established a Dollar Per Foot prize (DPF). Any US or Canadian university-built single-stage liquid rocket launched from FAR will receive a cash award of $1 for every foot above the launch rail the rocket travels. This prize is an additional inducement for university teams to launch single-stage liquid rockets.
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. This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.