enough alarm in his voice to make people take
notice. Simultaneously he operates an air horn
that makes a loud whoop-whoop-whoop to make
sure everyone gets the message.
Rita Long is among the smallish group
of women certified to fly larger rockets.
Certification means she’s proven herself able
to safely build and fly rockets of considerable
power. Everyone who flies at LDRS must be
certified by a government-recognized rocketry
association. Despite that, she says, “The rocket
systems inside a rocket sometimes will fail to
work correctly. Those rockets, instead of floating
down from the sky suspended from a parachute,
spiral down to Earth fast and out of control.”
Those rockets usually end as “land sharks” or
“core samples,” i.e., a mangled rocket body and a
nosecone buried several feet deep in West Texas
caprock. Jokes aside, those situations are dangerous, as rockets with failed reentry systems
hurtle down nosecone first and at great speed.
Worse, rockets occasionally flip and turn earthward while the rocket engines are still firing. This
makes the situation even more serious, as the
rocket is hurtled not only by gravity, but by the
chemically induced thrust of the engine as well.
If that occurs with a very large rocket motor,
it can be disastrous. Approaching half a ton,
some of the rockets launched are monsters, the
bulk of their weight contained in their powerful
chemical engines. A single launch can cost more
than $800 in rocket fuel.
Anatomy of an Amateur Rocket
In and of themselves, rocket engines are marvelous things. The most basic form goes back to
first-millennium China, when black powder was
first stuffed into bamboo rockets and used to
frighten enemy horses. As such, a simple rocket
engine is straightforward and easy to understand. Chemical propellant is packed inside a
metal casing. The chemicals inside the motor
burn and produce hot, expanding gas. The gas
rushes out the back of the motor through a nozzle and, by Isaac Newton’s third law of motion,
the backward gush of the gas results in an equal
and opposite forward thrust of the rocket body.
Simple, yes. But hey, this is rocket science, and
A. With a whoosh and a roar, a high-power rocket takes
flight over the high Texas plains. B. New Yorker John
Ritz lugs his rocket to the launchpad. C. Under pressure, the launch team makes last-minute adjustments.