Rocket Revival

Article courtesy of PHOENIX magazine/Phoenix Home & Garden - May, 2011
Author: Adam Klawonn
Photos by Harrison Hurwitz 

The space race may be over, but one group of valley residents isn’t quitting. Military specs? Projectiles the size of backyard sheds? Meet the garage-band scientists who are keeping model rocketry – and our hopes for tomorrow’s workforce – alive.  

Gas prices are hovering around $3.50 per gallon. We are bombing Libya. Charlie Sheen owns the airwaves. And yet, from the lunar desert landscape of the far southwest Valley, today’s surreal troubles seem light years away.  

phm0511rocket_1_lgOn a flat and arid stretch of parched earth south of the Sierra Estrella Mountains, Rick McKee and his friends are in their own world. They spend thousands of dollars on a hobby that literally goes up in smoke and then follows Newton’s Law back to its final resting place. If there’s a Hall of Fame for hardware-store customers somewhere, they’re in it.  

Today, Scott Hertel has pointed his 7-foot-tall orange model rocket at the heavens like it’s a giant lawn dart. Hertel, 38, has installed a digital altimeter in the rocket’s nosecone to see if his calculations for weight, thrust and speed were correct.  

This is a standard Saturday morning flight meeting of the Superstition Spacemodeling Society. Hertel, a commercial air-conditioning installer from Gilbert, and McKee, a carpenter from Avondale, are two of its 80 active members. Over the years, the group’s membership has waxed and waned as America’s interest in space has grown and subsided. Yet, its members remain steadfastly committed to hosting amateur rocketry events in this far-flung corner of southwest Maricopa County, thanks to a handshake deal from a local rancher in Rainbow Valley and a waiver from the FAA that allows its rockets to fly up to 6,500 feet. 

It’s a speed limit in the sky, and most rocket enthusiasts will honor it. But every so often they like to “tickle the waiver” – a practice that fires them up the way a self-serve yogurt bar with endless toppings or a glass of good scotch lights up the rest of us. 

But today is a special day. The group’s members are trying out their latest rockets for an upcoming annual tribute launch to G. Harry Stine, the late founding father of the hobby who has been hailed by the U.S. military and rocket scientists around the globe as a space pioneer. They’ve brought their toys, sack lunches, coolers, laptops, cabanas and lawn chairs. The result is like a desert tailgate party, with children and dogs in tow. And Arizona weather and the rocketry gods have conspired to bless the group with ideal conditions.  

Shon Michael poses with his scaled-down model of a Mercury Redstone, a rocket that put the first American in space and was used in the early 1960s.For this practice launch, Hertel is testing a rocket that should reach 11,000 feet. The group obtained clearance from air-traffic authorities at Sky Harbor International Airport so that pilots flying over Buckeye for a western approach don’t freak out. 

Soon everyone retreats to a safe distance, and an on-site safety officer has approved the launch. There’s an expectant silence, followed by a countdown. 

“And we have lift off!” someone yells. 

There’s a loud shhhshhhing sound for a second, and the orange rocket blasts off in a brief puff of smoke. All heads turn skyward for a few seconds, following a vapor trail into wispy cumulus clouds. Necks crane, and soon someone pinpoints the parachutes – the telltale sign that the rocket has reached its zenith, broken up and begun settling back to Earth. The search begins. 

Collect. Re-assemble. Repeat. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. 

Estimates vary on the cost of entry to this hobby. McKee says he has spent up to $8,000 on model rockets since he started launching them in the desert outside of Las Vegas during a five-day family vacation three years ago. Other members aren’t so sure, or they’ve simply given up keeping track. It’s hard to keep up when there are also expenses for weekend launches such as the Arizona Rocketry Gathering (ARG), where participants don pirate costumes and fake parrots and send up rockets at night with LED lights in them. 

After a while, all the trips to Home Depot or Lowe’s start to blend together. Besides, itemizing receipts smacks of real work – something for some desk monkey at NASA, not a self-styled rocket man in his garage. 

“We don’t believe in budgets,” says Brad Evans, an east Mesa neurologist who built a military-scale rocket for the memorial launch. 

Scott Hertel tinkers with his latest high-altitude rocket, “Cerberus.” The 12-foot-tall rocket flew 10,000 feet above sea level and broke mach 1.1 – about 800 mph – during the boost.That’s the kind of chutzpah rocketry enthusiasts exude. They’re cavalier yet calculating, daring without being brash – sort of like a teenager who measures the distance to the swimming pool, strategically lines its deck with padded bumpers, then jumps off the roof into the deep end. It’s what propelled Americans into space in the first place and created an appreciative culture that treats a major NASA launch like it’s a Super Bowl party. 

“There’s a special type of person that gets involved with it and stays with it,” says McKee, 44. “There’s a passion you either have or you don’t. For me, my passion is the construction part of it. I’m definitely not a rocket scientist by any means. That part of it is really difficult for me to deal with. But I know a lot of guys that that’s what they do for a living.” 

The hobby attracts its fair share of talent, brains and charisma. Yet, for all of its lofty aspirations its challenges are very terrestrial. For every rocket born aloft, every enthusiast knows there’s a major downer back here on Earth. But first, let’s meet G. Harry Stine. 

“This is his asteroid.” 

Barbara Stine, 79, gestures toward a dusty shelf on the makeshift mantel inside her mobile home in north Phoenix’s appropriately named Moon Valley area. The shelf contains a photo of the Milky Way galaxy, on which the asteroid “GHarryStine” is highlighted with a small arrow. It’s floating through space about 342 million miles from Earth, according to the plaque, a gift French astronomers posthumously bestowed upon her husband last September. 

“He wanted to go into space,” Barbara says, referring to George Harry Stine, her deceased husband of 47 years. “He’s finally there – as an asteroid. He felt it was the final frontier, that it was a worthwhile challenge.” 

phm0511rocket_5_mdThe asteroid is part cosmic tombstone, part celestial monument to a model rocketry legend. Born in 1928, George Harry Stine went against his father’s wishes to pursue a medical career (Dad was an eye surgeon), choosing instead to focus on engineering and the hard sciences. He attended New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell for high school, earned his pilot’s license before he could drive, then matriculated at University of Colorado at Boulder. He went on to become a published author of science fiction novels and science “fact” white papers while working on classified military projects in White Sands, New Mexico, during the early days of the Cold War. 

While at White Sands, Stine was collaborating with Dr. John Stapp, a U.S. Air Force test pilot who became the “fastest man on Earth” in 1954 by traveling over 600 mph and pulling 46 Gs – many, many times the force of today’s top-fuel dragsters – while strapped into a rocket-powered sled. At the time, the Air Force was losing more personnel to car crashes than to flying maneuvers, Barbara says, and the two men were studying secret crash tests together to uncover new ways to reduce the impacts’ effects on the human body at different velocities. It was the era before cars featured factory safety belts, and Stapp believed a multi-point harness system could prevent numerous injuries. 

Because of this, Stapp earned the nickname the “careful daredevil,” and some of his approach rubbed off on Stine. Stapp’s career injuries read like a minor-league hockey team’s hospital chart, but Stine took the work to heart and championed safety. When the Russians sent Sputnik I into space on October 4, 1957, he was ready. 

By the time the world’s first unmanned satellite was orbiting Earth, Stine had already begun work on mass-producing model rocket engines and coming up with common measurements and standards for the hobby, such as the size of the motors and casing. He played with electronic ignition switches and conducted static stress tests to see how well the motors handled pressure. (He also put them in the couple’s oven at home for heat tests, but he wouldn’t tell Barbara until afterward.) Finally, Stine had some of his colleagues at White Sands review his findings before he moved forward. 

When Sputnik I was in orbit, Stine was already a budding space star. National news media contacted Stine for comment, and he reportedly quoted a salient passage from his latest book, Earth Satellites and the Race for Space Superiority: “For the first time since the dawn of history, the Earth is going to have more than one moon. This is due to happen within the next few months – or it may have already happened even at the time you are reading this.” Some construed it as a subtle, respectful nod to Sputnik. At the time, Stine was working for the aerospace company that would later become Lockheed Martin Corp. When company executives heard about the quote, they fired him the next day. 

James Traicoff and his daughter, Cassie, have been members of the Superstition Spacemodeling Society for almost three years. But the race was on. In the post-Sputnik rush to space, Americans became obsessed with the stars and how to get there. There was an instant market for model rockets, and Stine was well positioned to boldly go where no entrepreneur had gone before. 

“He said, ‘You know, this is like a challenge. We need to educate our young people in science and math. They want to fly rockets, so we need a way to make [rocket] engines that are reliable and safe,’” Barbara recalls. “‘They’re either gonna go in their basement and fiddle around with black powder and hurt themselves or blow up their house. We have to give them a safe way to do this.’ I mean, every kid wanted to fly a rocket.” 

Stine wrote what became today’s safety manual for model rocketry. He also collaborated with manufacturing and fireworks executives to mass produce about 3,000 model rockets as a test, then promote a direct mail campaign for doorstep distribution. Model Missiles Inc. was off the ground. 

Teenagers flocked to Stine and formed a test crew. On Saturday mornings, the group would visit a former World War II ammunition dump outside Denver and launch their model rockets. In a memoir, he wrote, “That winter of 1957-1958 I learned what these teenagers would do with parts and equipment. I learned how to design and write for them. And I learned that model rocketry was, indeed, the answer to the youth rocketry problem of the time.” 

A string of successes soon followed. The world’s first mass-produced model rocket kit rolled off the assembly line in April 1958, followed by the world’s first machine to produce model rocket motors. (Today, both reside in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum.) The country’s first model rocketry group, the Model Missile Association, formed in Denver in January 1958. By the end of that year, the group had become the National Association of Rocketry, a name it carries today. 

The Stines had three children and pushed them toward rocketry at an early age. They made their own model rockets and participated in launch events. Barbara made dinner. “Somebody had to have a foot on the ground and keep them all fed,” she quips. 

The Stines eventually settled in Phoenix and retired. Today, their eldest child, daughter Connie, is a ballerina who teaches dance in Seattle. Their other daughter, Ellie, trains horses and lives south of Phoenix in Marana. Their son, Bill, is CEO of Quest Aerospace, an international company based in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, that mass produces model rockets. 

So the rocket fires are still burning, but generationally speaking, things are changing. Model rocket enthusiasts, educators and military contractors can’t help wondering if our national grip on science and math is slipping. In January, President Barack Obama gently cajoled the country into pushing itself toward innovation through the sciences. During his State of the Union speech, he declared, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.” 

“I think that was a good analogy,” Barbara Stine says. “I think Harry would agree with that.” 

For proof, just look at our nation’s industrial complex. The Star Wars program seems so long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Today, all the companies that support the aerospace and military sectors – industries with huge footprints in the Phoenix area and the Southwest in general – are wringing their collective hands at what they perceive as a dearth of local talent and innovation. 

Jonathan Seemeyer holds a Rubicon (left) and Canadian Arrow model rocket. Both fly up to 1,200 feet and are scaled-down versions of rockets that competed in a global contest for affordable, private spaceflight. And it’s only getting worse. Baby Boomer rocket scientists, engineers and other related workers are retiring in droves; consolidation in the defense industry has shrunk the number of available remaining jobs; government spending on the militaryindustrial complex is in danger; and the hard sciences just aren’t as appealing as they used to be for college students. In 2009, a survey of more than 270,000 college freshmen found that only 7.5 percent of them intended to major in engineering – the lowest level since the 1970s. 

As a result, the 300 companies that make up the Aerospace Industries Association – the Boeings, Raytheons and Lockheed Martins of the U.S. – got clever. They needed a megaphone that could draw attention to the issue. And few things make more noise or turn more heads than a rocket launch. 

About 10 years ago, the AIA launched the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Today, the event – whose name shares an unfortunate kinship with a movie from the creators of Comedy Central’s South Park cartoon – has evolved from a public-relations stunt into a signature competition for the nation’s most promising science students.

At press time, more than 600 teams comprised of about 7,000 seventh- to 12th-grade students from around the country (including the U.S. Virgin Islands) were hosting a local launch event in their hometowns to qualify for the finals. The mission? Send a model rocket loaded with an egg up in the air exactly 750 feet and return the “payload” safely – all within exactly 45 seconds. A local representative from the National Association of Rocketry – an event co-sponsor – certifies the results for contest officials, who then select the top 100 teams to compete in Washington, D.C. The top-10 winners split $60,000 in prize money and scholarships, and the top team goes to Paris to compete against other top teams from the United Kingdom and France. 

At press time, five teams from Arizona had entered the competition. Garden Lakes Elementary School in Avondale was the only team from the Phoenix area, and McKee is mentoring the students. 

“We’re looking at the rocket contest not just as a way to celebrate and have some fun, but to actually get students seriously considering being more aggressive and interested in pursuing the sort of coursework, skills and degrees that can help them enter our workforce,” says AIA workforce director Susan Lavrakas. 

So in the quest to get kids addicted to science, model rockets are a good gateway drug. But then there’s that other pesky part – the concepts that make up STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Model rocketry is only the endgame; students need to study these areas first. 

And therein lies the rub: It’s hard to make calculus as sexy as a burst of gunpowder. 

AIA officials are attacking this problem through the annual rocket competition and other means. They are now more closely tracking where Team America participants have gone to college and entered the workforce (previous surveys showed about 80 percent of them ended up pursuing a STEM-related major in college). There’s also talk of opening the competition for younger students to create a pipeline that starts as early as first grade and possibly preschool. 

One of the challenges is to bring science out from the shadows of No Child Left Behind, a hallmark of the George W. Bush Administration that rewarded positive test scores in certain subjects and is now up for congressional review. 

“Because of No Child Left Behind, more emphasis was put specifically on math and reading, so there’s a sense that science has been short-changed in recent years because of the incentives that are built into No Child Left Behind,” Lavrakas says. “We are working closely with the [U.S.] Department of Education and others to make sure science gets the proper attention.” 

That will help, but there are other related challenges. Foreign college students who come to the U.S. to study STEM topics can’t get key jobs associated with national defense because our policies dictate that foreigners are not eligible for security clearance. “That’s the state of the world. That’s not going to change,” says AIA spokesman Dan Stohr. In other words, we can’t just outsource this problem; we have to grow our own rocket scientists. 

Kathryn Seemeyer displays her modified rocket, which was made by a Gilbert company and can use four different types of motors. It flies up to 2,300 feet above sea level and has logged more than 30 successful flights.Then there’s the existential crisis of NASA. The nation’s space agency, which enjoyed billion-dollar budgets for decades, recently saw itself humbled by SpaceX, a private company headed by PayPal co-founder/entrepreneur Elon Musk that sent a private spaceship into space at one-tenth the cost of many government-funded projects (a concept G. Harry Stine wrote about in 1998). 

Federal officials need to decide the future of America’s space program and, by default, what NASA’s next mission should be. The suggestion is that NASA has lost its cool-kid factor. “Where are we going? What are we doing? When are we doing it? It’s very unclear. And in today’s economic climate, we’re looking at NASA as a very serious target for deficit cuts,” Stohr says. 

Meanwhile, other nations are starting to catch up or leave us behind. From 2005 to 2008, China conducted 26 space launches that achieved Earth orbit or beyond, and India conducted seven, with several more in the pipeline, according to a 2009 AIA study. Russia conducted 94 launches over the same time period. The U.S. conducted 72. And many of the competing nations have contacted AIA officials for advice on how to host national rocketry competitions of their own. 

If we’re going to maintain our edge, Lavrakas says, parents and teachers on a local level have to do their part to get more involved on the issue if kids are ever going to move beyond model rockets and start playing with the real stuff. 

“This is not a technical problem. It is a social and cultural problem,” she says. “We aren’t reaching our kids. We are not sparking their interest in things that can lead to good careers and lifelong interests.” It’s not talking at them or simply making them do their math homework; it’s connecting the dots to real-world projects like model rockets. “If the kids ask, ‘Why do I need this equation?’, then the system has failed,” Lavrakas says. 

In Arizona, Science Foundation Arizona has used state funding and donations from corporate partners such as Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., Intel and JP Morgan Chase to prop up STEM education. Since 2007, the nonprofit has spent about $31.4 million on STEM-related programs for 160,000 students and 3,000 teachers around the state. Science Foundation Arizona Chief Operating Officer Margaret Mullen says that includes id="mce_marker"7 million in scholarships to encourage graduate research fellows in math and science to teach in primary or secondary schools for eight hours per week; and 4.4 million for programs that encourage students to experiment with rockets, robotics and the “fun stuff.” 

Tom Seemeyer is set to launch his “Ready for Action” rocket, which he built from scratch using recycled mailing tubes. It later flew to a height of 2,350 feet using a H165R-10 motor. Combined, the money is supporting STEM education for first- through fifth-grade students in certain high-poverty districts around the state; helping math or science majors at Northern Arizona University do a dual-study program to become teachers; and teaching kids to make telescopes, then use them to host “star parties” at Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory with their families, among other things. 

Science Foundation Arizona Vice President Darcy Renfro says the next move is to relate STEM to NASCAR events. Maybe by doing so the nonprofit will spur another “aha” moment for STEM concepts the way model rocketry has clicked with recent generations. 

“I’m not sure there has been a trigger yet in this country. The trigger in the 20th century was Sputnik. The space race triggered a whole generation where science and engineering became the most important area of learning and degrees,” Renfro says. “You saw a whole surge of engineers and scientists come out of that. If you’re talking about space, that was the rallying point for that generation. This generation hasn’t had the same rallying point. 

“What has happened,” she continues, “is that the nature of the workforce has changed so much that there may be jobs that fifth graders would eventually pursue that don’t even exist right now. So the whole world has changed. Technology has changed the workforce, and the workforce of the future is requiring these new skills. And then you couple that with the United States underperforming internationally in the STEM area for a long time now.” 

In 1983, an education commission under President Ronald Reagan conducted a national study called “A Nation at Risk” and shed light on the science and math problem. “Almost 30 years later, we really haven’t moved the ball. In fact, we’ve almost gone backwards,” Renfro says. 

Mullen says Arizona has a long way to go. Whatever route, STEM has to be a priority. “We have no choice,” she says. “The standard of living for every future generation of Americans will be less unless we crack this code.” 

Here’s an engineering problem for you: How do you get a rocket that’s wider than a Humvee and taller than a giraffe to fly high enough so that the entire thing can come apart in sequential pieces and safely fall back to the ground using separate parachutes? 

This is the real-world STEM assignment resting in Rick McKee’s garage. The wiry, gung-ho McKee is trying to recreate NASA’s 2007 MLAS project by launching a half-scale version – complete with all the sequential breakups and parachutes – over the desert south of Buckeye this October. He has recruited other rocketry enthusiasts to his cause – from local school kids to Valley engineers – and launched the Arizona Rocket Consortium (rick-mckee.blogspot.com) to help raise the $4,500 needed to support the project. 

The solution? McKee says he will send the rocket one mile up and limit its thrust to less than 1,800 pounds. Too much thrust, and the massive rocket will be crushed like a giant beer can and come apart like confetti. “Here’s what I like about this project: We’re acting like NASA – as far as what we have to do for research – but we don’t have the NASA budget,” McKee says. “We’re using our own money, our own time, our own resources.” 

In reality, the rocket will probably launch sometime in April 2012 because of the amount of research involved, McKee says. 

Still, it’s worth the effort. It’s all about the unknown and the pursuit of something greater than the sum of the rocket’s parts. The vessel itself is just proof of human understanding. It’s a tangible piece of evidence showing that, on some level, we “get” it. 

McKee remembers the quizzical looks he got after announcing his project to friends. “One guy says, ‘Why are you building this rocket?’ I said, ‘Because we can.’”

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