Amateur Rocketry Takes Flight

by Dale M. Gray


It is not well-known, but space flight has its roots among amateur theorists and technical enthusiasts. Flights of fantasy created by authors such as Jules Verne were proven and made into reality by individuals and amateur groups in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The importance of amateurs in both the early development of rocketry and in its current state should not be underestimated. Amateurs provided the vision, enthusiasm and the imagination to drive early rocket technology. Some of rocketry's most important historic figures began their careers with amateur rocketry societies.

The first and perhaps greatest theorist was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who began explaining the principles of rocketry in 1883 and introduced the concept of an artificial satellite in 1895. Tsiolkovsky went on to design spaceships, multistage rockets, parallel staging, spacesuits, tethers, liquid fuel systems, gyroscopic controls, environmental systems and many other aspects that make modern space flight possible. He did not, however, ever build a rocket.

On the other side of the world in America, Robert Goddard was the first to convert rocket theory into reality. In 1909, Goddard began working on the theory of rocket propulsion. Three years later tested a rocket engine in a vacuum; proving that rockets did not "push" against air for propulsion. While employed at Clark College in Worcester, Massachusetts as a professor of physics, Goddard obtained a $5,000 grant from the Smithsonian for his research. The results was a booklet published under the title "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitude" (1919) in which he outlined his rocket principles and even suggested the use of rockets to reach the Moon. Following World War I, Goddard continued to work in seclusion on ever more sophisticated rockets. On March 16, 1926, Goddard made history by successfully flying the first liquid-fueled rocket to an altitude of 41 feet. Following a visit by Charles Lindbergh in 1929, Goddard obtained a series of Guggenheim grants and was able to relocate his work to Roswell, New Mexico. There, working with four assistants, Goddard created larger, more sophisticated rockets. In 1932, Goddard returned to Clark University and continued his rocket experiments under a grant from the Smithsonian. There he developed gyroscopes and pendulums to automatically correct the course of rockets.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, amateur rocketry groups were following in Goddard's footsteps in Germany, Russia and to a lesser extent America. In Germany, Hermann Oberth, also a professor of physics began work on rocket theory. In 1923, he published a small volume entitled "The Rocket into Interplanetary Space". In 1927, he founded a small group of rocket enthusiasts known as the "Verein fur Raumschiffahrt e.V" (Society for Space Travel), better known as the VfR. Members of the VfR included Johannes Winkler, Max Valier, Willy Ley, Hermann Oberth, Rudolf Nebel, Kurt Hainisch, Walter Hohmannn, Eugene Sanger , Klaus Reidel, Rolf Engel, and a young Wernher Von Braun. Max Valier would later earn the dubious honor of being the first to die from a rocket engine explosion. While the group made significant progress, the Depression of the 1930s caused the German rocket groups to collapse. The effective end of German amateur rocketry occurred on October 6, 1932. On that date VfR founder and past president Johannes Winkler demonstrated his powerful HW-II rocket before the Konigsberg government. While a marvel of precision engineering, the rocket could not withstand the corrosive effects of the salt air of the Prussian coast. A leaking methane valve caused the rocket to explode at ignition.

In Russia, several rocket societies sprang up. Among the most prominent was the Group for the Study of Reactive Propulsion (GIRD), lead at first by Friedrick Zander and then by young Sergei Korolyov. Working in obscurity and poverty, Zander adapted a blow-torch into a liquid-fueled rocket engine. A week after Zanders first successful test, Valentin Glushko, who was working independently at the Gas Dynamics Laboratory (GDL), also tested a liquid-fueled rocket engine. On August 17, 1933 the GIRD launched a rocket fueled by jelled gasoline and liquid oxygen. Though the engine burned through, the rocket reached a height of 400 meters. GIRD 10, a true liquid fueled rocket, was launched on November 25, 1932, rising to 80 meters. The engine, fueled by gasoline and LOX, was designed by F. A. Tsander.

In America, the American Interplanetary Society attempted to continue where the German VfR ended with rockets designed after the VfR Repulsor series. The first AIS rocket was launched in New York in 1933, but exploed at 250 feet when the oxygen tank burst. Their best effort was rocket #4, which reached an altitude of 382 feet on September 9, 1934. The American Rocket Society tested a regeneratively-cooled rocket engine designed by James H. Wyld in December of 1938. However, with the advent of World War II, Wyld's rocket work was integrated into the American military. Improved Wyld motors were used to assist launches of sea planes for the Navy. The pattern of amateur rocketry being integrated into military weapon systems was repeated world-wide as the world armed for war.

Goddard continued to work in relative isolation. In the summer of 1937, he launched an rocket with a gimbaled engine to a height of 2,055 feet. A rocket equipped with a barograph reached an altitude of 4,200 feet in 1938. Goddard developed small high-speed pumps to push fuel into the rocket engine. A rocket equipped with the pumps was launched on August 9, 1940 and reached a height of only 300 feet. He improved the rocket engine and was able, in January of 1940, to obtain a remarkable 985 pounds of thrust during a test stand firing. It was to be his last contribution to rocketry. With the advent of World War II --Goddard was brought into the armed forces to develop Jet Assisted Takeoff. He died in 1945, before he could resume his peacetime rocket studies.

The conversion of amateur rocketry enthusiasts to military designers was particularly efficient in Germany. The deep economic depression and the rise of Hitler to power in the early 1930s left few resources for amateur rocketry. In 1933, Wernher von Braun pursued the one course left open to him, becoming a civilian employee of the Army where he was placed in charge of developing liquid fueled rockets. As his program grew, he recruited heavily from the ranks of amateur rocketry enthusiasts. With heavy funding from the government, the militarized amateurs were able to industrialize their efforts. They produced a rapidly evolving series military rockets that culminated in the V-2 after only five generations (A-1, A-2, A-3, A-5 and A-4). While the military effort rapidly advanced the state of rockety, German amateur rocketry was left in the dust bin of history.

In Russia, the success of rocket groups did not go unnoticed by Stalin's government. The Moscow GIRD and the GDL were combined by the State in October of 1933 for greater efficiency. In the late 1930s, Korolyov and Valentin Glushko were both working for the Jet Scientific Research Institute. In 1937, the Institute tested the ORM-65 rocket engine in over 30 ground tests. However, the rocketry community was seen as a hot-bed for Trotsky supporters and as a result was targeted for one of Stalin's infamous purges. Leaders of the Jet Scientific Research Instutute, Ivan Kleimenov and Georgy Langemak were arrested in 1937. After torture and a mock trial, they were both killed. By good fortune, Sergei Korolyov had been dismissed from office in the organization a short time before and so temporarily escaped arrest. Valentin Glushko was arrested and narrowly avoided execution. He persuaded his captors to allow him to form a "Prison Bureau" to continue to develop rocket technology. When Koloyov was arrested in 1938, he spent some time working in gold mines in Kolyma, but by November of 1941 had been transferred to Glushko's Prison Bureau. With its best minds and leadership gone, the Jet Scientific Research Institute was renamed the Scientific Research Institute No. 3 and placed in charge of Andrei Kostikov. Kostikov, who betrayed Karotyov and Glushko, for a time was credited with much of their work. In time, Korolyov would rise to ascendency and became the Chief Designer for much of the Soviet rocket infrastructure.

Amateur rocketry technology as the cutting edge of technology ceased to exist with the start of hostilities of World War II. Rocket engines developed by amateurs with high ideals were pressed into service in Soviet "Prison Bureaus" to produce weapons of war, were rapidly evolved into the V-2 rocket in the death camps of Peenemunde and Dura of Germany, or relegated to minor roles of assisting aircraft take-off in the American military machine.

Following World War II, rocketry became the tool of political, bureaucratic and military organizations. Evolution of rocket theory, systems and technology was rapid and focused on political, scientific, military and in recent years economic goals. Amateur rocket societies and clubs had to be satisfied with model rockets using cheap solid rocket engines. Safety, not performance, came first for the now marginalized rocket clubs.

However, "the times, they are a changing."

While the movement has yet to make it to national prominence, high powered amateur rockets have once again taken flight and are breaking the amateur records set in the 1930s. Although government, military, scientific and corporate rockets launch nearly every week of the year, there is some evidence that the bleeding edge of the rocketry frontier is again in the hands of the amateurs. It may be difficult to see the rising star of launch systems costing only a few thousands of dollars compared to the $80 million commercial rockets. Like the T. Rex who felt no fear of the small mammals that crept beneath its feet, the true power is in the speed of evolutionary change. The major launch systems are currently in an approximate 10 year generational cycle. Shuttle upgrades, Delta 2 to Delta 3, Atlas 2 to Atlas 3, Ariane 4 to Ariane 5 are all taking about a decade. While the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 are on the fast track, they are still years away.

Enter the amateurs. Some of the better groups are experiencing 3 to 4 generations of rocket system designs a year. Not paper designs, built and flown designs. Admittedly, they will require some major capital in the coming years to sustain even a fraction of this growth, but they also have a rich treasure trove of tried-and-failed technology from which to pick and choose. They will save enormous amounts of time and money because they benefit from the history of rocketry and will not travel down technological dead-ends. They have the advantage of advanced materials and sophisticated mathematical models. They are working in a dynamic economy with access to venture capital. They also have a prize to spur them on. The CATS prize (Cheap Access To Space), offered by the Space Frontier Foundation, will award $50,000 to the first amateur team to put a rocket above 120 km and $250,000 to the first team to put 2 kg payload to 200 km. The excitement in the amateur rocket community is tangible (CATS Prize)

To give some recent examples: on May 11, 1997. the HAL-5 group out of Huntsville successfully launched a solid-rocket balloon combination called a Rockoon. Though the balloon split at 63,000 feet, the rocket was ignited and was estimated to have reached 38 miles (200,000 feet). On September 12, 1999, Interorbital Systems launched a liquid-fueled rocket to an altitude of 8,000 feet . J. P. Aerospace launched a multiple balloon / solid rocket combination on May 22, 1999. Their rocket officially reached 72,223 feet when the GPS unit went off-line, but the rocket was still rising! J. P. Aerospace returned home and evolved several support systems and tried again (J. P. Aerospace).


On March 18, 2000, the crew of J.P. Aerospace gathered on a desert ridge overlooking Nevada's Black Rock Desert in Nevada to try to be the first amateur rocketry group to reach space (defined as 50 miles above the surface of the Earth). A system of 12 helium-filled weather balloons was designed to carry a "launch box" to 100,000 feet. At that altitude a command from the ground would ignite the 17-pound, 88-inch long solid-fuel rocket in the box. The rocket would then burn for 5 seconds, to reach a speed of Mach 3+. If all goes well, the rocket should coast upward to an altitude of over 60 miles/ 97 km. The altitude would be documented by a GPS system designed and proven to be capable of handling the heavy initial acceleration as the rocket is fired.

Because of the remote location and the short notice before the event, the attempt was witnessed by only the crew of J. P. Aerospace, a San Diego Television station, an amateur space historian (me), and a retired veterinarian (my father).

As the sun rose over the mountain ridges to the east, the J. P. Aerospace launch team prepared their rocket and inflated twelve balloons. The balloons were placed on a tether in three tiers of four balloons each. As the balloons were attached to the main tether, one balloon escaped, but was quickly replaced with a spare. The rocket, encased in the launch box was brought out from a tent where it was prepared and placed upright on the ground next to a wood stepladder, which served as a launch tower. The scene was nearly identical to a photograph of Goddard as he prepared for one of his Roswell launches. As the launch box was attached to the balloon tether, a small breeze started. This pushed the "train" of balloons over to almost 45 degrees. The launch box was moved into position for launch, but the wind was too strong and an "Abort" command was shouted out. This was quickly changed to a "Hold". The wind abated and a guideline was used to bend the stack back to near vertical. Two balloons had escaped, but the ten remaining were adequate for launch. The launch box was reattached to the tether and the order came to cut the anchor line. As the launch box rose into the air at 7:00 a.m. PST, its orange parachute accidentally deployed. The three tiers of balloons and launch box then rose rapidly, first to the west and then to the east over the Black Rock Desert. The deployed parachute slowed the ascent in the thicker air, but was less of a concern as the system moved upward beyond 30,000 feet. However, as more balloons escaped or deflated, the stack slowed its climb.


Because of the rough launch attempts, the launch box video and the GPS receivers in the rocket and launch box were not reporting properly. Triangulation and intermittent GPS were used to determine altitude. By the time the rocket box had reached 53,000 feet, it was down to only seven balloons and was slowly descending. The system was armed and the launch command was given. The system had passed through a light band of clouds and no visual confirmation of launch could be made. A second launch command was sent. With no visual or telemetry launch confirmation, the launch box was ordered to cut-away from its balloons for parachute recovery. GPS telemetry was briefly acquired before the descent, which indicated the launch box achieved a maximum altitude of 62,000 feet.

As the recovery teams rode off in search of the Launch Box, I had the chance to look around at the remarkable people and equipment they had created. The ground around the launch site was strewn with broken and discarded equipment. Bottles of helium, radios and tracking antennas lay were they were last used. Vehicles and tents were positioned almost randomly around the work area. People were exhausted from lack of sleep and long hours of labor spent in final launch preparations.

The J. P. Aerospace crew seemed undeterred. Perhaps it was because they were prepared to learn from their mistakes. Though painful, failure provides vital information for the next evolutionary step. Earlier, as they prepared for launch, I was told a new balloon deployment system was already in development. Lessons learned from this attempt will produce new procedures and equipment for the next launch -- tentatively scheduled for July.

Because amateur rocketry groups are not government, they do not have to worry about the political fall-out of failure. Because they are not economically driven by a business plan, they do not have debt repayment schedules and disgruntled investors to deal with when they things do not go as planned. Because they are not military, they do not have to worry about their best efforts being corrupted into a weapon. Because they are not bureaucrats, they can make changes instantly with few, if any, meetings. While individually there may be politicians, scientists, military personnel and bureaucrats on the team, when they show up to work on the launch equipment and systems, they are acting as amateurs. Looking around at the tired, but determined faces at the J.P. Aerospace launch, I remember thinking young Von Braun or Korolyov would have felt right at home.

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