Amateur rocketeers from all over North America are converging in Lethbridge, Canada, this weekend for the 24th annual Large Dangerous Rocket Ship convention. Some come to launch small kits, others to fire up giant home-brewed rocket motors, but everyone enjoys the thrill of a good explosion. Check out our preview of this year's event, from July's Popular Science.
The visitor who pulls up to this upstate New York hayfield on a sunny July Saturday afternoon might well wonder whether he’s stumbled upon a 4-H Club event or a third-world arms bazaar. There’s a country-fair atmosphere—the fast-talking voice over the PA system, kids eating ice cream and hot dogs—but instead of leading prize heifers to the judges’ table, participants are lugging huge replicas of military missiles (U.S., Russian, Chinese, take your pick) over to the range-safety officer to get final clearance to launch. The owners of the most massive rockets have cleared their projects in advance with the event’s BFR (that would be Big Freakin’ Rocket) committee. “Bring ’em up and we’ll burn ’em up,” the announcer says.
For six days over this extended July 4th weekend, this field on the outskirts of the college town of Geneseo is the setting for the Large Dangerous Rocket Ship launch. The event has been held annually (each year at a different site) since the late 1980s, when significant numbers of amateurs began building projectiles of such size and muscularity that the term “model rocket” no longer applied. This is “high-powered” rocketry. At East Coast launch sites like this one, which tend to be situated close to flight paths and population centers, participants are granted temporary waivers that allow them to fly as high as 12,000 feet. But at desert launch sites in the West, the sky’s the limit. In Black Rock, Nevada, last May, former Hollywood stuntman Ky Michaelson made history, launching a 21-foot, 700-pound rocket called Go Fast that climbed some 70 miles into the outer regions of Earth’s atmosphere—more than 20 miles higher than the previous unofficial amateur record.
At this, the 23rd annual Large Dangerous Rocket Ship event (LDRS 23), Thursday through Sunday will be one big explosive picnic. Kids and families will fly comparatively modest kit-built rockets alongside passionate, not to say obsessive, adult hobbyists who have installed large commercially available motors inside massive balsa-wood or cardboard contraptions that can stand 15 feet tall, weigh a couple hundred pounds, and take months to build. On Monday and Tuesday, the kids and the summer-picnic feel will evaporate, and the field will be turned over to experimental, or “ex,” craft flying on high-powered propellant that the rocketeers have mixed and cured themselves.
To the uninitiated, even the first, relatively mellow days are unsettling, like being dropped into the middle of a mini Cape Canaveral gone haywire, with rockets firing off all around you every minute. The little ones are zippy, energized darts; the big ones, powerful enough to make you jump back if you’re not ready. They take off with throaty roars, leaping from their pads and splitting the sky like arrows shot by a god, leaving trails of smoke and flames.
“We’ve got all sizes of rockets here,” says Lloyd Wood, an investment adviser by trade who, as the president (or “prefect”) of the hosting Buffalo, New York, rocketry club, is the weekend’s launch director. When Wood hasn’t parked his ample frame on a folding chair under the organizers’ tent, he is buzzing around the grounds in a canvas hat astride a four-wheeled ATV, the 21st-century version of a British colonial administrator inspecting the territories. His job is making sure the 1,700 or so launches planned for the weekend don’t backfire, thus intruding on the high spirits and personal safety of the perhaps 500 spectators milling about. As a breed, the ex rockets in play on the last two days are prone to dramatic failure; Lloyd and his team have to be ready to put out fires. Literally. “If you had nothing but successful launches, it wouldn’t be any fun,” he says.