Tuesday, October 15, 2019

An important rocketry need is disappearing...

Every rocket club that has members who want to fly high power needs one thing to be successful:

A decently-large (many hundreds of acres) field from which the rockets can be launched.

It sounds like a simple thing, and in a country as big as the USA, one would think that rocketeers would have no problem getting access to large plowed fields and sod farms for their launches. It's only a once a month thing, after all, and surely there are many large landowners who would support budding space enthusiasts in their hobby, right?


It turns out to be terribly hard to find a suitable launch field, and even when found, almost as difficult to hang on to one. All over the country, rocket clubs are losing access to areas that they have launched on for years, causing their members to undertake long and often fruitless searches to locate another launch site. Over the past couple of years, many clubs here in the SouthEast (HARA, the Music City Missile Club, NEFAR in Jacksonville, FL and Phoenix Missile Works, to name some examples) have found themselves in this situation - the same can be said for elsewhere in the country.  In my opinion, this decrease in the number of launch fields constitutes one of the biggest risks to our hobby. Given that rocketry is an incredibly safe hobby with an impeccable track record, it is sometimes hard for us to understand why this is happening. But being an old geezer who has seen a few things in his years of flying, I have formulated a few opinions on this matter, some of which are actually backed up with facts. And I'm going to share them with you, because I must.

1) Why is it so hard to find a high power launch site?

There are plenty of large fields around, so it usually boils down to finding a landowner who is receptive to letting up to a 100 or so folks launch on his land once per month. The current era of year-round plantings makes this difficult, because no landowner is going to let you fly rockets on his/her field of crops. No way, no how. That knocks out some prospects right there; most of the others who are still in the running say no because of one simple, little word:


Rocketry is over 60 years old, and by now, practically everyone in the USA has seen or flown a model rocket, maybe in school. Model rockets cause landowners little concern; they are familiar with them, and they generally perceive the risk of a model rocket causing a fire - whether right or wrong - as very low. So a lot of landowners have no trouble with an occasional model rocket launch on their property. They are something they know a bit about.

High power rockets are a different matter.

They are big beasties with loud, fire belching motors that shoot thousands of feet into the sky, very different from the little Estes rockets that go "pffft" and emit a little black smoke. We rocketeers love the power and awe of a high power rocket leaving the pad, but farmers look at that spectacle and see fields or trees burning (not to mention cattle disturbed or a barn or house damaged by a ballistic return). The enviable safety record of high power rocketry means nothing when stacked against a 6 foot tall rocket leaving the pad riding a pillar of flame several feet high.

Yes, I'm being dramatic, but I actually have personal experience here. I was talking to a farmer over in adjacent Jackson County about HARA conducting some launches on his property. He was initially very receptive, even excited - until he saw some videos of high power launches. These were no videos of CATOs or rockets coming in ballistic; they were clips of normal high power launches that HARA members have performed for decades. After looking at these, he said "I could let you fly those small things, but these big ones - well, they'll set fire to the whole county." End of discussion.

There are other reasons for not allowing rockets to be flown on property, but I am convinced that fire is the biggie, especially in this time of climate change when many areas are becoming increasingly dry. 

2) Why is it difficult to hang on to a launch site?

Lots of reasons here. After supporting club launches for many years, the landowner may simply become tired of those folks showing up every month. Or he/she may decide to go to year-round growing, or sell the land to another individual or group that is not receptive to rockets flying off the property. A sad cause, but fortunately less common than the previous ones, is behavior on the part of individual flyers that results in damage to the property or the violation of agreed-upon procedures (like no driving on the field). The important thing to realize here is that sooner or later statistics catches up with you; if you have a decent size club that launches monthly over a period of years, an "incident" is almost unavoidable. In HARA's case, we had a piece of equipment that was damaged (to the tune of a couple of thousand dollars) when it sucked up a nose cone full of lead weight (which was from a mid power rocket, btw - not high power). We paid for the damage and were able to fly at our Manchester site for a few more years, but this did not go over well with the owners. And, even with hindsight, I do not know what we could have done to find that little nose cone amongst all that acreage. My club treasures its launch sites, and takes very good care of the property during our launch activities (the owner of our current field says that he cannot tell we have been there after we close a launch - there is no debris, no paper, no anything), but the law of averages catches up to even the best sooner or later. It's all a question of how bad it is, and sometimes even a minor incident is enough to persuade a weary landowner to deny access.

And, if they are in an area that is becoming increasingly dry, there is always the fire worry.

Sorry this post is so long, but I felt the need to write some of my thoughts down. I see that declining numbers of launch sites as a kind of implosion problem - the loss of fields drives more high power rocketeers to the few available fields, which now have more flights, increasing the chances of an incident that results in denial of access. This cycle keeps repeating until we are down to just a couple of fields nationwide, out at Black Rock Desert or Lucerne, where the only thing that catches fire is you as you search the playa for your rocket.

It is a nightmare I have on occasion. 

No comments:

Post a Comment