Amateurs Aim for Outer Space on the Cheap

Doug Skrecky (
Sun, 4 Jul 1999 08:13:49 -0700 (PDT)

>From the Wall Street Journal...

They Shop at Radio Shack by Keay Davidson

San Francisco

Two groups of amateurs plan to enter the space race - using rockets made out of radio Shack gizmos, plywood, and fiberglass. One group plans to spend just $80,000 (US), less than NASA spends on a pair of space boots.
If the Saturday launch succeeds - and "I'd be amazed if they don't succeed," says Alfred differ, a physicist aiding the Davis, Calif., group - it will be the first time amateurs have put a projectile into space. "You actually can get to space with stuff you found from the hardware store and Radio Shack. That's literally true," says the team's leader, computer programmer John Powell.
He and his team have spent six years developing the rocket and launch system. It will take off from a desert site at Black Rock, Nev. Meanwhile, a San Jose, Calif., group, led by home builder Tom Rouse, is playing catch-up. Pending approval from the Canadian Space Agency and the U.S. Administration of Space Transportation, Mr. Rouse hopes to launch a rocket near Churchill, Manitoba., in September.
And if the San Jose group blows it, the next-likely contender is a group from Huntsville, Ala., which tried and failed to launch a payload into space last year.
The amateur rocketeers say they're pioneering much cheaper ways of getting into space, just as the pioneers of personal computers turned computers from room-size, million-dollar monsters into affordible, palm-size helpmates. "We think launching from the ground makes no sense at all," says Mr. Powell. "It takes so much less energy trying to launch from 100,000 feet - there's less [atmospheric] drg - and the motors perform so much more efficiently in a vacuum."
Unlike the rocketeers of the recent film October Sky, the Davis group - "America's Other Space Program," its members call themselves - won't launch from the ground.
If all goes as planned, they'll launch the 2.1-meter-tall rocket by remote control from a 180-meter-tall train of nine balloons, floating in the near vacuum 30,000 meters above Earth. A balloon launch saves a fortune in fuel costs by sparing the rocket the need to push through the denser lower atmosphere, Mr. Powell says.
Barring problems, the rocket should soar to an altitude above 100 kilometers, a generally accepted scientific definition of where "space" begins. At that altitude, the stars are visible even in daytime. Afterward, the rocket would parachute to Earth.
The rocket - 2.2 meters long and 7.6 centimeters wide - is extremely lightweight, only 37 kilograms. Its airframe is made of a paper-based substance and epoxy. For stability, the fins are a combination of plywood and kevlar, a kind of fiberglass used in bulletproof vests. In a rocket burn lasting only five seconds, it should accelerate to a peak speed of 4,480 kilometers an hour. The launch will be televised to the ground by live video link.
For Mr. Powell and the other members of JP Aerospace (JP for John Powell), it will be a dream come true. They meet regularly to tinker on the rocket, the balloon array, its pumps, and electronic components. "Every Sunday for about six years now, my garage fills up with anywhere from 20 to 30 people, all wedging in and working on things," Mr. owell says. "There are people in the back yard, people in the driveway, and so on." The rocket will carry a small scientific experiment to test whether a plastic substance called Mylar can withstand the vibrations and rapid acceleration of launch. The experimenter, Mr. Differ, believes that one day Mylar "sails" - nudged by the pressure of sunlight - could drag cargoes across the solar system. The launch has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Departent of Transportation, says FAA spokesman Hank Prie. "John's a good guy ... I think he's got a good shot" of making it into space this June, says Greg Allison, a leader of the Huntsville group, which is also using balloons.
A Los Angeles-based group, the Space Frontier Foundation, is offering $250,000 (US) to the first all- amateur group to launch a payload to 192 kilometers. The foundation is one of a number of privately bankrolled "space activist" groups that have sprouted up in the last 20 years, in hopes of encouraging the private exploration and, eventually, settlement of space. Scripps Howard.