Friday, June 25, 2004


Vonce ze rockets go up who cares vere zey come down...

The BATF is going after model rockets. Without a doubt, these guys are out of control. First, some background here - as I mentioned on my very first post, I was across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and got to see the action from entirely too close. Needless to say that's left me with a very cautious streak when it comes to air travel (which I loathe anyway) and I completely understand and cooperate with the TSA on those occasions when I do fly (for whatever it's worth they've always been polite to me, and I haven't had any grief from them). But model rocketry is a very different animal, with a very safety-minded community. There's a huge interest in high power rockets, as the small Estes kits are fun for a while, but they don't go very high, are somewhat fragile, and it's hard to push the performance envelope any further. High power is about lofting big heavy rockets, in some cases to unbelievable altitudes (I probably should differentiate here between high power rockets, which have basically been productized and are consumer-type things, albeit a very sophisticated consumer, and amateur rockets, which really push the envelope, with regular flights above 50K feet. Amateur rockets tend to be more, ahem, problematic than your garden variety high power bird, with the odd spectacular failure not being unknown).

That said, the BATF has made it all but impossible to purchase and store rocket motors. Most folks who buy these don't buy a lot of them, as a) they're really expensive b) you don't really want to keep them inside your house just in case and c) leaving them in an outside magazine during the winter isn't a great idea, as the temperature changes will likely crack the propellant grains rendering the engines dangerous or useless. Also, these aren't like Estes rockets, in that if you're building a high power bird, you're pretty much dedicated to that bird, and getting three or four of these big mofos ready for flight isn't really practical, unless you're on a team. Odds are you'll be flying three, maybe four times a year, and you're lucky to get a couple off the ground at any one meet.

It's not a huge inconvenience to buy motors at the meet, and in fact it's probably preferable because if the manufacturer's reps are there (they usually are, this is a small community) you have on-site support getting the things ready to go, and you don't have to pay insane common carrier prices to get the things delivered. The only real reason to keep them around is to do balance and fit checks, but dummy cases would probably work just as well. So why am I bitching about this?

Because even if you just want to buy them at the meet (the hobby is very much self-policing, and cooperates well with the FAA, for an example where regulation is needed - after all, you don't want one of these suckers in a real plane's flight path), you've got to get a permit. And getting a permit involves lots of layers of bureaucracy, analogous to getting a pistol permit in a big city, such that it's becoming nigh impossible to get a permit. Unacceptable.

As I noted, it's a relatively small community, and newcomers to this hobby are noticed. If you want to fly the big (and somewhat dangerous) birds, you've got to pass a certification test. No one's going to sell you motors to take home unless you've got that ticket, you've got to get your motor at a launch to get your certification (which basically consists of someone checking your construction work on the rocket, then flying and recovering the bird). Odds are that some unknown guy named Abdul wanting to buy or fly M-class motors would get a lot of scrutiny. This is a very law-abiding and patriotic bunch in this hobby, again analogous to the firearms community.

I should qualify my "somewhat dangerous" crack in the last paragraph. These things are not kids toys. Like real rockets, they do occasionally go boom. They do go fast, and would probably startle a pilot if he encountered one during a takeoff or landing. And some of them are heavy, so given a large total impulse (an O-class motor has 40960 Newton-seconds of total impulse,defined as the integral of the thrust over the operating duration of the motor) you can have a fair amount of kinetic energy during a boost phase.

And of course, why the heck would Abdul want to use Ammonium Perchlorate to do his dirty work, when he could just as easily buy gasoline and fertilizer, two commodities which the BATF is obviously not regulating, and make a big boom? Or for that matter some Stingers or other nasties which the folks in the old country could send over marked as religious articles?

The nanny state strikes gain.

Apologies in advance for what may be a light posting week ahead. Herr Oberscheissefuhrer Von Arbeit decided to enact total mobilization and martial law.


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