Accidents During the Fifties, and the Events that Followed (Rocket Motor)

I was born in 1946. and readers of my generation might remember a series of 5 to 10 serious accidents that happened to people making homemade rockets in the late 1950s. These were the early years of the space program, and the news media was so attuned to anything involving rockets that, when these accidents occurred, they were reported by every newspaper in the country. Because so much time has passed, it would take an historian to reconstruct the details, but to the best of my memory, the essence of the story was always the same. Someone was either mixing chemicals, or packing them into a metal tube, when they exploded, and blew off a hand or an arm. or put out an eye. In one case I think that the person might have been killed.
The driving force behind this behavior was often a naive and youthful desire to become famous by inventing a powerful new rocket fuel, and this in itself was not a bad thing. What made it dangerous was the erroneous belief that, because of their perceived “power”, explosive combinations of chemicals would work the best. At the beginning of this topic in big bold letters I presented a list of chemicals that under most circumstances should be considered hazardous. Unless you really know what you are doing, these chemicals can get you into serious trouble. What people forget is that in the 1950s, without a prescription or any kind of a license, you could buy them at any drug store.
I know this for a fact because in 1958 my own father bought me a bottle of potassium chlorate at the old Bowser & Banks Pharmacy in Riverside. CA. When he told Jake Bowser that I was going to use it for rocket experiments. Jake warned him of the danger. A few days later my father had second thoughts, and out of concern for my safety, took it back and returned it. But many 12-year-olds didn’t have such cautious fathers. The ease with which you could buy these chemicals resulted in thousands of kids, caught up in the romance and the excitement of the new space program, mixing up explosive combinations in their bedrooms and their parents’ garages. // was a dangerous situation. It was unique to its time. It is not the way we do things today, and nothing like it has happened since.
In response to these accidents, the retail drug industry stopped selling these chemicals. By 1963 if you wanted to buy them, you had to go to a commercial chemical dealer. At the same time responsible hobbyists continued the safe pursuit of amateur rocketry as they had since the 1930s. Unfortunately, a young and aggressive model rocket industry, sensing an opportunity, played up these accidents. They capitalized on public ignorance of the distinction between amateur rocketry and what these kids were doing, and in the process, helped convince several states to declare the making of homemade rocket motors illegal.
For the next 20 years amateur rocketry survived through a few serious clubs, but their total membership remained small, and a lack of money kept them from accomplishing anything truly interesting. At the same time model rocketry and the market for commercially made rocket motors continued to grow. In 1984 when I first became involved in rocketry, a group of about 10 people were holding monthly rocket launches in the Mojave Desert at Lucerne Dry Lake here in Southern California. When I showed up one Saturday with my topics and my homemade motors, what I was doing was considered both interesting and unique.
By 1986 the Lucerne launches were attracting two to three dozen people, and the rocket motors were getting larger. But so was their cost, and I remember being amazed one day when I learned that one participant had spent more than S100 on the motors for a single flight. When a product becomes too expensive to buy. people either do without it. or learn how-to make it themselves, and by 1987 an increasing number of people were doing the latter.

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