The Attempted Destruction of Amateur Rocketry (Rocket Motor)

Professionals in the fields of science and engineering often begin their careers without the benefit of formal training. They at first study on their own. not with the thought of earning a living, but from an natural interest in the chosen subject. Hermann Oberth was entirely self-taught when he worked out the mathematics of rocket propulsion, and Wernher von Braun had no formal training when he built his first rocket. From the Latin word, amator. or “lover” (because they do it for the love of it), the people who” work in this way are called “amateurs”. Of course Oberth and von Braun are extreme examples. Von Braun eventually obtained a formal college degree, and both men became the leaders in their field. Collectively their work, along with the work of many others, resulted in the development of the largest rocket ever built. Standing 363 feet tall, this incredible machine called the Saturn Five developed 7-1/2 million pounds of thrust (75 times the power output of Hoover Dam), and from 1969 through 1972. escaped the Earth’s gravity, and took America’s Apollo astronauts to The Moon. The simple fact that Oberth and Von Braun began their careers as amateurs illustrates how important it is to allow amateurs in all fields of science to pursue their activities with a minimal amount of interference.
In the United States, amateur rocketry, or the nonprofessional construction of rockets and rocket motors, dates back to the 1930s. People engaged in amateur rocketry make their own rocket propellant and build their own rocket motors. The making of the propellanfand the design, construction, and testing of the motors provide the valuable educational experience traditionally associated with the hobby. People engaged in amateur rocketry derive knowledge, enjoyment, and their sense of accomplishment from making everything themselves, and they don’t want to buy commercially made rocket motors.
A distinctly separate hobby called model rocketry began in the 1950s. People involved in model rocketry use com-merciallx made rocket motors. Both the motors and the rockets that use them are sold in toy stores and hobby shops, and before they are offered for sale they are tested and approved by an organization called the National Association of Rocketry (NAR for short). The NAR also conducts educational and recreational activities for its members, publishes a magazine, and helps promote model rocketry as a safe and worthwhile hobby.
In 1984 1 wrote and published an instruction manual titled Building Your Own Rocket Motors, and shortly thereafter the NAR expressed great dismay over the topic’s existence. In the span of about two months they wrote a long complaint to numerous government agencies, and protested to all of the magazines in which I advertised. They published an editorial in their own magazine calling me “irresponsible”. They publicly accused me of encouraging something called “basement bombing”. They publicly called for all the magazines to refuse my advertising, and they said that my topic should be thrown in the trash. I even caught two young men watching our house one day from behind a tree across the street. When I asked them if they were members of the NAR. one of them sheepishly admitted that he was. Then, with looks of considerable embarrassment, they walked back to their car. and drove away.
Thankfully, the magazine publishers ignored these people, and the few government agencies that paid me a visit went away smiling and shaking their heads. By encouraging people to build homemade rocket motors instead of buying them. I’d apparently upset a group of business interests who felt that my topic was a threat to their sales and their profits. The NAR’s magazine featured advertising for the model rocket industry’s supposedly “safe” products, and some of the manufacturers included NAR literature and membership forms in their rocket kits. The NAR derived much of its membership and a good portion of its income from the model rocket industry, and when I finally understood the relationship, the motive behind the group’s behavior seemed clear.
It is unusual for a writer to talk about things like this in a hobby topic, but the hobby of amateur rocketry has been subjected to an ongoing campaign of destructive propaganda since the 1950s. This assault is unjustified, its effect on the hobby has been chilling, and I therefore think it appropriate to discuss some of the facts regarding its source. In the past 40 years a small industry has arisen that manufactures and sells commercially made rocket motors. The fact that it promotes its own well-being is appropriate. All industries do. What is not appropriate is that, though they don’t represent the industry as a whole, a few special interests in and around the industry have been falsely alarming the authorities and the public with an ongoing disinformation campaign designed to frighten people away from amateur rocketry, put an end to amateur rocketry, and thereby force anyone who flies rockets to buy commercially made rocket motors.
For example, in 1987. as part of its “Science Education Series”. Prentice Hall published a popular introduction to model rocketry titled The Rocket topic. They sold thousands of copies in topicstores and hobby shops throughout the country. On page 3 the authors (Cannon and Banks) warn that a “study” conducted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics indicated that (quoted from the topic), “…rocketeers who made their own propellants had one chance in seven of killing themselves or causing an accident so serious that they would be maimed for life for each year that they practiced amateur rocketry”.
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics is a respected society of professional engineers. When the AIAA conducts a study they do it carefully and accurately. Of course anyone involved in amateur rocketry knows that the stated conclusion of this study is completely untrue. In an effort to resolve the conflict, and learn how the study was conducted. I tried to order a copy from the AIAA. and was told by their document search staff that despite two intensive searches they could find absolutely no record of any such study.
Since The Rocket topic was published in 1987.1 then asked them to look up anything published prior to 1988 on the subject of safety in amateur rocketry, or just amateur rocketry or model rocketry in general. They found nothing published in the U.S.. only three documents by the International Astronautical Federation, and none of them made any mention of safety issues or accidents. At the time of this writing, anyone who wants to verify this can contact the AIAA’s document sen ice at: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Aeroplus Access, 4th Floor, 85 John St., New York. NY 10038-2823.
To understand why the authors of The Rocket topic would try to frighten their readers, and discredit amateur rocketry with a study that apparently doesn’t exist, it might help to consider the following facts. All of the topic’s photographs are of commercial model rocket products, many with the company labels turned conspicuously toward the camera. Most of these photos were provided by a manufacturer whose commercial model rocket engines are extensively featured in the topic. The topic’s cover states that one of its authors is a “consultant” to this company. The authors dedicate the topic to this company’s founder, and the topic’s forward is written by the f/;e«-president of the NAR.
The Rocket topic is thankfully out of print, but thousands of copies are still in circulation, and similar warnings are repeated in other topics as well. Considering my own experience, before you believe them you might wish to find out if there is any real documentation for what the authors are saying. If any relevant studies have actually been done, try to find out whether they were genuine scientific studies, or merely the attempts of a few individuals to cloak a personal and self-serving opinion in the authority of an official organization. Try to obtain the names of the people who conducted these studies. Try to ascertain whether they had (or have) any affiliation with the model rocket industry, and try to find out whether or not they had (or have) a personal interest in the outcome. Insist on a detailed explanation of exactly how each study was conducted, and most important of all, insist on seeing whatever factual data they have to back up their claims.
To supplement these warnings, well meaning individuals, naively supportive of the views expressed in these topics, have created and perpetuated a/m’-amateur rocketry propaganda of their own. A favorite tactic is to try to confuse homemade rocket motors with news reports about bombs or homemade explosives. If you insist on a detailed explanation of the incident in question, you will usually find that, though someone was indeed injured, the device that caused the injury was not a rocket. Therefore, when someone tells you that amateur rocketry is dangerous, politely but firmly insist that they provide proof of what they are saying.
If they respond by describing an accident involving a homemade rocket motor, ask them for the source of the story, and insist that they provide specific details. Ask them when and where the accident happened. Ask them for the victim’s name and address. Ask them exactly what he was doing, exactly what kind of a device he was making, and (this is very important) exactly what chemicals and other materials he was using (not just some of them, but all of them). A complete list of the chemicals and other components will often reveal that the device couldn’t have been a rocket. Don’t allow them to generalize. Don’t accept less than a complete explanation, and don’t accept excuses. If they respond with solid, thoroughly detailed documentation that can be independently verified (and not with just an “estimate” or someone’s “opinion”), you should take their warning seriously. If they either cannot or will not provide these basic facts, then consider the possibility that what they are telling you might be fabricated, aka “a lie”. Of course there are hazards associated with building homemade rocket motors, and to minimize or ignore them would be irresponsible. It is just as irresponsible to exaggerate.
In recent years I’ve heard that the NAR is not as vehemently opposed to amateur rocketry as it used to be. Is this a simple case of battle fatigue? I hope not. With the passage of time both people and their organizations can change. If this apparent new attitude is genuine, then it’s refreshing, and I hope that in years to come the NAR will take affirmative steps to distance itself as far as possible from the people and the mistaken policies of the past. Were such a course to be taken, it could help bring an end of an unfortunate situation, and the beginning of what should be a spirit of friendship and cooperation between the commercial and amateur forms of the hobby.

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