First published in GQ 1993
7 a.m. and the machines are still clanking and whirring in the windowless slot halls at the Railroad Pass, a casino hotel at the edge of the Mojave Desert, just outside Las Vegas. Every now and then the slowed-down machine gun stutter of a modest jackpot cuts across the cacophony but no one looks up. The punters slump in their stools and shovel quarters while the ra-ra skirted waitresses track ceaselessly from the bar to the slots with trays bearing cooling coloured liquids in three pint cardboard cups crammed with ice cubes.
Right across the hall there are signs of life from the outside world. Cheerful families with kids are filing into the restaurant, where breakfast is served casino style, stretch-mark inducing portions twentyfour hours a day for two and a half bucks. Among the clusters of regulation baseball caps and T-shirts one particular set of shirt-front images catches the eye. Picked out in bold orange and turquoise, a grinning skeleton relaxes in a deck-chair in a parched and barren landscape. Held jauntily aloft in his finger-bones is a cocktail glass brimming over with sand. In the background a rocket belches orange flame as it blasts heavenwards from the desert floor. This is not the no-hope logo of a group of fatalistic slotdrunk gamblers however. The brash cartoon signifies membership of the Mojave Desert Advanced Rocketry Society, an affiliate of a nationwide organisation dedicated to the pursuit of a dream that has gripped America since the dawn of the Space Age.
Five miles down Highway 95 from the Railroad Pass Hotel, the road skirts a dry lake bed. For several miles in each direction the terrain is absolutely flat, a vista of cracked yellowish mud. The Chevy Cavalier has to be eased gently off the tarmac onto a steep incline before it can be rolled down onto the sunbaked crust. It’s past eight in the morning now and the temperature is climbing steadily through the low 90s. Off towards the horizon a thin dark line interrupts the shimmering blankness that runs all the way to the mountains of the McCullough Range. With the air conditioning on max cold and full fan, the car closes on the undulating mirage, trailing a cloud of desiccated dirt. In a couple of minutes the thing takes on substance, lines of parked cars snap into focus and knots of peak-capped people can be discerned beyond them. With an insistent whine a go-kart hurtles past, a blonde and solemn eight year old girl at the wheel: mud-flat speedster heaven. Over the roar of the full fan a voice can be heard booming out of a PA system. “If you’re standing there not watching the rockets and everyone starts running like hell – do the same thing!” This must be Tripoli country.
The Tripoli Rocketry Association presides over the activities of enthusiasts who build and launch rockets. It publishes the glossy bimonthly magazine ‘High Power Rocketry’ and today its Nevada and California Prefectures are hosting Summerfest ‘93, the biggest of the season’s launches. Californian law dealt the rocketeers a mean blow recently, restricting all launches to a ceiling of 5000 feet. That’s a dot in the sky to you and me but to those in search of apogee at altitude, an 11,000 foot window in Nevada is more than worth the journey into the merciless heat. Besides, those casinos do a can of Budweiser for 75 cents.
It’s illegal to launch rockets in Britain – there’s nowhere for them to come down. In the USA the hobby has followers in every single state. Enthusiasts build from kits or else start from scratch with cardboard tubing, plastic, fibreglass and aluminium. Motor chambers are filled with short tubular lengths of solid propellant that looks like dog biscuit. Thus powered, a rocket only thirty inches long with a three inch diameter can scorch out of sight in an instant. Imposing twelve to fifteen footers are quite capable of getting to fifty thousand feet, given sufficient motor impulse, but federal regulations generally keep them much lower. Rocket clubs meet at weekends, when the members head for places where there’s plenty of up and nothing at ground level but flatland.
Between where the cars stop and the launch zone starts is a fifty foot deep cordon sanitaire delineated by two parallel strings of pennants on ropes. Halfway along the outer limit of this no-go lies the range head, nerve centre of the operation. Hard-wired to its control desk are twelve remote launch pads split into three groups. The centre group lies furthest from the desk, about sixty yards away, and accommodates the larger rockets. Pad Three, momentary home of the recently shattered model, is in one of the close groups, reserved for small diameter stuff.
From the range head outwards is the serious area. Between the inner line of pennants and the parked cars lies the strip dedicated to shade, beer and socialising. Veteran rocketeer Chuck French, seated under a canopy with a cold Bud, cannot fail to have a good time in this spot. This is less to do with his array of creature comforts than his flexible attitude to the launches. “If it goes nice and straight, that’s good. If it goes all squirrelly, throws fins off, the parachute comes out, parts and pieces coming out, that’s good too.”
Chuck cackles at the prospect and is immediately rewarded with the spectacle of a rocket breaking up in the air above us, nose cone blown asunder and airframe dropping too fast beneath a balled-up parachute. “There’s one right there, heh heh.” A perfect launch, however, is a less dramatic affair. “That’s a good hard flight, ejection at apogee right at the top and then have it float right back down right here where I’m sitting with a beer. Not have to get out of my seat!”
The doomed rocket is now a few dozen feet from the ground. Whoops of glee can be heard all around the site. “Heads up!” chides the announcer. “It’s doin’ the whoop-de-doos!” snickers Chuck, “Gonna be a good one.” “I put my money on the nose hitting first,” yells the announcer, his mask of neutrality dissolved once and for all by brazen pranglust. The nose plows straight into the deck with a puff of dust and a big bounce. Elation is unconfined. “Aagh..right! Yay!” The announcer, and several of the guys, are slapping their thighs appreciatively. “Doesn’t take much to make anybody happy here,” observes Chuck’s buddy Mark, with mock contrition. Just in case we were still fuzzy on his own position, Chuck adds “I’m a firm believer if it doesn’t come down with a parachute you want it to come down real hard or go out real spectacular.”
As the temperature soars more and more rocketeers line up to take a punch at the 5000 foot ceiling negotiated with the Federal Aviation Authority. The agreement guarantees that within certain time brackets aircraft of all types will keep three miles clear of the launch site. At eleven thirty the ceiling will be extended to 11,000 feet, a two hour window created by the FAA to give the altitude crowd a chance to head for the high spots. At this height non-pro rocketry moves abruptly into the realm of the abstract. The lay observer, craning his head and shading his eyes, can see absolutely nothing. The white sun makes him wonder whether his pupils can possibly contract any more, but all around him guys are staring straight up and talking the missile through its paces just like they were astride it. “She’s goin’, she’s goin’.” “Yeah, she’s good.” “Ee-ject!” “We got a parachute. There she goes.”
Slowly the massed heads decline, expertly tracking the microdot through the firmament. Now and again some of those not blessed with extreme long sight will lose visual contact, especially when the chute, usually a bright and colourful item, fails to open. If this subgroup reaches critical mass, its membership will start to shift uneasily from one foot to another, eyes darting about the glare in an attempt to preempt the cranial puncture that must surely be visited upon he who stands hapless at the foot of gravity’s rainbow. On one occasion the lay observer, convinced he has located the incoming, is smiling complacently as others blindly scatter, only to be jerked rudely from his smuggery as twelve feet of nicely painted carpet tubing whistles to earth some two yards from his hired Chevy.
Outside the car, in the shock heat, the PA is much louder, delivering the message that every novice rocket watcher expects. “And five… four …three…two…ONE!” A slender thirtysix inch tube hurtles up from beyond the cars and streaks away with the urgent sound of ripping silk. “Uh oh! Heads up!” The white vapour trail, a perfect arc drawn against the sky in less than three seconds, has gone crazily erratic, an ugly corkscrew with ominous trajectory. Still under power, the delinquent projectile speeds nose first into the lake bed a couple of hundred yards away. “Aaaah! Somebody go out and step on it – make sure it’s dead!” A rocketeer walks out past the launch pads, shaking his head wryly as he nears the mess of fractured fibreglass and plastic.
All along the social strip are caches of rockets: stacked in pick-up trucks, strapped on saloon roofs, poking out the front of mess tents. Delicate lime green fast burn performance birds a couple of feet long, a scale model of the V2 in original black and white, an eight foot high multi-fin sky climber with immaculate sponsor’s logos. Further piles of projectiles are stacked like logs in front of tables on which rocketeers with X-Acto knives carry out running repairs. Slices of broken fin are deftly excised, sealed with epoxy and sun dried for blast off, all in a few minutes. On other tables propellant blocks are packed into motor tubes then threaded with thermalite ignition cord. Thrust factors, timer specs and newton seconds impulse measures are tossed to and fro in a constant bantering chatter.
Although many wives and children are attending the launch, not a single woman steps up to the pad in the course of the day. Scarcely surprising, one might feel, given that paper-back Freud has made us all such nimble decoders of the subtexts of the gleaming projectile, its furious discharge and its lazy descent. Not to mention the unattractive proximity of exploratory rocket to murderous missile. Hobby sadism on a budget; men getting as close to it as they can without actually coming out. The riposte to chattering class psychologism of this order often involves a chiding evocation of the virtues of awe, wonder and the thirst for knowledge, with a coda of ‘Anyway, everything’s dick-stuff at the end of the day, so what’s the difference, spoil-sport?’ And so forth. Which way to turn?
Steve Peterson, a construction worker from Phoenix, may not have the answer at the tip of his tongue but his contribution to non-pro rocketry is contentious by any account. Tall, lean and wiry, he cuts a dash in big shades and a cap with a white kepi, or possibly hanky, protecting his neck. Steve is lolling round the back of one of the shade tents with a woman’s head in his hand. The head is life-size, moulded in rubber with a joke shop blonde wig and staring, mannequin eyes. “This is my ex-wife,” he announces laconically. “I stick it on top of a rocket every time. We name it different names as we go along – they usually aren’t nice.” “Her hair streams nicely, though,” observes the wife of another rocketeer. “Yeah, it’s beautiful when it bounces. A wonderful recovery system, it’s like a ball.” Steve drops the head on the lake bed, catches it as it comes back up, then regales the group with details of his last launch. “The ex-wife got crashed – I didn’t have my delay quite right, the ejection happened about thirty feet off the ground, it drove the head, the head bounced up and the rocket stuffed. But it was beautiful, it worked out just right. The ex-wife got annihilated!”
Steve lends his ex-wife to anybody who wants to see her bounce. “Whoever comes up with an airframe I say ‘Well, you have to name the rocket.’” Two of her most recent sobriquets have been ‘Heads Up’ and ‘Sky Sabre Slut’, the latter reflecting the down grade in reputation that befell the previously uncontaminated ‘Sky Sabre’. The slut’s tormentor has greater things in mind, however. “I have all kinds of weird ideas for rockets.” Really? “Oh, demented ideas. I wanna have a mannequin body fully clothed with the rocket on the inside of the body and then shoot it out where the head will actually lift up out of the body.” Steve’s admirers have wandered off, their enthusiasm waning, perhaps, as the capitator starts getting technical. “I’ve had a hard time finding a body, though,” he confesses, turning away as a rocket rises off the pad nearby. “Hey, ni-i-ice long burn! I love them long burn motors.”
As he goes on to talk about scrabbling for money to pay for rockets and the sweat of keeping the hobby going at all, Steve’s voice takes on a wistful, melancholic tone. For a moment it’s like listening to a small boy, any small boy, keening for marvels that his parents can’t afford. As he comes through that bend, Steve touches on something quite removed from his fantasies of dismemberment. “Once you push that button you don’t have any control. Then all it is is luck, fate and skill all put together and see whether it works right.” An instant later he completes the tight emotional loop that seems to encircle the passions of so many of the rocketeers. “When I launch I figure it’s going to do two things: it’s going to be a beautiful flight or it’s going to be a beautiful flight. Either it’s going to go up and be perfect or it’s going to come down in a blaze of glory that would just be awesome!” His eyes come back off the horizon to our spot in the shade and he nods his head vigorously.