Rocket Man

Ky Michaelson has gone 180 mph on a snowmobile, hurled men off tall buildings, and blown tons of metal into the stratosphere. Are you ready for the biggest stunt of all?

It's a brisk October afternoon, and Bloomington police have closed down a stretch of Lyndale Avenue. The road slopes down a long, steep hill and dead-ends at a boat landing on the banks of the Minnesota River. It is an out-of-the-way spot, leafy and tranquil save for the hum of traffic off Interstate 35W.

Midway down the hill, though, there is a bit of commotion. A television crew is bustling about, unpacking tripods, yammering on walkie-talkies, setting up cameras. The director gives a quick wave.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a shiny chrome-and-steel contraption--what the hell is it?--comes barreling over the crest of the hill, trailing snugly behind a lime-green Ford pickup. From a distance, the mystery vehicle resembles a go-cart. On closer inspection it is revealed to be a wheelchair--souped-up and gleaming, with oversized tires and a cloud of smoke puffing from the rear, but still unmistakably a wheelchair.

A man is strapped into the seat, clutching a 20-foot length of tow rope affixed to the trailer hitch on the pickup. As he strains to hold the rope with one hand and steer the wheelchair with the other, the truck picks up speed, closing in on 40 miles per hour.

"Fas-TER! Fas-TER! Fas-TER!" Ky Michaelson barks. It's a command, but it could just as well be a mantra. His pregnant wife Jodi, who is driving the pickup, glances at the rearview mirror. The couple's child, one-year-old Miracle Pearl, is snoozing beside her in the car seat.

Jodi gooses the pedal. As her husband begins his accelerated descent, he releases the tow strap and slingshots around the port side of the truck.

The wheelchair swerves slightly. It appears for a moment as if it might tip over--an unpleasant prospect, considering that Michaelson isn't wearing a helmet and a seat belt would be of scant benefit in the event of a wreck. "You don't want to crash in this thing," he'll say later, noting that he came close once when the chair briefly careened along on two wheels going down this very same hill. That time he was pulling the stunt for a photographer from the German-language version of Playboy.

Today, though, Michaelson regains control of his vehicle almost instantly. He sails down the hill solo, eyes locked on the road. A few hundred yards from the river's edge, he pops the release on a dragster-style parachute. The wheelchair coasts to a smooth halt.

A passing jogger stops dead in her tracks. "What are you doing?" she asks. "An exercise in madness," responds the rider, savoring the words. Madness. What else?

As he climbs from his seat, Michaelson looks less the daredevil than, say, a retired math teacher out for a power walk. A compact man with a bit of a paunch and a wispy mustache, he is dressed in sweatpants, tennis shoes, and a red-white-and-blue baseball cap that barely conceals an ill-fitting toupee. But there is nothing low-key in the way he talks. "Some people get addicted to smoking and drinking," he declares. "Well, I'm addicted to rockets. I'm 61, but, man, when I see a rocket, I still freak out."

After carefully repacking the chute, Michaelson turns his attention to the film crew. "Did you get what you need?" he asks, his voice rising with anticipation. "Need me to do it again?" The crew has flown in from London to film Michaelson for a show called Extreme Machines that airs on the Discovery Channel. They're putting together a segment on rockets, a theme that inevitably led them to Michaelson. In his long career as a racer, stuntman, entrepreneur, and gadfly, the south Minneapolis native has established himself as the P.T. Barnum of amateur rocketry, breaking record after record with rocket-powered cars, snowmobiles, backpacks. And, of course, wheelchairs.

Today Michaelson won't fire up the small liquid-fuel rocket attached to his latest contraption: The 90 percent pure hydrogen peroxide solution that powers it has become costly and hard to find, hence the tow from the pickup. But as a Hollywood veteran, Michaelson appreciates the importance of illusion, so he has rigged the vehicle with a small smoke bomb.

The people from Extreme Machines aren't interested in Michaelson because of the wheelchair; that's just an earthbound lark for a little footage. They want to know more about his pursuit of what has become, in the world of amateur rocketry, the Holy Grail--the distinction of becoming the first civilian to launch an object into outer space without government assistance.

Actually, pursuit may not be a strong enough word for what drives Michaelson. Obsession is more like it. An obsession that, he insists, could etch his name into the history books. "I've been recognized for a lot of things," he says. "But if I get something into space, if I can be the first, that would top it all."

 

From the outside, Michaelson's sprawling, stucco-faced Bloomington home looks less like a rocket lab than the national headquarters for Taco Bell. At least that's what the neighbors claim; Michaelson says he was striving for an Alamo feel. Inside, the Western theme gives way to an extravagant and gaudy monument to a man's compulsion to collect and possess, and to celebrate his many lives.

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