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?

Not long afterward Michaelson was inspired to revisit his first love. "This friend of mine came over one day with this magazine with all these big rockets on the cover," he says simply. "And I thought, This is what I'm gonna do."

In the years since his first experiments with threaded pipe and match heads, amateur rocketry had grown from its modest roots into a full-blown industry, with organizations and Web sites sprouting up around the nation. Baby boomers who'd started out with stocking-stuffer black-powder rockets--not much different from the proto-rockets invented by the Chinese in the 13th Century--increasingly demanded bigger thrills. The new breed of amateur rockets were often powered by ammonium perchlorate, the same propellant used in the solid-fuel boosters on the space shuttle.

The Michaelsons made their initial splash on the scene in 1995, when they showed up at a big amateur launch in the Black Rock desert in Nevada. A dry lake about 100 miles straight north of Reno, the spot is best known as the site of the annual new-age gathering "Burning Man" (a Labor Day event revolving around the ceremonial incineration of a 15-foot-tall puppet). But in the world of amateur rocketry, Black Rock is mecca--one of the few places in the continental U.S. where civilians can obtain Federal Aviation Administration permission for high-altitude launches. "It's the ultimate place to launch rockets," Michaelson says. "You could swear you're on the moon. Flat as far as the eye can see. It's bitchin'."

Craig Lassig

On that first trip to Black Rock, Jodi made her way into the annals of amateur rocketry by setting the women's altitude record with a 12-foot, solid-propellant rocket she and Michaelson had built in the shop at home. It traveled to 30,000 feet, higher than any other launched that day. Michaelson's own rocket--a 19-foot, all-aluminum job--exploded shortly after liftoff owing, he says, to a motor flaw.

But failure is not necessarily a blemish in rocketry, a discipline where tiny defects can result in spectacular disasters (witness the faulty O-ring that doomed the Challenger). According to Bruce Lee of the Tripoli Rocketry Association--a 3,600-member group of hobby rocket nuts--Michaelson's debut attracted plenty of attention. "Nobody knew him, and he showed up with this massive rocket," Lee recalls. "Even though it blew up, people were impressed."

In the following years, the Michaelsons returned to Black Rock for semiannual launches. They also flew around the nation for other rocket gatherings, hitting as many as 14 a year, checking out trade shows and conventions. Along the way they began drumming up business for a new venture, a mail-order company named Rocketman Enterprises that manufactures high-powered hobby rockets with monikers like the Big Kahuna, Mach Fever, and Sky Hawg. Associated concerns followed--a parachute-sales operation and an exercise equipment outfit called Kytec. Michaelson resurrected his cosmetics company (direct sales, this time), continued to work on stunt productions, and always kept an eye peeled for suitable side deals.

Right now, he says, he's entertaining an offer from a Canadian concern for a project called Confession 2000: The idea, he explains, is to launch a rocket on the eve of the millennium, loaded with digitized confessions sent in by the paying public. At its apogee the rocket is supposed to explode, providing a cathartic release to the guilt-plagued customers, who will cough up $9.95 for the privilege. "Man," Michaelson acknowledges, "I'm a magnet for weirdoes."

 

Not that Michaelson hasn't had his own grand plans. Over the years, he says, he has contemplated ways to get a rocket into space--maybe, he'd figured, he could rent a barge and stage an ocean launch--but something always came up. Then, in 1997, he heard about a contest announced by the Space Frontier Foundation (www.space-frontier.org), a California group of space enthusiasts.

The foundation, whose credo is that "space is a place, not a program," promised $250,000 to the first civilian to launch a rocket into outer space. According to the group's mission statement, the CATS (Cheap Access To Space) contest is aimed at encouraging the private sector to explore and, ultimately, settle the cosmos.

The rules are simple. Competitors must shoot their rockets to a verifiable altitude of 200 kilometers, or roughly 120 miles. (Scientists generally define "space" as beginning about 60 miles from the Earth's surface). The rockets must carry a payload of four and a half pounds. And, most significant, contestants may not receive "substantial" assistance from any government.

It's a project tailor-made for Michaelson. "Space is the next frontier," he gushes. "Our one and only frontier. And I want to be part of that. I think, in a small way, I am."

What's more, the foundation's private-sector emphasis jibes with Michaelson's long-standing mistrust of government: Rocketry, he explains, needs its own Steve Jobs, a guy whose garage-built contraptions will revolutionize--and privatize--a government-dominated industry. "Guys like me, guys with limited education, can already make rockets like the government did in the Fifties," Michaelson explains. "And we've got better electronics. If I can get a rocket into space cheaply, then there's money to be made." Among other things, he figures, companies looking to put tiny telecommunications satellites into orbit will flock to small-time operators like him.

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