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?

To date, none of the 20 teams chasing the CATS prize has even come close. A few say they have broken the 20-mile mark; Michaelson's own record hovers near 14.6 miles, an altitude he claims to have achieved with a solid-fuel rocket in July '97. But if there's anything rocketeers seem to agree on, it's that the prize won't go unclaimed for long. "It'll probably happen in the next year," says the Tripoli Rocketry Association's Lee.

A computer scientist from Omaha, Lee has been involved in rocketry since the early Sixties and has collaborated with Michaelson on launches, including a disastrous effort this summer. Lee, Michaelson and a team of 20 other buffs had painstakingly assembled a three-quarter-scale replica of a rocket known as the Mercury Redstone. It was a show launch--not a space shot--but the team had gone to a lot of trouble, even bringing in the daughter of the late astronaut Alan Shepard, who flew the original Redstone to become the first American in space in 1961. The rocket exploded on the pad--the result, Lee guesses, of a faulty motor assembly.

Still, Lee figures, prospects are good for what Michaelson calls his "Civilian Space Exploration Team." Yeah, Lee acknowledges, it's a grandiose title; but that, he says, is one of the qualities that set Michaelson apart. "Most rocket people are kind of subdued. A lot of them are computer people. He's a different caliber. He's more of a promoter, like Evil Knievel. But he probably has the best shot. He's got beautiful stuff, and his mind is always going."

For much of this year, Michaelson has worked on the design he believes will prove that point--a 22-foot, 2-stage aluminum rocket with the biggest motor he has ever tried. He had planned to launch it at Black Rock next month, then abandoned that schedule because it came too close to Jodi's due date. But he won't wait much longer: "If I don't put a rocket into space next year, somebody else will beat me to it," he says solemnly. "You know, I'm not doing this for the money. To me, it's just about pride, to be able to say that I actually did it."

Meanwhile, he has reached a milestone of another sort. In late September he and Jodi were invited by one of their Black Rock buddies--who also happens to be an engineer with McDonnell Douglas--to witness the launch of an Athena II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Michaelson was awed by the scale of the event. The $30 million rocket sat on a giant launch pad, surrounded by an enormous scaffold mounted on railroad tracks. "When I was next to that, I felt about as big as a peanut shell," he recalls. "You can't imagine how excited I was to be up there. I was like a kid in a candy store."

After receiving permission to shoot up-close video footage of the rocket, Michaelson got an idea. "They were doing some final adjustments and I was just walking around," he says, then hesitates. "I know this sounds weird, but I thought, 'Here's the perfect opportunity.' My nose was a little runny, and so I picked out a booger and I stuck it on the side of the rocket. And then I stuck some on the other side. When they launched the rocket, everybody was yelling, 'Yay! Yay! Yay!' and I just turned to Jodi and said, 'Booger's up!' I think if I ever write a book about myself, I'll call it Booger's Up."

"Stupid or not," he concludes, "at least I got my DNA into outer space." One way or the other.

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