By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
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.
An oil portrait in the foyer sets the tone: It shows Michaelson in three-quarters profile, surrounded by smaller images of him driving dragsters, launching rockets, even doing a wing walk. Beneath it, in a flowery script, are the words: "Ky Michaelson, A Man of God-Given Talent."
Most of the time, Michaelson prefers to call himself the Rocketman. It's a handle he has been using since 1961--long before the release of the Elton John song by the same name, he points out (though, he allows, he'd like to have the tune played at his funeral).
Throughout the house--which Michaelson has been remodeling nonstop since 1968--souvenirs of fame, fortune, and rocketry crowd every corner and nook. There's the movie room, featuring a large-screen TV, a popcorn machine, and scads of carefully framed, eight-by-ten photos: Michaelson smiling with Burt Reynolds. Jodi with Burt. Michaelson with Red Skelton (and a cigar tucked into the frame, and a brass plaque that reads, "Cigar given to Ky Michaelson by Red Skelton"). Michaelson with Cathy Lee Crosby ("great lady!"). The Fonz. Jimmy Stewart. John Wayne. John Denver. Lon Chaney. And so on.
Sometimes the artifacts are arranged with a delicious sort of incongruity. In the bedroom, beside an enormous heart-shaped bed, sits a glassed-in hutch behind which Michaelson keeps a display copy of a Chuck Norris book, The Secret of My Inner Strength. The tough-guy action hero shares the space with part of the Rocketman's doll collection. Michaelson started buying the ornate, frilly toys after seeing a display at a Vegas casino. "I like things of beauty," he explains with a shrug. "My house is very manly--have you noticed that? I just think they're neat--more woman, more feminine."
As the tour proceeds, though, it becomes clear that nothing--not the locks from Marilyn Monroe's house, not the antique guns--matters as much to Michaelson as the "space stuff," a dizzying collection of mementos assembled in wee-hours online auction rampages. There's the actual toilet from the Russian space station Mir ($1,200, a scary-looking set of tubes and suction fixtures). An array of signed photos of famous American astronauts. A well-preserved brownie from one of the early Apollo launches (complete with certificate of authenticity). Replicas of famous rockets. Even a small, burnt shard from an exterior panel of the Challenger space shuttle--a relic Michaelson prizes, he says, above all his other possessions.
By the end of the tour, the Rocketman seems overwhelmed with his own vast inventory. "You know," he finally says, "when they put me in the ground, I hope this all winds up in a museum someplace."
Michaelson didn't always have this much stuff. Growing up in south Minneapolis, he shared a single bedroom, "no bigger than my office," with three siblings. His father Howard worked for Northwest Airlines, where he was instrumental in the development of lightning arresters for airplanes and other aeronautic gadgets.
But Howard Michaelson was also always in debt, a result of medical bills that piled up after he suffered a serious neck injury. Ever since, Michaelson says, he has had "a thing" against the airline, which he believes treated his father unfairly; it's one reason he never wanted to work for someone else. He also mistrusts the government, in part because he blames the radiation from a "top-secret" project in the Forties for his father's cancer and early death.
"My father was the smartest man I ever knew," Michaelson says ruefully. "He would come home from work, and lie in the bed, and just read, read, read. But we had some hard times. He was in traction and a lot of pain. The medical thing just kept us down, and he was never much of a businessman."
Invention, and a knack for business failures, seemed to run in the family. In the early part of the century, Ky's grandfather and great-uncles briefly manufactured a line of motorcycles. Although the operation ultimately collapsed, they managed to register some of the earliest patents on motorcycle clutch technologies.
One of those great-uncles, John, was also a locally famous daredevil: In 1905 he jumped a motorcycle some 68 feet off a giant ramp at a park on East Lake Street, a feat that made for postcard fodder. John went by the name The Great Michaels, Ky says, because he didn't want his mother to know about his risky stunts. (Years later Ky would revel in bringing The Great Michaels's feats to the attention of one Evil Knievel, who liked to brag that he was the first man to jump motorcycles. "He came here in '74 for a jump, and I showed him a picture," he laughs. "That really caught his attention.")
By contrast, Ky Michaelson hardly seemed destined for greatness. Severely dyslexic, short, and asthmatic, he hated school--hates it, he says, to this day. "I had a lot of Johnny Rebel in me. Some of the teachers were really shitty to me. One time I was reciting a poem--"Captain, Oh Captain"--and I started stuttering. My mind went blank and I was really, really embarrassed. Everybody started laughing at me. And I said to the teacher, 'Why do I got to learn this crap? I wanna race in the Indianapolis 500.'" The teacher, he says, pulled him from the classroom by his ear.
Outside of school, he was full of experiments. At age eight he cobbled together a set of wings for his Schwinn bike using a pair of ironing boards. "I was bound and determined that I was gonna fly," he recalls. "I kept thinking that if I just went a little faster I'd be able to fly, so I kept going down steeper and steeper hills." That effort failed, but Michaelson was undaunted.
"I had to show that I wasn't a dummy," he explains. "I always felt I had something to prove. So when the other kids were buying bubble gum with their spare money, I was buying tools. By the time I was 12, I knew how to weld." He made smoke bombs out of photo negatives--an experiment he now regrets, as he figures he destroyed some treasures from the family archives. He manufactured a crude diving bell using an old water heater, some garden hose, and a tire pump. He set off pipe bombs.
"It was no big deal," he says with a guffaw. "Everybody was doing it back then. We did it to make noise. Of course, nowadays there's all these weirdos, and so if you do something like that, you'd be in deep crap."
As Michaelson reached his teenage years, the model-rocket craze--inspired by equal parts WWII missile technology and the nascent space program--hit south Minneapolis. Ready-to-assemble kits were especially popular, he says, but he eschewed the manufactured products for his own designs. His first effort was crude, constructed from threaded pipe and match heads. He likens the thrill of that inaugural launch to a kid hitting his first home run--a taste of success that whetted his appetite for more.
Over time he became increasingly sophisticated, experimenting with various propellants and designs. With the help and encouragement of neighborhood chums, Michaelson soon was regularly firing off rockets in nearby fields. "What we were doing was a lot more advanced than the kids in October Sky," he says, in reference to the recent true-story movie about a quartet of West Virginia high schoolers turned rocketeers. (Coincidentally, Michaelson built 13 of the rockets used in the film; one of them, dubbed The Miss Riley, sits in a corner of his shop.)
After dropping out of school in the ninth grade, Michaelson worked part time in a bakery. He also plunged into the period's booming hot-rod and motorcycle culture, racing a customized twin-engine bike known as "the Widowmaker" and developing a reputation as a top dragster driver and mechanic. He was a founding member of the Gopher State Timing Association, a hot-rod club that remains active today.
Bill Bissonett, an announcer at the association's annual car show who raced some of Michaelson's vehicles back in the Sixties, says the south Minneapolis kid impressed fellow gearheads with his unschooled genius--a talent that prompts one friend to refer to him as "a mechanical savant."
"He can see a project from start to finish in his mind," Bissonett notes. "He doesn't even use blueprints. He's got one of the most creative minds I've known."
It wasn't long before Michaelson melded his two passions: "You can make just about anything go faster by putting a rocket on it," he says matter-of-factly. He claims to have established some 72 state, national, and international speed records over the years, mostly by fusing rockets to just about anything on wheels. In '71 he went 180 mph on a hydrogen-peroxide-propelled snowmobile in Yellowstone National Park. Later he built a rocket backpack, which his teenage son strapped on along with a pair of roller skates, topping out at more than 50 mph. For a while Michaelson traveled the nation's dragways, he says, with the singular goal of setting a record in every state.
But as any speed freak knows, the highs don't come without a price. "There'd be many times we'd go out and set a record," Michaelson reminisces, "and then I'd come home and go into a kind of depression. I had all this excitement, and then it's like the click of a switch and it ain't there no more. But then I'd just work up another deal, and I'd be off and running again."
In the mid-Seventies Michaelson took his technical savvy to the burgeoning Hollywood stunt industry. Though he did some stunt work himself, primarily as a driver, he spent most of his time as the engineer for legendary high-fall artist Dar Robinson--serving, as he puts it, as Robinson's "imagineer."
The two became best friends as well as partners; together they worked on feature films--including the Burt Reynolds pics Sharkey's Machine and Stick--and television programs, especially the prime-time stunt specials that were popular at the time. The team's work was a staple of the show That's Incredible!
"We owned that show," Michaelson says. "Did 17 stunts. We had the market on the action, the big high falls, the car gags, the stuff that made movies exciting but nobody believed could be done."
The duo's most famous feat was Robinson's 1980 leap from the CN Tower in Toronto, the tallest free-standing structure in the world. Michaelson still likes to watch the video, which was filmed for an ABC special called Super Stunts.
For the jump he had manufactured a device he dubbed the Decelerator. The mechanism operated like a giant fishing reel, with one-eighth-inch braided steel cable loaded on a spool and equipped with a brake. Though they'd tested the equipment, Michaelson says he didn't think Robinson would go through with the stunt, and he was mortified when his partner forged on. On the elevator ride to the platform (el. 1,300 feet), he says, "I felt like I was taking my best friend to death row."
In the video Robinson is obviously nervous as he and Michaelson pace about the windblown deck. The two men exchange I love yous and Robinson leaps, going into an impossibly long plunge as his partner gradually applies the brake on the Decelerator. "I had tears flowing down my eyes as he fell, because I had his life in my hands," Michaelson says. The Decelerator worked, though--and the calls from Hollywood just kept on coming.
By 1986 Michaelson had been engineering Robinson's stunts for the better part of a decade. But Robinson also worked solo on occasion, and in November of that year he was doing motorcycle stunts on the set of a movie called Million-Dollar Mystery.
One night, Michaelson says, he awoke with a terrifying vision. "I saw Dar die. I sat straight up in the bed, and I saw him hit the ground." He tried to telephone his friend, left frantic messages. Then, a few days later, he got the word. Robinson had been working on a scene in the desert Southwest; rounding a curve on a high pass, he had drifted to the outer edge of the road and plummeted to his death.
Ron Braun, another friend from the drag-racing days, remembers the episode distinctly. "Ky called me and said, 'Something's wrong with Dar. Something bad is gonna happen.' The next day, Dar was dead. It was really spooky. I told him later: 'If you ever think something's gonna happen with me, make sure to call.'"
After Robinson's death Michaelson refused to partner up with other stuntmen. ("They were close as brothers," recalls Braun. "He took it really hard.") Instead he returned to Minnesota and focused on a variety of business ventures, including a multilevel cosmetics company. Soon he was earning and spending money like never before, buying big boats, fancy racecars, traveling the globe. "He used to say, 'If I die with a nickel in my pocket, I've been cheated. I want to spend it all.'" Braun remembers. "He told me, 'Ron, I just can't spend it fast enough.'"
But the fat times didn't last and Michaelson soon entered a phase of his life he now refuses to talk about. All he'll say is that the experiences left him contemplating a favorite saying of his mother's: "Trust few, and paddle your own canoe."
Court records show that he found himself subject to a blizzard of business-related lawsuits--including accusations that he was running pyramid schemes. (Court files relating to the lawsuits have mostly been destroyed; in the one case for which records are still available, Michaelson was ordered to repay $8,000 to a plaintiff who had signed up as a distributor for his company.) It got so bad, says Braun, that his friend--who at the same time was embroiled in an acrimonious divorce--resorted to putting a lawyer on full-time retainer.
The combination of setbacks left Michaelson low on morale as well as money. Braun recalls an "ultimate fighting" competition in the late 1980s where the Rocketman was introduced as a guest of honor--a Jesse Ventura-style local guy who'd made a name for himself in Hollywood. When Braun glanced over at Michaelson, he saw him slumped over at ringside, weeping.
But Michaelson wouldn't stay down for long. "His ability to bounce back amazes me," says Braun. "I really marvel at him." He attributes Michaelson's resilience to an "almost childlike" zeal for competition, an urge that manifested itself whether his friend was racing the Widowmaker, cutting business deals, or telling stories. "Years ago Ky used to come over to my place and play with my kids," he recalls. "They had a slot-car set, and Ky would run the wheels off of them, he'd get so into it."
The way Michaelson tells it, his life started to turn around ten years ago, when he met Jodi, then an eighteen-year-old ride operator at Valleyfair. She had come to the Cities from North Dakota, where she grew up, along with eight brothers, on a beef farm.
In her he found someone who shared his passion for fast cars--she drives the classic 'vette that sits in the driveway of their home--and a freewheeling life. "If we wake up at three in the morning, and I feel like going on a motorcycle ride, she'll go," he says appreciatively. "She's like me. She loves action." On their first date, Michaelson pushed Jodi into his swimming pool, a prank she tolerated. When she came back the next day with his borrowed clothes neatly laundered and folded, he was sunk.
For her part, Jodi started out skeptical. "At first I thought, gosh, this guy brags a lot and you thought he was kind of egotistical," she says. "But after a while, you realize--criminy, he just does a lot of different stuff." The two were married seven years ago at the Stuntman's Hall of Fame in Moab, Utah, with a white-water-rafting expedition preceding the reception.
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'."
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.
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.