Amateur rocketry is soaring in popularity as enthusiasts shoot for the heavens.
On a sod farm a few miles north of North Branch and just east of nowhere, Intruder was ready to rumble.
Launch control officer Steve Anderson punched a red button. Dale Hagert's 5-foot rocket shook slightly, sizzled mightily and soared off the pad, eliciting "woos" and "wows" from scores of spectators. Off it went into the wild gray yonder, zipping into cumulus clouds and vanishing for 10, 20, 30 seconds.
People in the crowd murmured: "It's got to come down sometime." "There's a piece. No, that's a bird." "Did I blow my rocket up?"
Finally the Intruder appeared, pokily floating by parachute into the surly bonds of gravity. The crowd's roar almost matched that of the liftoff.
The nation's space program might be fizzling, but if Tripoli Minnesota's monthly gathering is any indication, amateur rocketry is alive and thriving. The National Association of Rocketry (NAR) estimates that "regular folks" send up more than 12 million flights like that of the Intruder each year.
"It's a lot of light and noise and smoke -- fun things," said Tripoli vice president Gary Stroick, who was wearing a NASA sweatshirt while selling rocket motors under one of several merchandise tents.
These hobbyists are self-confessed nerds.
"We wear that tag proudly, and the few who won't admit to it, they're closet nerds," said Carol Marple, president of the Minnesota Amateur Spacemodeler Association (MASA).
Most of them played with small rockets while growing up, migrated to other pursuits and then got rehooked.
Kevin Gapstur of Blaine was in a hobby store, seeking something for his daughter's rocketry class, when his interest was launched.
"I'm a Tim Allen kind of guy, and this looked pretty neat," he said. "Plus I'm not very good at golf."
Bill Assimes of Prior Lake wanted to find his nephew an Estes rocket like he used to have.
"And then I saw all this other stuff," he said. "I didn't even know this hobby existed seven years ago. Now it's my only hobby.
"I'd say 80 to 90 percent of us would call ourselves born-again rocketeers."
At Tripoli's June event, almost all of the 100-plus attendees were over 30 or under 15, including Ella Knops, 5, of Hugo, the only rocket owner wearing a tiara. The national demographics are similar: NAR headquarters manager Marie Stumpe said its 5,000 members are "about half youngsters and half adults."
Big, little and in between
Not all kids forgo rocketry after adolescence. An Inver Hills Community College team placed fifth out of 28 teams at last spring's NASA University Student Launch Initiative, ahead of four-year schools such as Michigan, Iowa State, Florida and Purdue.
"It was pretty exciting for a first-year team to be in such company," said leader Caleb Boe of Cottage Grove, a home-schooled high-schooler.
The Inver Thrills Rocketing Team's 10-foot rocket was 4 inches in diameter and weighed a little over 20 pounds. But getting it into the air, and reaching a required apex as close to 1 mile as possible, was among the least of the 15-member team's chores.
"We submitted a proposal and submitted 100-page reports at three different design stages," Boe said. "There were a variety of disciplines involved. The majority are engineering, but we had electronics people working on the payload, computer software people to run the payload.
"It's like a real-world engineering project. You can't get the rocket built with just aerospace engineers."
It's not (just) rocket science
There are few if any actual aerospace engineers in the Twin Cities rocketing community. MASA vice president Neal Higgins is a physical design engineer -- "almost a rocket scientist," he quipped.
Although Stroick had worked with NASA on an automation study for the International Space Station, he's a computer consultant -- and inveterate hobbyist. He and his wife, Carol Post, won 15 national ballroom-dancing titles before both caught the rocketry bug.
Another convert, Dave Leininger of Andover, is an engineer who heads every autumn to Nevada's Black Rock Desert, considered the nation's best launch site. Last year he brought along two rockets named after Jethro Tull songs, Locomotive Breath and Cross-Eyed Mary (which had a beer keg as part of its payload; home brew, of course). At June's Tripoli event, he used concrete forms to assemble Major Flatulation.
That kind of whimsy is not uncommon in a field that knows how to have a blast. The hobbyists are, after all, basically big kids, so projectiles at local launches have included giant plastic Crayolas, furry spiders, bar tables and even a rocket-powered toilet.
The latter was the handiwork of Ky Michaelson, who in 2004 became the first licensed amateur to send a rocket into space. It reached 3,424 miles per hour in soaring 72 miles above Earth's surface.
"I'm your normal rocket guy times 10," said Michaelson, 72, of Bloomington.
He set off his first rocket in 1951 in south Minneapolis. Six years later, high school students in Austin, Minn., formed a rocketry club that launched a 4-foot, 10-inch rocket 1,642 feet into the air at 221 mph. Unfortunately, the anesthetized mouse on board, Ulysses, did not survive the flight and was buried on the launch site.
Since then, shooting cylindrical objects into the air has, well, skyrocketed in popularity, usually without living passengers.
"Before, it was just us kids out in the back yard launching these things," Michaelson said. "Now it's way, way beyond that."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643