My Drive: Riding with the Rocketman

  • Article by: KATY READ , special to the star tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2014 - 11:04 AM

You may think you’re a fast driver, but you’ve got nothing on Ky Michaelson.

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Buddy Michaelson and his dad, Ky Michaelson (aka Rocketman) with the car that broke the record for acceleration in 1977. It hit more than 400 mph in 3.22 seconds.

Let’s start with the living room, if only because you have to start somewhere. It can be tough to know where to begin describing Ky Michaelson’s house, packed as it is with mementos, each of which comes with a story. ¶ “If you look at everything in here, there’s a story,” he said. “I can’t believe how blessed I am to be able to do all these things in my life.” ¶ Rocketry enthusiast, mechanic and inventor, former drag racer and stuntman, architect of legendary film and television stunts, holder of 72 speed records, first civilian to launch a rocket into space, friend to movie stars and daredevils, mail-order entrepreneur of products ranging from cosmetics to sporting goods … it’s hard to succinctly summarize Michaelson’s career.

“Rocketman” is what the stocky and affable 75-year-old goes by, the name Michaelson barks cheerfully into the receiver when the phone rings at his Bloomington home. It’s a grandiose title, but one he figures he has earned.

“I’ve built more rocket-powered vehicles than any other man on this earth,” he said.

If you doubt it, check out the living room. In place of furniture, it features a mini-museum of rocket-powered machines that Michaelson invented and constructed in his basement shop. Gleaming with stainless steel and bright lacquer, his creations are visually appealing enough to have been exhibited in 2006 at the Bloomington Center for the Arts.

But these works of art have also gone on some wild rides.

“You haven’t seen anything in this room before,” he said, leading a tour. “I like to build things that are different, that people have never built.”

Mission accomplished. Here’s a hydrogen-fueled motorcycle Michaelson built in 1977 for a mysterious daredevil called the Human Fly to ride as he jumped over 27 buses (to beat Evel Knievel’s 13-bus record). Here’s the rocket Michaelson constructed for the rocketry movie “October Sky,” featuring a then-18-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal. Here’s a picture of Michaelson with the rocket he and a team of amateurs launched 72 miles into space in 2004, a feat he plans to replicate this summer for its 10-year anniversary.

Here’s a rocket-powered wheelchair, a rocket-powered bicycle, even a rocket-powered toilet called the S. S. Flusher. Here’s another motorcycle that Michaelson built, using a 1912 engine manufactured by his family’s Minneapolis motorcycle company. He plans to ride in the Bonneville Salt Flats five years from now because “it would be kind of cool to be 80 years old and ride a 100-year-old motorcycle.”

Here’s the rocket-powered backpack his youngest son, Buddy, now 14, flew when he was 7 (on a tether). “I’m hoping Buddy’s going to follow in my footsteps,” Michaelson said. Here are the rocket-powered roller skates an older son took up to 52 mph.

A rocket is basically “a controlled explosion,” he said. And he has put a rocket thruster on a lot of different things. “We’ve flown coffins, outhouses …”

Michaelson became interested in rocketry when he received a chemistry set for Christmas as a kid. Back then, such sets were capable of making explosive power, and the ever-curious Michaelson started launching things. He basically never stopped, retaining that boyish enthusiasm even as his rockets got more sophisticated.

School, in contrast, was an area of constant frustration for Michaelson. He dropped out in the ninth grade after years of instantly forgetting whatever he learned and being called “stupid” by classmates. Years later, he would realize he was dyslexic. He finally learned to read and write in his 60s, mastering the alphabet after Buddy pointed out that the letters followed the order of letters on progressively larger rocket engines.

In place of reading skills, he says, he has a “mechanical photographic mind”. He’s able to envision complicated projects in his head and build them without putting them on paper.

Michaelson became a drag racer, eventually entering stuntwork through a business connection. He wound up working in more than 200 movies and TV shows, hobnobbing with stars like Burt Reynolds, Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson.

He and his best friend Dar Robinson, a renowned stuntman who died in a motorcycle accident in 1986, partnered on a number of high-profile stunts, including 17 episodes of the TV show “That’s Incredible.” Most spectacular was the time they had Robinson drop off the CN Tower in Toronto, at the time the world’s largest free-standing structure, on a thin cable.

“That was the scariest thing I ever did in my life,” Michaelson said, launching into another story.

Michaelson’s whole house, which he built himself, is jammed with objects that he created or collected: signed publicity photos from movie stars, including many he worked with in films; framed clippings of stories about him or his family; furniture made of longhorns; wrought iron he shaped himself. A few of his hundreds of racing trophies. An assortment of odd collectibles: a dinosaur egg, a meteorite, a knife said to be from Custer’s Last Stand, a rugged-faced mannequin version of the title character in “The Iceman.” And of course, more weird vehicles: a rocket-powered snowmobile, a bicycle with helicopter-style blades.

In the basement shop is the hydrogen-peroxide-powered rocket dragster that stuntwoman Kitty O’Neil (Wonder Woman’s double) drove to break a record in 1977, accelerating 396 mph in 3.22 seconds.

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  • The walls of the office are lined with family photos and artifacts and other memorabilia.

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