May 21, 2013


Through a recent set of random meetings I was able to hook up with Richard Davis of New Space Global who invited me up to Mojave to witness a solid rocket test by USC's Rocket Propulsion Lab. As crazy as I am about space stuff I have always had the bad luck of missing launches and tests that I wanted to see.

The test was about 30 minutes outside of Mojave. I met Mr. Davis at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Which is decidedly less shiny and sparkly and 'Jetson-y' than one might hope a space port would be. In fact it is an old structure and largely exists as a airplane graveyard. That isn't to say it isn't cool because it is. Most of the major space players have operations out of the airport (e.g., Masten, The Spaceship Company, Scaled Composites). And there's a surprising amount of interesting avionic/aerospace detritus around the airport.

But that was just the meetup. The test was elsewhere. The drive to the test site was surreal. From the highway, to a side road covered in sand dunes, to a dirt road, and finally to what was essentially a giant beach with no water. The last 10 minutes of driving were not done on any discernible road and I'm pretty sure we took a wrong turn somewhere. We were just driving over land. Luckily I had 4-wheel drive. My friend's front-wheel drive rental did not fare so well and we had a few hairy moments where I thought the car was going to be stuck. Here's where we ended up.

When I got out of the car I was struck be a few things. First, we were in the middle of nowhere. Second, it was BLAZING hot. It's was actually quite a frightening place to be in one sense. If you were out there alone without any water or shelter I imagine just surviving for a day would be tough. There was nothing for miles around except the load roar of invisible military planes from the nearby Edwards AFB.

The site itself was quite rudimentary. A test bunker, 2 launch sites, a housed generator, a sheltered area to do work, and lots of random disused infrastructure lying around from previous tests.

About 15-20 students and a couple of professors were there getting the rocket ready. I chatted with the professors a bit but left the students to finish their work. I'm pretty sure they were technically engineering students. But engineering to me is something else. It's all about taking a laboratory product someone has figured out how to make and now you want to make millions of tons of that stuff. So it's all about process, throughput maximization, risk mitigation, efficiency improvements, etc. There was none of that going on here. It was all about jerry rigging stuff, improvising, and just getting this rocket to burn. I don't say that in a derogatory way. This is how innovation starts. But it was scrappy to be sure. But it also tells you to some extent the state of space technology. There were no off the shelf parts or standardized fuel to buy. It was an entirely handmade rocket. It was a solid-rocket type. Similar to the 2 rockets that flank the Space Shuttle. What were they burning? Effectively rubber, aluminum and ammonium perchlorate.

The other scrappy aspect of it was safety. There was a bunker but I was chuckling at the idea that it would do much. In fact in a previous test a solid rocket blew up with smoldering pieces of rocket fuel entering the bunker. Safety goggles? Nope. Even the loading of the rocket was done by 8 guys just picking it up. Even some rudimentary straps would have lowered the risk of that thing tumbling down. And walking around the back and looking at the nozzle. Sure go ahead. The other weird thing about the setup was the rocket front was pointed towards the launch structure where the countdown occurred. Better than the rocket tail pointed that way. And it's a low likelihood that the rocket becomes unhinged. But still. Why mess with things like that.

I did learn one thing I had never thought about though. Most people think about rocket orbital launches in the context of supplying enough energy to put it into orbit (think height). But one of the professors said that actually most of the energy needs to be put into the speed or kinetic energy of the rocket to keep it in orbit (think of the velocity it needs to spin around the earth.

After an initial problem with a loose wire on the igniter switch, the rocket lit. It was awesome. It sounds cool, it looks cool, and it smells cool. It was worth a long and hot wait in the desert. I'll definitely have to catch more of these types of events. The video is below. You can skip to 2:55 to see the countdown and burn.

A couple thing to point out. One is you'll see some flareups towards the end. This was fiberglass batting in the rocket that can be ripped off during the fire. It's not great but it doesn't impact the thrust much. More difficult to see in the video is a nice trench that the rocket dug out its backend. You'll also notice when the rocket is lit there's a small puff of smoke out the back of the rocket before it actually ignites. You can hear some groans in the gallery. One of the students said they've had problems with the igniters. But it was a false alarm. It burned.

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