Thursday, July 01, 2004

Rocket Hobbyists Abandon Countdown

On a recent weekend, Erik Ebert traveled to Nevada's remote Black Rock Desert to shoot a rocket 11,000 feet in the air. But before he could even think about launching, he had to cross his fingers and hope that the motor he had ordered for his rocket would also be there, hand-delivered by the vendor.

That's because, thanks to increased regulation after 9/11, it is more difficult than ever for rocket hobbyists like Ebert to legally store rocket motors -- which often include fuel that is now classified as an explosive -- at home. That often means the motor has to go straight to the launch site in the middle of nowhere.

"To store at a house, you need to get additional storage permission, and for me, since I live in a residential area, it's basically impossible," Ebert said. "You have to get local fire marshal approval. The fire marshal's not going to give you permission to store explosives."

What's more, before Ebert could fire his rocket, he had to go through a six-month permitting process that included fingerprinting, a background check and a visit to his house by a government agent.

To be sure, Ebert is no average rocket hobbyist. He is part of a group of several hundred enthusiasts who trek to the Black Rock Desert three times a year for launching events. On the recent weekend Ebert was there, one member of his group hit 45,000 feet.

Rocketeers up and down the skill-level range are feeling the pinch of post-9/11 regulations promulgated by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Today, thousands of people fly model rockets that range in size from about 12 inches to more than 30 feet tall. But since the ATF imposed new rules, some hobbyists have abandoned their pastime, and the next generation of engineers and scientists, some fear, is being driven away. More...
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