Lawn Atlas Missile Base tour

From the ancient armies of China and India and the 19th century British armies using solid rockets in combat, to Von Braun’s work in Nazi Germany and Robert Goddard’s work with the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, the history of rocketry can not be told without mentioning the military aspects of these powerful devices. Modern rocketry at the dawn of the Space Age has roots in one of the most lethal weapons in mankind’s history.

A few years back (June 2014), my wife and I arranged a tour of an unusual piece of Cold War history in the middle of Texas. Larry Sanders, our gracious host is the owner of a former nuclear missile site just outside of the small town of Lawn, Texas. Through his hard work, he has begun to restore his own Cold War museum at this lonely piece of land adjacent to the rolling Texas plains and pastureland.

Longhorn steer grazes on the Texas prairie next to the Lawn Atlas Missile Base

This area, now called the Lawn Atlas Missile Base (LAMB) was once a first-generation Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) site near the small town of Lawn, Texas, less than 20 miles from Abilene, home to Dyess Air Force Base (AFB). Larry gives tours to schools and other interested parties in the local area of central Texas. He’s also been in the local and regional news for his work in restoring his missile silo into a unique historical site for the public.

Lawn Atlas Missile Base from Google Earth satellite imagery

Larry Sanders article – The Eagle

The Atlas ICBM Highway in central Texas (Texas Highway 604, south of Interstate 20)

Larry Sanders gives a tour of the Lawn Atlas Missile Base site outside of Lawn, Texas

In the early days of the Cold War era, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a race to develop launch vehicles to deliver nuclear warheads to the other side of the world from home and friendly territory. The early ICBM’s were liquid fueled rockets based on the higher performance over solid rocket motors of that time. Liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene (RP-1) were common high performance propellants in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s (and still commonly used today). The Atlas rocket stood 82.5 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter and with a gross lift-off weight of 268,000 pounds and a total thrust at sea level of 375,000 pounds from all three of its engines could deliver a W38 nuclear warhead over 9000 miles away.

The basic parts of the Atlas F missile

The Atlas rocket designed and built by Convair in San Diego, California, in the 1950’s. The Atlas used a unique vehicle staging concept called “a stage-and-a-half.” Staging of early rocket vehicles at that time was difficult and often plagued with failures. In the 1950’s, there was a concern about reliably igniting the second stage engines in the thin atmosphere at high altitudes. To counter this, the engineers at Convair devised a vehicle that would use a single set of RP-1 and liquid oxygen (LOX) tanks and rapidly ignite all three engines with pyrotechnic cartridges at the same time on the ground. In the middle of ascent, the booster segment would drop away thereby shedding the weight of the two booster engines with their associated pumps in flight. By doing this, the Atlas would finish the mission with only the middle sustainer engine to the end of the flight as the vehicle became lighter.

Rocketdyne MA-3 engine cluster for the Atlas stage-and-a-half rocket

Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, California, built the complex MA-3 engine system for the Atlas ICBM that had two outboard booster engines and a central sustainer engine. The MA-3 engine had a separate turbopump and gas generator for each of the three engines arranged in a line. The MA-3 engine also had two small vernier engines for roll-control, one on opposite sides over the sustainer.

Rocketdyne MA-3 booster engine, LR89-NA-5; two units

Rocketdyne MA-3 sustainer engine, LR105-NA-5; single core engine

Rocketdyne MA-3 vernier engine used on Atlas F vehicle

Atlas booster with the stage-and-a-half concept; outside booster engines fall away leaving the sustainer engine to finish the flight

The Atlas was the first operational ICBM in the American arsenal during the height of the Cold War. Twelve missile bases such as the one near Lawn, Texas, were clustered in around a central strategic command center, a U.S. Airbase in that region. In this case, Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, is the former hub of this set of twelve SM-65 Atlas-F type missile sites.

SM-65 Atlas Missile Sites throughout the United States in the 1960’s

Lawn Atlas Missile Base location with respect to Dyess AFB in Abilene, Texas

The Atlas-F type was the last and most advanced version of the SM-65 series. With the RP-1 kerosene fuel loaded and waiting on standby, the Atlas missile was raised vertically from an underground silo to then be tanked with its cryogenic oxidizer (LOX). Air separation plants and special cryogenic liquid handling equipment were required to fuel these first-generation missiles. During its service life, the US Air Force maintained this land-based system to be ready to launch from the surface of the silo within minutes with just a small highly-trained crew.

Atlas-F, SM-65 ICBM in testing

Today, just a few things remain at the surface including the massive, reinforced concrete silo door slab at the Lawn Atlas Missile Base. Two doors are built into the roof where the missile was lowered and raised from its protective silo in the ground.

Lawn Atlas Missile Base – silo and ground access

Atlas-F missile silo as seen from the surface

Top side panaroma of the LAMB site

The Atlas E and F models were the first American ICBM’s to have an on-board computer for guidance using an inertial navigation system. The missile silo had a fixed sighting station to finely calibrate the missile guidance package to make it ready to accurately strike it’s target on the other side of the world. Some parts of this equipment still remain at the site.

The sighting equipment slab facing to the north of the missile silo seen in the background

Atlas ICBM guidance system using an optical sighting apparatus from within the silo

Remnants of communication equipment left at the site

An old antenna mount at the missile site

In the site’s operational period, there were a few small quonset huts at the surface to park servicing equipment for the missile and the silo. Some of the original foundations from these structures still remain at the site as can be seen in the satellite view.

Sketch of the Atlas missile ground support crew and trailers

Atlas F missile base with quonset hut support buildings

Atlas-F perched on the launch table with the blast deflector in place.

Atlas missile stored within its protective silo, erector structure and lifting equipment can be seen

Atlas silo and its underground control room / missile lifted and ready for launch

Our tour started at the protruding angled structure with the surface door angling down below the ground through a convoluted path to the next door.

Atlas F silo – ground access

Ground level door going into the Launch Command Center (LCC) of the Atlas F missile silo; the emergency escape hatch from the LCC can be seen to the right

Down the stair past the first door at ground level

The path from the ground access door leads down two flights of stairs to a couple of turns leading to a pair of entrapment doors. Beyond the entrapment doors are another pair of vault doors. At the LAMB site, a vintage Coke machine is between the two vault doors. Beyond the vault doors leads to a two-floor stair case giving acccess into the round two-floor Launch Control Center (LCC).

entrapment doors in red; the two vault doors in blue

first turn at the bottom of the stairs

the first of two simple doors just around the first corner

The first of two vault doors leading into the stairwell going into the LCC

Vintage (1960’s) Coke machine just behind the first vault door

Vault door latching mechanism

Mechanical vault door actuator from the inside

Once past the radiation-resistant vault door, the two man crew would descend a two-flight set of stairs to access the two-levels of the round LCC. A vintage Coke machine was just behind the door which was a little bit of civilization inside this rugged castle. The whole missile silo was very cool despite the summer heat at the surface, but the humidity inside of the barren silo was very high. Larry said that he very often had to spread desiccant and was frequently combating the mold that would flourish in the moist darkness.

Stairwell access to the Atlas-F LCC

Plate steel stairwell, entering the top floor of the LCC

Bottom of the stairwell, access to the lower deck of the LCC

The Launch Control Center is a two-floor “pillbox” cylinder bunker that housed the crew and the command equipment for operating the missile and the silo equipment. When the site was decommissioned, nearly all of this equipment was removed leaving only the bare walls and only a few non-military items. Having studied the subject and learning what he could from past missileers, our tour guide Larry provided details of where the crew slept, ate and conducted their duties all underground behind the vault door protected from nuclear attack from above.

Identification of equipment and features inside of the LCC

Nearly all of the original wiring and electrical fixtures were stripped out, so Larry has worked to slowly bring back ambient lighting into the LCC, or at least enough to safely conduct tours. Some of my pictures did not turn out so well in the low light, but the LCC had a lot to see.

Launch Control Center (LCC) of the Atlas-F missile silo

top floor inside the LCC in the Atlas-F missile silo

Crew cots around the circumference of the circular LCC (fuzzy from the low light)

Emergency escape hatch from the LCC

Kitchen area inside the LCC, much of this equipment was added (such as the microwave oven)

American eagle emblem hangs just above the kitchen area in the LCC

The lower level had housed the control equipment. Much of this equipment including the electrical fixtures were stripped away. What remains is an old circular photo darkroom and a really nice poster showing the Atlas SM-65 missile.

Picture of the Atlas SM-65 missile next to the circular darkroom for processing camera film

From within the stairwell at the lower level of the LCC, it’s a two-man job, always

Lower level in the LCC

Another view of the lower level of the LCC

The two-story LCC has an access tunnel leading to the missile silo. This circular path had a flat metal grating floor with a corrugated metal piping wall. This access tunnel was heavily corroded from the years of trapped moisture from the missile silo slowly filling with water as the ground water slowly bleeds through the small pores of the concrete. This is a common problem in subterranean structures, like missile silos. My pictures of this access tunnel were difficult to take from the low light conditions even with the camera flash feature.

Circular access tunnel between the LCC and the Atlas missile silo

LCC access tunnel with silo blast doors

Corrugated metal walls of the access tunnel with empty electrical cable trays

A slightly better view of the access tunnel when looking back at the lighted stairwell

A view back at the access tunnel and silo blast doors from the overhanging deck in the missile silo

The missile equipment and silo structures have been stripped out of the silo during decommissioning leaving a dark cavernous cylindrical vault. Larry had a make-shift metal deck installed just at the edge of the opening to the silo, with a rope ladder leading down to a floating platform he set at the waterline.

A look over the edge of the metal deck just past the access tunnel entrance into the missile silo

overhanging metal deck into the missile silo

view looking down into the empty cavernous missile silo; it’s really hard to appreciate just how huge it is inside

Another view of the missile silo interior wall showing the metallic hard point connections for what might have been the missile elevator equipment to bring the rocket to the surface for launch; only the embedded equipment in the walls remain to rust

The two folding doors remain in the down position as the hydraulic piston actuators to open the doors were moved during decommissioning

Over time, rainwater would leak in from the silo doors at the top. Also, groundwater slowly seeps through the concrete filling the silo roughly half full of very clean, very fresh water. Larry is not entirely sure what, if anything, is remaining down at the bottom of the silo. Divers had once expressed interest in exploring the bottom of the silo, but thus far, no one has explored the bottom. My pictures really do not do justice to this impressive site of being within this empty silent tomb.

Looking up at the silo door in the slab from inside of the missile silo

Floating platform within the empty Atlas-F missile silo full of fresh groundwater

After seeing the missile silo, we returned to the LCC to examine some of the posters and documents Larry had collected on the Atlas missile and the missile base.

Collection of photos and Atlas missile silo information

Location of the Lawn missile base in the set of 12 surrounding Dyess AFB in Abilene, Texas

Figurative drawing of the Atlas F missile silo, on display in the LCC

poster of the Pocket Rockets in Texas

As the Atlas was being deployed as weapon, the rocket fulfilled an important early role in the manned spaceflight program. The first Americans in space, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, flew on Redstone rockets, but were unable to reach orbit. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, did so in his Friendship 7 Mercury capsule fitted on the more powerful Atlas used as a manned spaceflight vehicle.

An Atlas ICBM adapted to launch the Mercury capsule piloted by John Glenn

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, catching a ride on an Atlas.

Atlas-Mercury 6 launch

Although the Atlas had a fairly short operational history as an ICBM (1961-1966), derivatives of the same Atlas launch vehicle design continued to serve an important role as a space launch vehicle for military, government and commercial payloads. The remaining Atlas F vehicles became space launch vehicles with the last one flying out in 1981. The Atlas F could loft a 820 kg (1800 lbm) payload to a 185 km polar orbit.

Starting with the Atlas G and H vehicles, the Atlas evolved over the decades all the way into the early 2000’s. The last derivative of the original Atlas ICBM was the Atlas 2AS vehicle with a Rocketdyne MA-5A engine cluster that flew its last flight in 2004.

Atlas H launches a payload to space

An Atlas 2AS takes flight

I really recommend visiting the LAMB site as Larry Sanders has really put a lot of his time and resources into gradually recovering the site from the great state of disrepair after being left dormant for decades. He has done a lot of great work in restoring the place and is active in continuing the project. The LAMB tour offers people a rarely seen part of Cold War history. Although, the missile silo is now an empty vault serving as a museum, it’s easy to forget that this site was built to be one of the most lethal weapon systems ever created. Pictures do not really tell the whole story as visiting the site in person can give you the feeling of being inside a place manned by a handful of dedicated servicemen charged with the awesome and haunting responsibility of maintaining a crucial element of the nation’s nuclear deterrent ready for a day that thankfully never came.

Although the Cold War era ended in 1991, land-based strategic nuclear weapons remain in operation in Russia, the United States, China and other countries around the world.

For future reading, there’s a few websites dedicated to the Atlas missile bases from the Cold War. One has the specific details of the Atlas-F, the last and most advanced in the series.

Atlas Missile Silo

Another good place to look at the old missile sites is SiloWorld.net

Siloworld.net

Also, for those interested in the Atlas SM-65 rocket, Wikipedia has a nice summary.

SM-65 Atlas – Wikipedia

Atlas rocket family – Wikipedia

If you’re ever in the Abilene area and interested in a tour of LAMB or just interested in more information on the LAMB site and Atlas ICBM history, readers are encouraged to contact Larry Sanders by his email below:

atlassilo@yahoo.com

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article as this has been a few years, but a very memorable experience. For any questions or comments, contact the RRS secretary.

secretary@rrs.org

***

MTA launch event, 2018-07-21

The Reaction Research Society (RRS) held a launch event at our private Mojave Test Area (MTA) on Saturday, July 21, 2018. As I came into the site in the morning, I snapped a picture our front gate and the rough location which will be the site of our new sign to arrive very soon.

Follow that car. Turn left to go to the RRS.

Jim Gross was our pyro-op for the event. Many of us arrived early so Jim and the rest of the RRS had time to review the projects we wanted to hot-fire and fly if possible that day. Also, it was new members’, Michael Lunny and Bill Behenna’s first trip to the MTA. I think there is no better way to sell our membership on the benefits of the RRS than your first trip to the MTA. It worked for me!

Jim Gross, our pyro-op for the day

We were glad to host another group of students from the Watts area schools with the support of the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Community Safety Partnership (CSP). This has become known as the “Rockets in the Projects” program.

LAPD CSP on Facebook

It was a challenge to hold this event in July in the Mojave desert, but the kids and staff seemed to withstand the 100-degree heat quite well with lots of water and bringing ice. We gave our safety briefing to everyone and explained the do’s and don’t’s for the event. RRS member, Matt Tarditti, was there helping with getting people shuttled around to the places necessary including moving our pyro-op, Jim, and his apprentice, (me) Dave Nordling, back and forth between the bunker and the alpha launch rails. Every step adds up in the heat and it’s wise to work as efficiently as you can. The heat ultimately got to me and I had to take a pause into the air conditioning of my truck. Despite my best efforts in hydration, the Mojave summer was still overwhelming. It is a feeling that many RRS members know all too well at some point in their time with the society at the MTA.

Matt was kind of enough to continue to assist Jim to complete the launch series with the alphas. Even, Jim Gross, who has been a resident of the high desert for many years, was having a tough time in the high temperatures and very low winds of that day. We had extremely low winds which made for great rocket launching weather, however with the building clouds above holding in a lot of the heat of the day, it was a real challenge for everyone to fight the stifling heat. The RRS conducts launch and test events at the MTA year-round, but some months are harder than others.

Matt Tarditti and Jim Gross under the hot July sun at the MTA

The LAPD CSP team does a great job in preparing these kids in the weeks ahead before this event. Often, this is many of the kids’ first trip into the Mojave desert. The stark beauty of the landscape hides the subtle dangers of snakes, spiders and the ever-present risk of heat stroke (even at 10:00 AM!). The RRS educational program is both fun and informative and through preparation everyone can make things safe. The kids were quite ready for the final event in the RRS educational program which is seeing their painted and assembled RRS standard alpha rockets take flight.

Michael Lunny, Frank Miuccio and Larry Hoffing stand among the students during the safety briefing at the George Dosa building

Our first goal of the event was to get the students’ rockets in the air so that those less experienced in the desert heat can go on home once the last one was complete. We had seven standard alphas to be launched, all painted by the students as their way to personalize their team’s flight. As always, the RRS reminds our classes that painting the bodies is nice, but since they return to the ground without a parachute, painting the fins in a bright and observable color matters the most when trying to find them on the desert floor. You’ll only have the tail fins sticking out of the ground when you find your rocket.

Seven alphas in the rack from Watts, plus Larry’s customized alpha with the wires sticking out of the payload tube

The kids paid careful attention to the time of flight which gives some data as to how well packed the alphas were. Two stopwatch measurements were made on each of the seven alpha flights. Impact was not heard on the seventh flight, so no data was taken. The results are somewhat consistent between the two readings and ranged between 36 and 39 seconds.

Time of flight measurements on six of the seven alphas flown on 07-21-2018

Ideal time of flight for an RRS standard alpha is thought to be between 35 and 42 seconds. This would indicate that Osvaldo’s rapid micrograin loading system is doing well to properly pack the propellant leading to good results.

Still shot from Michael Lunny’s video of the RRS standard alpha taking off

After the sequential launch of all seven alphas, it was unanimously decided not to let the kids hunt for their rockets downrange. The LAPD CSP team and the Watts kids went home after taking a picture under our arched sign. RRS member, Michael Lunny, shot a great video of one of the alpha launches from the bunker. I hope to get it posted to the RRS YouTube channel. We have a few micrograin rocket flights on YouTube, but we hope to add more content there soon. You’ll notice our name is not fully spelled out due to the old character limit when the account was made.

ReactionResearchSoc

Reaction Research Society on YouTube

After the Rockets in the Projects, this left the rest of the RRS membership to attempt the other projects we had ready for this launch day.

Richard Garcia brought his home-built rocket that is adapted for the sugar-KNO3 motor he tested at the 2018-06-02 event. He made three motors, one as a simple end-burner, the other two were cored. The plan was to fire conduct a static firing or two with his test motors and if all looked good fly the third motor in the rocket from the RRS rail launcher. “Rocket candy” as it is also called in amateur rocketry has been getting more popular at the RRS.

Richard Garcia stands in the assembly area by his golden rocket built for his custom sugar motor

Richard’s end-burner grain, 2018-07-21

Richard’s nozzle for his custom sugar motor

Richard’s two cored grains, sugar-KNO3 motors, 2018-07-21

Richard brought back his vertical static fire stand that bolts to the larger RRS frame. Although his thrust stand is not outfitted with a load cell (yet), it does give him the opportunity to safely secure his test motors and visually compare the results and time the burns.

Richard Garcia’s sugar motor held down to his vertical thrust stand for static fire

Larry Hoffing made a parachute system in his RRS standard alpha. His system was a little different from Osvaldo’s as he required a second firing line to light a delayed fuse for the parachute deployment system he put in. His son, Max, was there to help get things ready for flight as we included Larry and Osvaldo’s alphas into the launch sequence. Larry’s goal was to explore an older method of timing the deployment of his parachute by use of cannon fuse.

Larry’s alpha payload system being made ready for flight, 2018-07-21

Also, Larry had attached a signalling whistle on one of the fins. The ancient Chinese used to mount whistles on their rockets of war to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies as the rockets would scream to their target. It was Larry’s intent to add the element of sound not only for an impressive screeching launch off the rails, but also for better tracking of the rocket’s final descent to the ground. Although having a single whistle mounted to just one fin will impart a spin to the alpha, the flight will still be stable as proven on similar alpha flights. In the recent past, we have had success flying a larger, single keychain camera on the outside of a single fin while maintaining good flight stability despite the nauseating rapid spin seen in the footage from these externally mounted cameras.

Larry’s alpha with a whistle mechanically fastened to a single fin, 2018-07-21

Osvaldo inspects Larry’s alpha rocket in the launch rails with the second firing line connected for the fused payload timer

Unfortunately, Larry’s alpha had a problem at launch with the failure to light the micrograin rocket. Also, with this delay it was apparent that the parachute payload deployed way too early. The goal was to fire at 20 seconds in the flight and the fuse seemed to go at only 2 seconds popping the payload tube while the rocket stayed on the alpha rack. The two systems had to fire at nearly the same time but one system failed entirely and other went off too early.

After exploring all other failure modes with the firing circuit and procedures, it was confirmed that it was a bad electric match with a break in the wire. This was the first time I’ve seen an electric match fail in the three years I’ve been with the RRS, but it has been known to happen. With Larry’s whole payload system requiring repackaging, it was decided for expediency, just to remove Larry’s rocket from the launch rails, remove the nozzle and dump the micrograin propellant for a safe disposal burn on the ground. Larry will be able to re-use his alpha hardware, but it will have to wait for next launch.

Next was Osvaldo’s red colored alpha with his alpha with a parachute system built in it. Osvaldo made some minor improvements to the circuitry and this was to be his second flight. He also had a commercial telemetry package within his payload section.

Osvaldo’s red alpha with the breakwire switch to start the timer and the pull pin to arm the battery before walking away to the bunker to fire

Osvaldo’s alpha parachute system, break-wire secured to launch rail starts the internal timer

The first flight of his original parachute design for the alpha on 2018-06-02 was a complete success. Despite some slight overheating of the parachute from the black powder deployment charge on the initial flight, the rocket still coasted down very gently such that it laid neatly on the ground and a shovel wasn’t necessary for recovery.

The flight of Osvaldo’s second alpha was similarly successful in that the break-wire system and deployment mechanism operated properly, but the parachute itself failed to unfold due to tangling. The rocket’s descent even with the folded parachute was able to be spotted and Osvaldo recovered all pieces of his second flight.

Osvaldo inspects the second iteration of his alpha parachute system, 2018-07-21

Also, as an added bonus, Osvaldo was able to fit a commercial telemetry package to measure the flight acceleration. As the whole package survived in tact, it will be very interesting what the device was able to measure from within the tight confines of alpha payload tube near the nose. I hope he can present his results from the flight at the next meeting.

Osvaldo’s data package survives the flight, a little singed, and despite a folded parachute

There has been a lot of great progress in parachutes for the RRS standard alpha recently. Both Larry and Osvaldo have made great progress. With the persistent efforts of our RRS membership, I think its reasonable to expect that we could offer a standard alpha parachute package for our future events once we demonstrate a series of successful flights, settle on the design and figure the added cost.

Richard Garcia’s project having two successful static firings gave him confidence to try to mount and fly the third sugar motor. After having some initial integration problems and a rail button coming off, he was able to get his golden rocket ready for a launch on the rail launcher.

The rail launcher at the MTA is a great asset to the society. It has been used on several projects with good success, but it is a very heavy and sturdy device that requires two or three people to assemble and make ready. Also, the pin system that connects the rail to the stand fits very snugly and sometimes requires a lot of elbow grease and persuasion (perhaps with a rubber mallet) to get the right alignment of the holes. Despite the high heat, we managed to get things ready for Richard’s flight.

Rail piece with 12-foot, 80-20, 1515 aluminum rail

Launch rail base

Launch rail system ready to receive the rocket

Underslung launch rail system at the RRS MTA, assembled and ready for Richard’s flight, 2018-07-21

80-20 aluminum 1515 sized rail (1.5-inch) used as the guide for the launcher

Richard checks the manual for the telemetry package that he armed for flight.

Richard’s flight was on one hand a little underwhelming as his sugar motor did not produce a great deal of impulse, but it did manage to propel itself up and get clear of the launch rail before neatly turning back to the ground in a low-speed, but very steady and stable flight. Although his rocket only made it 50 feet downrange, it can be seen in the flight video that his rocket was stable throughout the whole low speed which is a testament to Richard’s good construction of a very aerodynamic and well-balanced vehicle.

The sugar motor doesn’t offer much impulse as it burns out shortly after clearing the launch rail

The rocket gently pitches over after burnout heading for the ground not very far downrange (the last good frame I have from my camera-phone)

After a perfect arc at its low apogee, the rocket turned back to the ground and landed almost perfectly on its nose. Despite the rough landing, the nosecone wasn’t damaged and many parts of the vehicle were similarly undamaged.

A very short, but extremely stable flight off the rails for Richard’s golden rocket with a custom sugar motor

Richard safes his payload system as he inspects the recovered rocket.

Richard will be working on increasing the impulse from his motor, but he can be very confident in his vehicle design. With a little rework on some of the parts, I think he should have a very impressive flight at the next launch event.

Osvaldo has put a lot of work into the horizontal thrust stand that I started. To be able to static fire an alpha rocket to measure the impulse, we have to accomplish two more things.

RRS horizontal thrust stand in need of an extension piece to stabilize an alpha for static fire

The first is to get better mechanical support for an RRS standard alpha to prevent sideways motions or “wagging” during firing. The stout, welded frame of the horizontal thrust stand fits just fine to the concrete slab foundation and is very secure, but the 3-foot length of an alpha could create quite a wicked angular load on the load cell. After Osvaldo and I had discussed a few design concepts, Osvaldo brought his design to the MTA. Given the time constraints of the launch events that came before and the stifling heat, we had no time to attempt a fit check of an alpha rocket in the thrust stand. The complete assembly will have to be fit checked at the next event. Osvaldo had also noticed that when the long alpha rocket is put into this short stand, the rocket doesn’t align very well with the beam. Some minor adjustments might be necessary to make sure the thrust vector is properly aligned with the axis through the load cell.

RRS horizontal thrust stand extension piece

The second thing is to try to calibrate the load cell to make sure the S-type load cell is still reasonably within its original factory calibration. Osvaldo brought in a home-built frame with a hydraulic jack and pressure gauge which can reasonably approximate a force by the pressure and piston area relationship. We didn’t have time to try this setup, but this device can be demonstrated at home if Osvaldo has time before the August 10th meeting.

hydraulic jack testing rig for verifying the S-type load cell calibration

hydraulic jack-based force tester with high pressure gauge attached

The horizontal thrust stand was not ready for the 2018-07-21 launch event due to a lack of cabling and a hardy computer to manage the data acquisition. Many of us are reluctant to bring our personal laptops to run the data acquisition in the abrasive sandy dry lake environment at the MTA. Chris Lujan at the July meeting talked about using a simple Arduino Raspberry Pi computer as a low-cost alternative to gathering and processing the data. Hopefully, the RRS will get a simple device for this purpose and have it programmed to take data from the load cell as we conduct our hot-fires from this horizontal thrust stand. There still is a lot of work to do in getting the horizontal thrust stand working. With more hard work, the RRS will have this project working soon, hopefully by the next launch event in the fall. We’ll post updates as this project advances.

One final note on the event is that the RRS will be posting a few things on Instagram once the secretary (me) has time to get things started. The RRS is brand new to Instagram so we hope to expand our presence here to better show everyone what we do. At first, the RRS executive council will have access to post photos at the events we attend for the RRS. We hope this presence on Instagram will generate more excitement and participation at events with the RRS.

Follow RRS on Instagram

The RRS will certainly discuss today’s launch event as a whole at the next meeting on Friday, August 10, 2018. There were a lot of great things we tried at the event, but there were also a lot of logistical things we can do better next time. Also, it would be a good time to review some of the material improvements that we ought to make at the MTA to better handle the projects we expect in the near future.

Please join us on August 10th!

July 2018 meeting

The RRS held its monthly meeting on July 13, 2018 at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center in Gardena. We got a late start (7:45pm), but we were very well attended. New member, Wilbur Owens, brought a friend of his from the Compton Aviation Museum. The RRS accepted a new student member, Bill Behenna. We also had two newcomers from Caltech stop by who were interested in joining the society.

Our July 2018 meeting gets started

We welcomed our newcomers and started our meeting with a very full agenda. Frank brought a new air launcher device he built which operates by a hand piston. We didn’t have time to discuss it but Frank is adding more teaching tools to our educational program to show how much fun even simple rocketry can be.

Frank’s hand pump air rocket launcher

We went a little out of order from the agenda, but we managed to cover all topics in this meeting that ran very late.

[1]
The first topic of the agenda was to confirm to everyone that the next launch event at the MTA will be on July 21st. We will host a new group of students completing the RRS educational program. This is another fine group of students from the Watts area and we are grateful to the LAPD CSP program for their continued support of this recurring and successful project. Frank and Larry noted that we will try to get this event started earlier to attempt to avoid the scorching heat of mid-day.

Also, we had a discussion about how to improve the society communications in the wake of a last minute unforeseen change of schedule for a launch event. This was an exceptional case and unlikely to happen again soon, but it did highlight an important aspect of RRS operations which is communicating with our membership. It is very, very important that all active members have their emails with the RRS secretary as the duty to send out the mass email falls to me. There are two ways that the RRS secretary communicates to our active membership:

    (1) the email list for meeting agenda notices

I have been building this email list and maintaining it, but I know that I am missing some interested parties. The communication between our membership is still important. Please be kind to other members and pass on the notices and encourage everyone not receiving their emails to let me know to make the proper inclusions. This is a constant work in progress and I am thankful to those who help make this happen.

    (2) posting of all launch event dates is on the RRS website

I regularly update the launch date information under the “Forum” section of the RRS website under the “Launches” tab. Modifications to the RRS.ORG website were discussed as a means to make a clearer way for anyone to see if we are “GO” or “NO-GO” before the launch event. I’m not sure what Chris Lujan has in mind, but we will discuss this issue further as time goes on. Effective communication to our membership is important. The use of other social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook were suggested, but it is not clear how widely used these platforms are with our membership that spans many generations of technology adoption.

[2]
The second topic from the agenda was my proposal for the RRS to acquire a road sign. This has been approved by the society and the cost is not unreasonable. Placement of a simple sign at the first gate leading into the RRS’s private testing site, the Mojave Test Area (MTA), will make it easier for newcomers to be sure they are going directly to our site adjacent to the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR).

RRS sign at the MTA entrance

The RRS does have a great sign built on top of a metal arch right at the entrance to the MTA built by member, George Garboden, but the society felt a second smaller sign (24 inches tall by 36 inches wide) at the first gate would be another helpful feature to show newcomers the way in.

Proposed road sign for outside the first gate to the RRS MTA

Placement of the sign will be about 10 feet behind the barbed wire fence about 6 feet to the left of our larger metal gate. This should assure good visibility to those reaching this fork in the road.

We had a substantial discussion about the sign content. The results of this discussion are in the sample posted from the website. We also had a substantial discussion about mounting of the sign and the desire to have a solid structure that can withstand years of the gusting winds of the Mojave. The sign quality chosen was of the highest quality to assure a long life under the corrosive effects of Koehn Dry Lake. Richard has suggested that the sign include the RRS logo which I will look into with the vendor. The RRS has given the authority to proceed on this task.

Further to this subject, Richard Garcia has suggested the sign be accompanied by some kind of metal sculpture representing a rocket. This would nicely complement the sign, but this is a topic beyond the original scope of the meeting. In times past, George Dosa had a large metal pipe embedded vertically into the dirt which used to have fins on it like a rocket reaching the end of its ballistic flight. I think the pipe is still there but the fin decorations have been long removed.

[3]
The subject of Saturday seminars was only briefly discussed at the July meeting. In past meetings, the RRS has had special presentations made by invited guests. These are very enjoyable to our membership, but they do often run long and consume a lot of meeting time. To be more effective in our meetings, it was recommended that for lengthy presentations, the society ought to schedule a special meeting for our membership on a Saturday morning at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center in Gardena. This way, those of us with day jobs can come to the center before the heat of the day and enjoy the presentations at our leisure. The RRS has identified several potential candidates for these “Saturday seminars”, but thus far, the first session has yet to be scheduled. We will revisit this topic in later meetings. Our vice-president, Frank Miuccio, will be the point of contact on this topic going forward. Updates on this topic will be posted on this website.

[4]
The RRS director of research, Richard Garcia, discussed his progress with the RRS standard liquid rocket. This has been garnering a lot of enthusiasm as many universities have been pursuing similar goals.

RRS director of research, Richard Garcia, explains his liquid rocket prototype at the 75th anniversary symposium

The RRS has decades of experience in building these powerful but simplified launchers, but in recent times our activity in this area has been slight. Richard has made a lot of the key drawings, but is still working to finalize the dimensions and proceed with construction. The RRS membership at the meeting had the chance to review his current drawings and make suggestions. Richard will proceed with completing the design and drawings and with the RRS support begin with selection of suppliers, machinists and construction.

Richard’s rocket will use the RRS 15×15 rail launcher that we have at the MTA. The 16-foot rail length should be sufficient to guide the rocket to a stable initial flight. Further aerodynamic study will be needed to finalize the design. Preliminary pictures and features of the design will be discussed in future posts.

[5]
The next topic was the subject of pyrotechnic operators and the RRS’s mission to qualify more members as licensed pyro-op’s to expand our ability to conduct events and improve the knowledge of our membership in this important aspect of safety in operations. What we do can be very hazardous, but with the attention to detail and commitment to safety that we have shown over the decades of our history, we are blessed to not have ever had a fatality and very likely to continue this tradition long into the future.

The RRS has identified a few members including myself who are committed to starting the process of becoming a pyro-op with the California State Fire Marshal’s office. The first step is making a request to the Cal State Fire Marshal for their latest package of information which includes a PDF copy of the latest laws and regulations that every pyro-op is expected to know.

California State Fire Marshall rules on fireworks also governs amateur rocketry

In parallel, the RRS is creating a standard package of information for members that include these state provided materials and other resource materials deemed useful by the RRS to properly educate any current or aspiring pyro-op.

The second step in the process is getting five letters of recommendation from licensed pyro-ops of the same class or above the class level you are applying for. The first level of licensing is Rocket Class 3 which is what our new pyro-ops will seek. The final step is paying your exam fees to the state of California, sitting for the exam, passing the exam and getting your license information from the state. It is very important that our membership strive to keep their state license current and not let it lapse. The RRS is indebted to our pyro-ops for making a big part of what we do possible and safe.

Letters of recommendation require a licensed pyro-op to vouch for your abilities to conduct safe operations and a demonstrate sufficient knowledge and competence in all relevant areas for rocketry all in a signed document sent to the state of California. It is not an easy thing to ask of someone who doesn’t know you well. It is not uncommon and very reasonable for many pyro-ops to refuse a request for a letter of recommendation. It is the requester’s sole duty to prove themselves to each licensed pyro-op that they are worthy of their endorsement.

In the past, the RRS had many pyro-ops and by attending MTA events and participating in meetings and other society events, RRS pyro-ops would get to know you and could more easily vouch for your skills to the state. Osvaldo has been successful in securing his letters of recommendation and sending his application to the state. He is now waiting for instructions on when to sit for his examination. This is a process that can take months.

I have also been fortunate to secure letters of recommendation from licensed pyro-ops, but I am still in the process of qualifying in the eyes of other pyro-ops I have asked for their endorsement. It was suggested that the new class of RRS pyro-ops combine our efforts and share our resources. It was also suggested that we ask some licensed pyro-ops to make a presentation at an RRS meeting or special event as a way of educating us in the practical knowledge that they have gained as a pyro-op. Perhaps through these sessions, more of our members can get the letters of recommendation necessary to begin the process.

Dave Nordling assists in the loading of an RRS alpha into the rails under the instruction of pyro-op, Dave Crisalli

It is my intent to encourage the RRS to adopt a more unified approach to gaining this knowledge either by seminar or by apprenticeships that could be offered by other rocketry groups such as Rocketry Organization of California (ROC). I took the action to approach ROC and other amateur rocketry groups about sending a set of our aspiring pyro-op members to a launch event or special training session in the hope to achieve wider endorsement and help build the RRS roster of pyro-ops.

[6]
As required since the start of the SuperDosa project, I presented my quarterly update.

To remind everyone what the SuperDosa project is, it is the society’s desire to retake the amateur rocketry altitude record lost in 2004 to CXST. At a height of 380,576 feet (116 km), this is a daunting challenge, but we have a substantial amount of knowledge and experience from our past members to drawn upon. Many boosted dart designs, similar to the SuperLoki or Viper III, are capable of reaching this altitude range above the von Karman line of 328,083 feet and 4 inches (100 km).

Boosted Dart – Viper IIIa

We have decided to begin a long process to build a boosted dart type of rocket and launch it from Spaceport America or Blackrock to retake the amateur rocketry altitude record by aiming for 400,000 feet (121.92 km). This will take several attempts and perhaps a few different designs, but eventually we will succeed.

For comparison, USC recently set an altitude record for a university built rocket of 144,000 feet (43.89 km).

Some of our newest RRS members just recently fired a full-scale solid motor at the MTA with the aim of reaching 150,000 feet (45.71 km).

The vehicle that succeeds in meeting this challenge and restoring the RRS title will be named after long-time member and a mentor to many in the RRS, George Dosa. George was the first licensed pyro-op in California for rocketry and wrote large portions of the rules governing our hobby. George is still active with the society and we are showing our gratitude by using his name for this project.

SuperDosa-mockup (2)

George Dosa at the 75th RRS symposium in April 2018, third from left

Substantial progress has been made by Larry Hoffing in making sample batches of the RRS standard recipe, although I understand he had to make some deviations to the mixture due to lack of particular chemicals necessary for plasticizing and release from the mold. Addition of accelerants such as iron oxide is not necessarily part of the RRS standard mixture, but it has been used in other mixtures to increase burn rate with good results. The RRS is in the process of re-establishing suppliers for the key materials such as the HTPB binder and the ammonium perchlorate and aluminum powder of different sieve sizes.

Substantial progress has been made with some of our new members and their booster design which was unsuccessfully tested on June 7, 2018 at the MTA. The mixing procedure and some of the equipment necessary for casting larger grains will surely be useful in this sustained effort to build motor of this size. Part of the issue was poor subscale testing to get burn rate data.

The RRS is working on completing a ballistic evaluation motor (BEM) to attain proper propellant curve data which should benefit all society projects using the same solid mixture. I have not had any luck with the getting our top and bottom plate assemblies yet, but I hope my machinist will be available soon to complete all parts well before the next quarterly update.

RRS ballistic evaluation motor design concept

Some of the parts are ready. Richard Garcia was kind enough to turn out the initial set of nozzle pucks of variable throat sizes. I have the fasteners and gasket materials which need to be cut for the seals. The RRS has a 5000 psig pressure transducer and some of the fittings, but we need a short length of clean stainless steel tubing to make the pressure connection. We have a data acquisition unit, but the wiring harnesses needed to be made to route back to the blockhouse.

Chris Lujan has recommended that instead of bringing someone’s personal laptop we get a simple computer like a Raspberry Pi unit to do the data crunching and output the results. The desert environment can be very damaging and it would only take a simple computer to manage the data and output the results. Chris will work on this hardware and software aspect of the data acquisition and processing.

RRS BEM graphite nozzle pucks, courtesy of Richard Garcia

More progress on the SuperDosa progress will be presented in October at the next quarterly report.

[7]
The next topic of discussion was led by Alastair Martin. Alastair is a very active member of the RRS and the Mars Society. He is a filmmaker and producer and brings many talents to the society.

Alastair Martin records elements of Richard Garcia’s rocket candy propellant manufacturing process at the RRS MTA, 4/7/2018

Alastair discussed the necessity of the RRS embracing a larger social media presence. The benefits are that the RRS can reach a wider audience, particularly in the younger demographics. Alastair recommended that the RRS open an Instagram account and do work on improving our Facebook page that is already online. Although there are other social media platforms, it was these two services that he has the most success in his businesses.

The use of Instagram can make the society better able to show the world a glimpse of our activities from a select group of our active membership. Instagram is useful for conveniently and frequently posting photos and short videos and is virtually instantaneous. This nicely complements the website we currently use. The RRS approved the opening of an Instagram account.

Once you have the Instagram smartphone app loaded, you can find us at our Instagram ID which is our full name without spaces:
Reactionresearchsociety

Our society treasurer, Chris Lujan, generated the account and he will be primarily responsible for the RRS Instagram account. The executive council, director of research and events coordinator will be the first members to have permission to post photos to the RRS Instagram feed. The RRS will consider allowing other trusted members to post on our new Instagram account as we go on.

Reaction Research Society on Instagram

The RRS has a Facebook page. I think it is our vice-president Frank Miuccio, that maintains this site. The RRS will strive to post more often on Facebook which is widely used by many people worldwide.

RRS on Facebook

As secretary, I will continue to maintain our world-wide web site, RRS.ORG as our primary means of advertising ourselves and posting updates to activities.

[8]
After some debate and discussion, the RRS has decided to proceed with holding the 2019 RRS symposium in April next year. Although it is a substantial commitment of resources and money by the society, the 2017 and our 75th anniversary symposium were successively larger hits with our public audience. We will strive to improve our symposium based on the lessons we’ve learned and use the momentum of enthusiasm built from two very successful events. However, it was agreed that after the 2019 RRS symposium, the society will not hold another for two years. Our commitment to what will be the 2021 symposium will be pending until the year before.

The 2019 RRS symposium is coming in April.

With this decision, setting the date and starting our long process of contacting industry, academia and government speakers will begin. There will be more discussed on this topic in future meetings. We are excited to confirm another symposium and hope to make this event even better than before.

[9]
The agenda had originally stated that our next launch event at the MTA with LAPD CSP will be Saturday, July 21st. We circled back to this topic reminding everyone that the safety briefing will be conducted at 10:30 AM and the launch event will proceed at 11:00 AM. It is the goal to have all eight of the standard alphas assembled by the students launched before the heat of the noon-day sun rises. We want to encourage our membership and invited guests to this event to arrive very early which for me means leaving Los Angeles at least before 7:00 AM. Dave Crisalli will be our pyro-op for this event and I have volunteered to be his apprentice unless one of our other pyro-ops in training would like to do so.

[10]
I had an agenda item to discuss future events at the MTA including one possible event with a BBC program in the UK. This may occur in October 2018 and discussions are still in work. The RRS will likely hold another educational event with the LAPD CSP in the fall which may be able to coincide. Larry had made contact with the Girl Scouts of Orange County who were seeking the RRS to participate in a regional STEM event. All of these projects will also be discussed further at the next meeting in August 2018 as more information comes in.

[11]
Osvaldo gave our meeting audience a demonstrate of his new method of loading micrograin propellant (without the propellant of course). For some background, the RRS standard alpha is a common platform in our society events. They are particularly common with our educational classes that we hold regularly. Based on the micrograin propellant invented by our founder, George James, this simple mixture of zinc and sulfur powders presents a challenge in loading. The coupler is installed with an O-ring seal at the head end. The 3-foot long, 1.25-inch DOM steel tube with four welded sheet metal fins and holes drilled for installing the nozzle is basically an open tube closed at one end.

alpha bulkhead loaded and bolted in

RRS standard alpha configured for propellant loading; nozzle is installed at the end of loading

The 80% zinc and 20% sulfur by weight propellants are premixed by tumbling and is loaded into the propellant tube by hand. Entrapped air is a frustrating factor in getting a tight packing of the propellant into the tube. As the powder falls to the bottom, the air can not completely get out of the way and empty pockets form. These pockets can be released by simple mechanical tapping or gently bouncing the tube vertically on a wooden block. In the finite volume of the propellant tube, entrapped air is a waste of space that could be filled with the mass of propellant. The loaded weight of the alpha subtracted from the empty weight of the alpha propellant tube at the start is the only real gauge of how well packed the propellant is.

Many methods of compaction and casting of the micrograin propellant to achieve higher densities have been tried over the RRS history. Some of these have had success, most did not. This topic is a long subject which can be researched and summarized in a separate article if there is sufficient interest. For now, only the simple method of manually loading the premixed powder will be discussed.

The common method used today is to pour in the propellant mixture one cup at a time and bounce the bottom of the tube on a wooden beam. Vibration devices do work, but they tend to work too well in that the zinc and sulfur being of different densities start to separate which is very undesirable. This method of one cup at a time is slow, but effective.

a cupful of micrograin propellant drawn from the tumbling mixing drum

traditional loading method that carefully removes trapped air by periodic mechanical tapping is very slow and very messy

When the RRS started to run more launch events with schools, loading a dozen or more propellant tubes started to take a great deal of time including coming to the MTA on the night before. Osvaldo who is the main person doing this loading sought a faster but effective means to loading.

He tried a few experimental practices including drawing a vacuum at the bottom of the tube with a special fitting and using a lowered piston on a string approach, both of which were flawed and not that successful.

His most recent method has proven to be very effective and quick. He gets a length of tiny brass tubing and loosely affixes a round cardboard disk. With this cardboard disk inserted into the mouth of the tube and a proper funnel attached, the full propellant load of the alpha can be loaded directly into the funnel.

Rapid micrograin loading by small brass tube and cardboard disk

By allowing the weight of the full propellant load to lower itself into the tube on top of the cardboard disk, the disk serves as a seal to divert any entrapped air beneath up through the hole in the brass tube. The air below the solid powder mass has a route to escape through the hollow tube up the center. With this technique the whole propellant load can drop into the tube in one motion, leaving the cardboard disk at the bottom. The brass tube easily pulls out from the cardboard disk and out of the propellant tube now loaded with the micrograin propellant.

tube and cardboard disk aligned in the funnel in the mouth of an empty RRS alpha propellant tube

Illustration of rapid method of loading micrograin propellant

This technique eliminates the barrier of the air below trying to move past the falling mass of powder and results in a reasonably dense packing of the propellant all done in one shot.

Osvaldo Tarditti and his rapid method of micrograin loading; note the very small but long brass tubing and the extra large funnel to hold the full ~4 lb load of micrograin propellant

I took photos of Osvaldo’s process at the last launch event with UCLA on June 2, 2018. The pictures and illustrations I have posted of the technique that has been successfully demonstrated at the MTA are hopefully clear enough to show the principle.

[12]
This was intended to the first topic, but Osvaldo circled back it at the end. Osvaldo successfully flew a parachute system in an RRS alpha. This is a feat that I don’t think has been in done in a very, very long time. Most of our alpha rockets come back ballistically and require back-breaking extraction by shoveling out of the hard-packed dry lake bed. It has been a general goal of the RRS to encourage more payloads to be flown in the RRS standard alphas as we do a lot of these flights. It has been a goal of mine to eventually fly a parachute system in the tight confines of the alpha’s payload tube. Osvaldo developed a pull switch that activates a timer chip inside to delay the firing of a small powder charge that ejects the parachute by means of a rising piston. This was discussed in the details of the same launch event with UCLA on June 2, 2018.

Osvaldo stands behind his RRS standard alpha parachute system successfully flown at the MTA on 6/2/2018

We did not have a lot of time to show all of the parts, but Osvaldo did mention that he will fly his parachute system again at the July 21, 2018 launch event with a modified timer design and break-wire system that is more compact. I may get Osvaldo to write a full detailed article on this subject in a future posting to come. This parachute system if proven to be repeatably effective may become a standard part of our RRS launch events with schools, but we must consider the added costs of producing them with standard costs we already charge for our RRS standard alpha. This is a really good topic and I’m sure we’ll be talking more about this in August.

[BONUS]
Richard Garcia treated us to a short video made by Microcosm back in 2001 with their experimental launch vehicle that did engine test at the RRS MTA. This dual-engine liquid rocket had thrust vector actuators and went through a successful hot-firing in the video.

Microcosm’s Scorpius-S-RM-20k vehicle test at the RRS MTA in 2001

The video showed the later rocket flight. We may post this on the RRS YouTube channel for everyone to see. It was a nice way to conclude our meeting with a rocket firing and flight.

[IN CLOSING]
We adjourned the meeting very late (well past 10:00 PM) which is only possible due to the kindness of our hosts at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center which closes at 9:00 PM. We are very grateful to them, but the RRS must strive to be more effective in our meetings to start on time and finish on time.

If there are any topics for next month’s meeting, please contact the RRS and make your suggestion. In the August meeting, we will likely discuss the July 21st launch and lessons learned from that event. We also have other events planned for this fall.

The next RRS meeting will be August 10th.

If there is anything I have missed or misstated, please let me know.
secretary@rrs.org