Rockets in the Projects

by Larry Hoffing, Educational Outreach Coordinator, Reaction Research Society

On a dusty, old blackboard at the Jordan Downs Community Center, it had a chalk tray but no chalk. I don’t think it had been used since the whiteboard had come of age. Juan, our local Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Community Safety Partnership (CSP) officer, saw my predicament, disappeared into his police sports utility vehicle and returned with a piece of white chalk he “outlined bodies with on the sidewalk.” He has a wry sense of humor and not without reason. These officers are sometimes called out to respond to a nearby situation on the street. Peace and war are very close neighbors in this part of town.

CSP arose in 2011 out of a program in the city of Los Angeles founded by Connie Rice, a civil rights leader, and the Urban Peace Institute. The idea was to pair the Los Angeles Housing Authority with the LAPD in an effort to improve relations with citizens in the public housing projects of Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts and Ramona Gardens. The Watts Bears youth football program is just one outgrowth of this program focusing on improving the quality of life and supporting the community.  Spending time with kids and financial investment pays off in the long term in lifetime earnings and with higher graduation percentages.

I’ve been teaching rocketry since the early 1970’s when model rockets (and more particularly the model rocket motors) became legal in California. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) instituted a summer playground Youth Services program that I spearheaded- federal monies helped to expand it city-wide.  The Los Angeles Fire Department, following a demonstration flight, permitted some of the city’s first launch sites at Pierce and Valley community colleges. In 2017, the LAPD came to my organization, the Reaction Research Society (RRS), to pitch the idea to start a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) program that would come to be called “Rockets In The Projects.” The idea was simple — reach out to at risk students with grand ideas about reaching for the stars and a practical series of learning experiences to help show them the way.

Founded in 1943 in Glendale, California, RRS is the oldest continuously operating amateur rocket organization in the United States. The organization pre-dates NASA by 15 years. Some of our early members went on to help launch the space race. We are uniquely positioned to partner with the LAPD to bring space flight and rocketry to south Los Angeles youth with our organization having an FAA-approved launch site north of Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert and licensed pyrotechnic operators.

Our founder, George James, presents at the 2018 RRS symposium last year.

In this program, after learning the basic laws of motion, some chemistry and the principles of propulsion and aerodynamics, we build and fly experimental rockets. It’s the first time most students, mainly from 4th to 6th grade, hold an Allen (hex) wrench, use fasteners (button head machine screws) and assemble parts with O-rings. (The O-rings on the Challenger didn’t get tested properly, it’s a simple but critical part). They learn about reducers, payload sections, and an ogive nose cone and what’s best suited for subsonic  vs. supersonic flights (the answer: it depends).

This is an equal opportunity team building program using the “A” for Art in STEAM. Each team makes it unique by painting the outside surfaces. Unicorns, polka dots, and stars are popular rocket paint schemes alongside video game and rock group names. 

5 of the 6 alphas sit in the rack; Osvaldo’s alpha with a parachute sits to the left.

These micrograin rockets develop around 300 pounds of thrust, leaving the launch rail in a fraction of a second and travel over a mile at velocities approaching the speed of sound. UCLA, USC, Cal Poly Pomona and other universities’ rocket labs test their latest designs at our site. It’s the real deal.

A fish-eyed lens view of an RRS standard alpha streaking up into the blue Mojave sky. This is our standard teaching tool on the raw power of a rocket.

This program is a chance for many students, most of whom have never been to the California desert, to reach beyond their four square city blocks. We introduce them to desert safety, launch protocols, and some of the local flora and fauna. There is a cool white rock found in the desert, also called “fire rock”, that is a type of quartz, that when struck together, creates sparks. 

Live demonstration of micrograin propellant at the MTA

We demonstrate the burning of various rocket fuels, including one used in the Space Shuttle, similar to a hard rubber eraser. A parent might ask, “What is the difference in fuels?” A really good question: gasoline is fine for getting around in a car, but it doesn’t have the “oomph” needed to escape the bonds of the Earth at about 25,000 miles per hour.

I drink from a bottle of water and say, “This rocket fuel tastes great!”. I ask for a show of hands and two believers raise theirs, hesitantly, agreeing that I’ve just drunk rocket fuel. “Don’t believe me?” I say. “Apply electric current to water (but do not try this at home!) and you can break off the hydrogen from the oxygen by a process called hydrolysis.” I clearly remember the day this experiment was run in my Van Nuys High School science class almost 50 years ago. 

Liquefied hydrogen is a fuel of choice for space exploration, along with liquid oxygen. If you are going to explore space, you need to bring an oxidizer with the fuel as there is neither above the boundary of space at the von Karman line (the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and space, estimated at from 50 to 62 miles above sea level by various agencies).

Orientation for the launch event at the George Dosa building at the RRS MTA, 2019-09-21

There is no doubt that these rocketeers with the CSP program will remember “launch day” for a long time. One student was so overcome, he told us this was the best thing that had happened in his life. These young students are at an age when some day in the future they might not only be able to buy a ticket for interplanetary trips with the stars beckoning, but make it happen. Pressing a red launch button is life changing. Part of it has to do with the spirit of flight, the satisfaction of teamwork and building something yourself, something comes to life the moment the red button is pushed.

The RRS encourages the sciences and engineering, but it doesn’t really matter what career path they choose. The students accomplish something amazing in our program. We are proud of the work we do with the community and LAPD and we will have more classes to come.

The students of Boyle Heights with the officers of LAPD CSP and the RRS pose for a group photo at the RRS MTA, 2019-09-21

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Hoffing is the Educational Outreach Coordinator for the Reaction Research Society (RRS.ORG), a 501(c)3 educational non-profit organization. He started flying rockets in junior high in the 1960’s. He is also a licensed rockets pyrotechnic operator in the state of California.

Contact Larry Hoffing at “”

MTA launch event, 2019-09-21

Larry Hoffing, Events Coordinator, RRS

Photo credits: Osvaldo Tarditti

The Reaction Research Society held another launch event with the LAPD CSP. This event was with the students of Boyle Heights. We had ten standard alphas launched into the blue Mojave sky that day including some model rockets made by Russell Hoffing and my grandson.

A lot of different groups came out for this launch event at the RRS MTA, 09-21-2019

We had students from the CSU Long Beach liquid rocket team come out to make some measurements for sub-system testing that they are planning at the RRS MTA this year.

CSU Long Beach inspects the vertical mounting structure at the RRS MTA
Model rockets in the George Dosa building undergoing preparation for launch
Students from Boyle Heights get their orientation instructions at the RRS MTA
RRS events coordinator, Larry Hoffing; RRS VP, Frank Miuccio and RRS president, Osvaldo Tarditi

Returning RRS member, John Krell, had worked up two prototype instrumentation packages for flights in the ninth and tenth RRS standard alphas on that day. Both rockets were recovered and the results were impressive.

John Krell arms his payload integrated into one of two RRS standard alphas, 09-21-2019
One of John’s prototypes survived the flight and is laid out on the table in the Dosa Bldg.
John Krell examines the recovered SD memory chips to determine the flight profile from the RRS alpha. Over 100 G’s of acceleration at take-off max’d out the sensor!

Materials have been acquired to repair the adjustable rail launcher that was damaged in early August this year. Osvaldo has been busy at work on the repairs. The RRS has several facility improvement projects in the works and we hope to bring this rail launcher back to service soon for larger rockets (4 to 6 inches).

John will hopefully have a full report and an overview of his design. Both Bill Behenna and Brian Johnson are also working on their own instrumentation designs for the RRS standard alpha. With this recent progress, this should help our others members take better data.

Still photo from RRS alpha #3 of 10 launched at the MTA on 09-21-2019.

We’ll discuss more of the results of this event in detail at the next RRS meeting on October 11, 2019. The RRS meets every 2nd Friday at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center in Gardena, California. Stop in and see how things went.

September 2019 meeting

by Dave Nordling, Secretary, RRS.ORG

The Reaction Research Society (RRS) met on Friday, September 13, 2019. We had several new people come out to visit including the CSU Long Beach liquid rocket team. They were coming to learn more about the society and our resources at the Mojave Test Area (MTA).

The RRS had a special occasion to celebrate at the meeting which we did with pizza. The RRS now has three new licensed pyro-ops, Osvaldo Tarditti, Larry Hoffing and Dave Nordling. This will help us a lot in holding more events at the MTA.

Abel, Wally, Tustin and Hunter from the CSULB Beach Launch Team, enjoyed our celebration and stayed for the meeting.

Since we had so many new people coming to the meeting, we decided to make introductions and share some of the stories and latest projects before getting to the meeting agenda topics.

Wolfram Blume, new member to the RRS, discussed his plans to static fire a gasoline fueled subsonic ramjet

New RRS member, Wolfram Blume, came to the meeting tonight to discuss his plans to build, test and ultimately fly a gasoline fuel ram-jet called the Gas Guzzler project. He’s been working on this project since 2011 and he presented the RRS president with his test request to conduct a static fire test along with many details of his initial designs. The RRS has not tested a ramjet in many years and this will be a very interesting project as it develops.

Waldo Stakes, RRS member, explains his latest progress with the steam rocket he’s been working.

Waldo Stakes came to the meeting to share with the society his latest progress with a steam rocket he’s been working on for Mad Mike Hughes. Waldo’s projects are always fascinating as he’s worked with a lot of different groups over the years in racing and in rocketry. He’s also been working with Compton College on the planning of their large liquid rocket. The RRS is also glad to be a part of Compton College’s ambitions to build a liquid rocket.

Mario and Oscar of Compton College with RRS member, Kent Schwitkis listen to Bill Behenna present his latest avoinics payload project to be built for the RRS alpha.

RRS member, Kent Schwitkis and a couple of his students from Compton College came to the society meeting. There are many bright students at Compton College interested in working with the RRS and we have already began to assist each student with tasks specific to projects their working at the college.

Bill Behenna shows his latest prototype of an alpha payload to measure acceleration and barometric pressure.

We decided to showcase our membership project first before beginning our agenda which was a very good idea. Bill Behenna has been hard at work on his avionics payload to be built to fly in the many RRS standard alphas we have at most of our launch events.

After calling the meeting to order and the reading of the treasury report, the RRS began our September meeting agenda.

(1) Next Launch Event at the RRS MTA with LAPD CSP and Boyle Heights

The RRS has finished with the last classroom presentation of the series. The students have painted their rockets and are ready for the final launch day, next Saturday, September 21, 2019. After propellant loading, the RRS will be ready to receive our next group to watch their handiwork take flight in the desert.

(2) RRS facility improvements

Osvaldo has been leading the task of evaluating facility improvements to the RRS. The main improvements under consideration are (1) improving our restroom facilities at the MTA and (2) replacing the old blockhouse at the MTA. Osvaldo has made some drawings of the new restroom facilities and is discussing the details with a vendor to get a quote.

In early August, our large adjustable rail launcher was damaged in a failed launch attempt of a large solid motor. Osvaldo began repairs and hopes to have the box rail system restored soon.

The RRS MTA site was also the victim of theft of many things from the George Dosa building. Security at our test site is difficult given its remote location. Several suggestions were made including adding cameras, improving our locks and doors, making opaque window inserts for the building, and simply being present at the site more often. The RRS has been the victim of theft before, but it is something that is never easy to recover.

(3) 2020 Constitutional Committee report

The committee was not able to make their report this month. Several factors have contributed to this delay over the summer. The committee will make its presentation to the society at the next meeting in October.

(4) Society votes on holding the 2020 RRS Symposium

After some discussion last month, the society decided that we will in fact hold the next RRS symposium in the Spring of 2020. Given the increasingly successful events we’ve had since 2017, and the many people who have encouraged us to keep this annual event, the administrative membership voted in favor. Frank Miuccio will again be our symposium coordinator and the RRS will be reaching out to presenters and exhibitors very soon. Our next order of business will be setting the date which is likely to be in the month of April.

(5) RRS to present at the CATIE conference at Antelope Valley College

Dr. Khalil Dajani of CSU Long Beach has invited the RRS to be one of the presenters at the Space Responsiveness Workshop and Exhibit at Antelope Valley College at the Hellenic Center in Lancaster, California. The 2019 California Aerospace Technologies Institute of Excellence will be held on Wednesday, September 18th where members from industry and the government will hear our presentation introducing the society and our capabilities at the Mojave Test Area. We hope to make some great contacts at this event and begin some new partnerships..

(6) RRS social activities in planning

The RRS has focused a lot on educational and project activities, but we don’t often plan simple gatherings for fun. Larry had talked about having the RRS visit Mt. Wilson as a private group. At the meeting, we also talked about having a simple barbecue at the MTA as was done in times past. We plan to revisit this discussion again. Other members are welcome to share their ideas.

(7) RRS history project – Garboden archives

Lifetime member, George Garboden, has many boxes of papers and reports from the RRS in his possession that he would like to pass back to the society for archival. In support of the RRS history project, the society is always glad to get articles, clippings and any kind of archival materials and make them more available to our membership. Frank, Larry and I have been working on the logistics of getting a new storage location, but the most important step is finding the time to carefully make quality scans.

(8) Social media improvements

Alastair Martin announced the next pending episode of his podcast, Rocket Talk Radio. Other fellow RRS members, Dave Nordling and Richard Garcia, will take part in the next installment of the “Before SpaceX” series on September 28th. In this episode, we will be interviewing Jim French. Jim has had a long and interesting career as a rocket development engineer for the H-1 and F-1 engines at Rocketdyne in the 1950’s and later at TRW in the 1960’s with the Lunar Descent engine during the heyday of Apollo. His book “Firing a Rocket Engine” is available on Amazon.

“Firing a Rocket” by James French

Jim French also worked for a startup company called the American Rocket Company (AMROC) in Camarillo in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. We hope to have a great conversation and learn a lot about his experiences at this commercial space company.

(9) Memories of George Dosa

As our last order of business, we shared with the society that we lost one of our oldest and most beloved members of our society. In our long history, George Dosa, had a profound impact on the society and many of our past and present members.

The RRS adjourned our meeting after a long series of very interesting discussions. We are thankful to all for coming and we will be holding our next monthly meeting, October 11, 2019. If there are any changes or additions to make to this monthly report, please notify the RRS secretary.