MTA launch event, 2020-12-12

by Dave Nordling, Reaction Research Society

The RRS held it’s last launch event of this difficult but eventful year, 2020. COVID-19 continues to pose a significant threat to the wellbeing of our members and the world at large. One of the advantages of our remote testing site is the ease that our members can socially distance themselves and with masks and proper planning of shared tasks the risk of contagion is easily mitigated. I was the pyro-op in charge for this event. We had three planned launches that would depend on good weather and a work task to repair our vertical test stand.

The winds were strong that day coming into the MTA site from the western route. A lot of sand swirling was a poor omen for the weather that day.

My late arrival found our participants waiting at the gate and with my apologies we entered and began our set up.

Wolfram Blume’s Gas Guzzler was to take it’s first flight today, but he decided to scrub for the day. The winds were a persistent nuisance and prevented launch operations for much of the day, but after 2pm calm winds prevailed. It is difficult to know when the weather will change except that it inevitably does. Wolfram’s first flight will have to wait for the new year,

The Gas Guzzler solid-motor booster stage to the left, the gasoline-fueled ramjet upper stage to the right.


The vertical launch structure at the RRS MTA has had a bent panel from an explosion from a failed test over a decade or more ago. This stretched 1/4” steel panel was significantly bowed away from the others which made mounting very difficult. Replacement panels were made back in October, but today was the day the bent panel would be cut away and the sides grinded to fit the replacement panel.

Dimitri Timohovich was able to cut away the bent panel using a length of aluminum channel clamped to the side for careful alignment of the plasma cutting process.

Dimitri Timohovich cutting away the bent panel from the vertical test stand.
The bent panel removed.

Dmitri brings a lot of mechanical skills and the society is grateful he joined us in helping make improvements to our site. The winds were too high that day for the shield gas flow needed in the welding process. The edges were blended to allow the replacement panel to be fitted accurately within the vertical launch rail using two lengths of unistrut. With careful measurements and the right equipment, Dmitri or Waldo Stakes can stick-weld the replacememt panel in place and keep a reasonable horizontal and vertical positional accuracy with the hole patterns of the plates above and below,

The replacement panel was bolted and held in place for the weld operations to take place at a later date.

The last step after a successful welding of the replacement panel would be applying the spray-on galvanizing paint product to protect the metal from the caustic and harsh desert environment for years to come, The unistrut pieces looked to be handy for future projects so we decided to leave them in place.


Bill Inman and his colleague from Nevada arrived with a third design iteration to his parabolic solar collector heating system for his two-inch steam rocket, This design featured a larger area collector and a launch rail system for his 2-inch SimpleCat steam rocket prototype. The launch rails guide the 2-inch steam rocket vessel at the collector’s focus for heating. At the exhaust end of the rails is the steam release mechanism that was simplified from prior successful designs.

It was dubious if the launch would even be possible that day but Bill’s solar collector system could be deployed from his trailer on our site and at least collect heating data even if the steam rocket wouldn’t fly.

After correcting some initial fit problems, the larger parabolic mirror was deployed.
The new solar collector in work under the early high winds and poor winter sunlight.

Launching was not possible for much of the day so the two groups waited for an opportunity. Bill Inman reviewed with me his steam rocket design and it’s simplified nozzle plug release design, The steam rocket despite its conceptual simplicity has many dangers. The mechanism for controlled release of the 400 degree Fahrenheit pressurized water liquid must be stable, sturdy, reliable and safe to remotely operate, Keeping a safe distance during the planned 3 to 4 hour solar heating cycle is crucial and having the continuous ability to safely scram the system at a safe distance is an absolute must. Bill’s design has a relief valve to avoid vessel over-pressure and relies on defocusing the sun away from the vessel if an abort is necessary, Removing the heat source immediately allows the fluid and vessel to cool if left alone for an hour or more and will ultimately return to ambient temperature once the heat source is removed,

During deployment, the solar collector and mounting frame had several fit problems which were solved at the site. The sun wasn’t consistent that day, but the mechanism held sturdy in the periodic gusting winds. By the end of the day, the collector was not able to generate sufficient heating for the rocket, but the experience in the field was valuable. Bill will be returning in the new year to try again.

Bill Inman at the end of an unsuccessful test at the MTA on 12-12-2020

Bill was disappointed in the results from that day’s activities as this month would have marked the 20th anniversary of his original successful flight of the Scalded Cat from the RRS MTA. I told him to take comfort in the fact that he has come a long way in a short time building three prototype devices in the same number of months. Bill is prolific and dedicated to his goal of being successful. Time should prove the value of patience and persistence.


My patience with the weather was ultimately rewarded as the winds subsided just after 2PM that day. I decided to make the next attempt to launch the larger 3-inch rocket that Larry Hoffing built that is adapted to fit the 16-inch Contrails Rocketry hybrid 38mm motor. A more energetic ignition system able to simultaneously sever the nylon fill line and ignite the combustion of the hybrid solid propellant grain was added and ready since the past July 2020 event. With the cooler temperatures, the solenoid filling valve would likely open according to the pressure gauge on our red supply bottle from Nitrous Supply Inc. in Huntington Beach,

The nitrous oxide hybrid rocket sits on the table in the Dosa Building at the MTA waiting for the winds to subside.

Dmitri Timohovich helped me set up the nitrous oxide bottle and manifold. The two-channel filling and firing circuit needed some labelling to clarify the proper wiring. A new lead-acid 12-volt lawnmower battery was acquired for the society as the previous one finally had to be retired and recycled. The new battery was ready for a launch that would ultimately not happen that day.

The rocket’s recovery system passed checkout as the original internal 9-volt battery installed months earlier was still healthy, The venting tube needed to be realigned with the exit hole to allow the white jet of liquid to be visually indicated when the nitrous volume is fully filled. It is important to detect this at a distance from the blockhouse as it is not safe to examine it more closely.

Fill, drain and firing circuit for a Contrails hybrid rocket motor

The launch would not take place due to a missing push-to-connect fitting to join the fluid filling tube from the rocket back to the nitrous manifold. The schematic above shows the key parts of the system minus the separate vent solenoid that failed on the original manifold, It is always frustrating to be missing one critical item despite days of preparation. After a lot of searching in vain for a single fitting, the container of materials will be better organized in the future and extra 3/16” push-to-connect Prestolok fittings will be ordered to arrive in time for the next launch event.

It was all the more painful to stand at the MTA under nearly calm winds and have to wait for another day. These are the trials and tribulations of rocketry,

Bill Inman and John Krell next to the old blockhouse at the RRS MTA.

At the end of the day, we gathered to discuss the progress or lack thereof that day. We made plans for the next launch event which seems to be best held on January 9th. We were glad for each other’s company and stayed at a safe distance throughout, We’ll return again to the MTA soon.

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