MTA Firing Event, 2024-06-08

by Dave Nordling, Reaction Research Society


The Reaction Research Society (RRS) hosted a unique event with our clients, American Artist and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) at our private testing site, the Mojave Test Area (MTA). This was part of a larger two day event that began with an all-day filming and liquid engine static fire event on Saturday, June 8th at the RRS MTA. The next day began with a late luncheon, round-table discussion and short film presentation held at the Voyager Restaurant at the Mojave Air and Spaceport on Sunday, June 9th, 2024. The RRS was one of several invited guests including the Getty Foundation, Hyundai, Dr. Ayana Jamieson (Cal Poly Pomona), members of JPL and LACMA. The final event was a live performance and static firing of the replica engine at the RRS MTA which was a resounding success.

Seated from left to right, Adam Kleinman, American Artist and Dr. Ayana Jamieson, at the Voyager Restaurant in Mojave, California

Excerpted from LACMA press release:

American Artist: The Monophobic Response documents a meticulously crafted yet poetically altered re-creation of a pivotal 1936 static rocket engine test that initiated the United States’ venture into space travel. Inspired by Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which unfolds in the imagined dystopic year of 2024, American Artist performed and filmed The Monophobic Response in the Mojave Desert at the Reaction Research Society’s Mojave Test Area in the same summer of 2024. Artist’s interpretation involved an actual rocket engine test fire against the dry, desolate Californian landscape, creating eerie juxtapositions between Butler’s prescient visions and our troubling realities. Drawing parallels between Butler’s fictive 2024 U.S. presidential race led by an anti-space demagogue and the impending real-world election, this installation weaves together thought-provoking takes on our collective liberation and the concept of our shared “Destiny.”  

RRS MTA, 6/1/2024, From left to right: Joe Dominguez, Dimitri Timohovich, Dave Nordling, Leanna Lincoln, Bill Nelson, Tre Willingham, David Stevenson, Manny Marquez, Aarington Mitchell

This museum-funded project required the RRS to build a reasonably accurate but working replica of the 1936 GALCIT liquid methanol and gaseous oxygen bi-propellant rocket engine and it’s associated static fire vertical thrust stand as shown in limited design sketches and black and white photography of the period. Some images provided courtesy of JPL archives.

LACMA-American Artist filming day at RRS MTA, 6/8/24, from left to right, Dimitri Timohovich, Frank Miuccio and Dave Nordling

The 1936 GALCIT engine was one of the first American bi-propelllant rocket engines. This experimental device used liquid methanol, a common household and industrial solvent at the time, and gaseous oxygen which was more readily accessible than the cryogenic liquid form at that time. The prototype engine had single injection ports for the propellants with a bolt-together chamber and threaded converging-diverging nozzle made for a reasonable testbed to explore the practical difficulties in rocket engine build and test. Regulated nitrogen gas supplied the liquid fuel from a custom-built run tank. The gaseous oxygen was supplied directly to the engine from a regulated high pressure gas bottle. Sandbag walls were a common protective feature for early rocket experiments conducted in open field areas on the edge of town.

A water cooling jacket feature was included in the design but proved to be unnecessary for short firing durations. Some details such as seals, firing box (if any), electric batteries, and the pressurized feed system were not clearly seen or absent from the information provided but reasonable design inferences made the engine systems complete while keeping the visual aesthetic largely true to the photos.

The singular objective of this project was to build an engine able to fire on camera for the film. Engine performance was only a consideration with regard to reliable firing on command. The electric solenoid valves were added to this modern setup for safe and remotely controlled operations behind the sand berm to the west of the MTA’s launch racks leaving an unobstructed, open view of the northern mountain range and the western view of Koehn Dry Lake. Pyrotechnic ignition of the engine from the open nozzle at the top proved to be very difficult but switching to an internally mounted spark igniter was far superior.

Flame color experiment with strontium chloride salt added to a small amount of liquid methanol burned in open air in a stainless steel dish.

For improved visibility of the engine plume in hot fire, strontium chloride salt was added to the liquid methanol providing a bright red/magenta color that could be seen even in the harsh glare of the mid-day sun. Once a reliable firing process was discovered, the team did not deviate making sure our team could execute our tasks without mistakes and our clients had the visual spectacle they required for this artistic endeavor.

Once the internal orifice screws properly balanced the oxidizer and fuel flow rates, the engine could be fired repeatedly. The engine proved to be very robust with little or no erosion on any of the interior surfaces even after 20-25 seconds of hot fire under the slightly fuel rich, methanol/oxygen flame temperatures. The custom-cut graphoil seals were able to last for several firings and only requiring replacement at the end of the day. The model aircraft spark plugs continued to operate even after half a dozen firings.

An important part of the production involved two of our society members, Tre Willingham and Aarington Mitchell, who both acted in the film and fired the engine under the oversight of the pyrotechnic operator in charge, Dave Nordling.

GALCIT-built prototype bipropellant rocket engine, October 1936, Arroyo Seco, outisde of Pasadena, California; image courtesy of JPL Archives

Bill Nelson and Dave Nordling collected photos and videos taken from the RRS MTA over the months, weeks and days leading up to the event capturing the evolution of the replica engine and its analog thrust stand through hot-fire tests experiments, failures and finally successes. Bill Nelson is compiling a short presentation of the whole LACMA-American Artist project for the upcoming June 2024 monthly meeting on the 2nd Friday of each month (June 14 in this case). RRS monthly meetings are always held at 7:30pm at the Compton/Woodley Airport. Contact the RRS secretary, vice-president or president for the teleconference information.

Many RRS members contributed to the success of this project over the span of nine months leading up to this June 2024 event. The society would like to recognize and thank the following society members.

  • Dimitri Timohovich
  • Bill Nelson
  • Waldo Stakes
  • Tre Willingham
  • Aarington Mitchell
  • Manuel Marquez
  • Joe Dominguez
  • Leanna Lincoln
  • Chase Lang
  • Wilbur Owens
  • Frank Miuccio
  • Rushd Julfiker
  • Dave Nordling

The Reaction Research Society would like to thank the following individuals for their support, assistance and contributions to the success of this multifaceted project. The project was truly a great example of how all five studies of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, can be applied to produce something great.

  • American Artist
  • Chester Toye
  • Joel Ferree, LACMA
  • Dr. Ayana Jamieson, California Polytechnic University, Pomona
  • Dr. Eric Conway, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Adam Kleinman
  • The student volunteers of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MASA)
  • Aaron Miller, Weld Services Inc., Bonsall, CA
  • Mike Vanoverbeck, Compton College, Compton, CA
  • Ron Gerlach
  • Bill Heather
  • Compton/Woodley Airport, Compton, CA
  • Edwin “Ham” Metz, Linde Gases, Lancaster, CA
  • Dion & Sons, Racing Fuels, Van Nuys, CA
  • Titan Fittings, Denver, CO
  • Shane Hermanson, Field Medic
  • Karri and Derek Toth, Snake Wranglers, Palmdale, CA
  • Derek Honkawa, Friends of Amateur Rocketry

For questions and inquiries about similar projects and topics, contact the RRS president, Frank Miuccio.


MTA Firing Event, 2024-04-27

by Dave Nordling, Reaction Research Society


The UCLA hybrid rocket team had a static fire event at the RRS Mojave Test Area (MTA) on Saturday, April 27, 2024, under dry and fair weather. Osvaldo Tarditti was the pyrotechnic operator in charge. I was able to assist him a few times in monitoring the progress. The UCLA team has advanced their custom grain and motor design and has improved their nitrous oxide feed system over the last few years. After having some operational challenges and resolving some leak testing issues, UCLA was able to conduct two static firings from the RRS MTA vertical test stand.

Bill Nelson and I met at the MTA to examine and assemble the propellant feed tanks and the associated valve manifolds that will be used in the static firing of the 1936 GALCIT engine replica the society built from a few archival sketches from Frank Malina and Jack Parsons.

RRS member Bill Nelson was able to repair the internal check valve inside our hydrotest pump and conduct a hydrostatic proof pressure test on both welded stainless pipe tanks we will use in firing the replica of the 1936 GALCIT liquid rocket engine prototype as part of the LACMA funded project for American Artist. Both tanks held 1.5 times the design pressure for 5 minutes without leak or bulging as expected.

Bill Nelson and I filled three of the larger gunny sacks with the sand that normally collects in certain areas around the MTA. More will be necessary to build a wall similar in size and appearance to those seen in archival photos in the Arroyo Seco in October 1936. The substantial weight of each required a motorized means of transport, but we were able to lay them next to the replica engine and vertical spring stand for a sense of scale.

Some of the other feed systems require further adjustment and design changes, but all is progressing nicely to an expected first firing with regulated nirogen gas pressurized liquid methanol and regulated gaseous oxygen propellants in the month of May 2024.

For use of the RRS MTA, contact the RRS president.

Next RRS monthly meeting will be Friday, May 10th, at the front office of the Compton/Woodley Airport at 7:30pm.


MTA Firing Event, 2024-04-14

by Dave Nordling, Reaction Research Society


The RRS had a short firing event at the Mojave Test Area on April 14, 2024. I was the pyrotechnic operator in charge that day. Although less rain fell than at prior events, the cold spring weather at Koehn (not so) Dry Lake remained but with low winds.

Rushd Julfiker, our director of research, had built his commercial hybrid motor and mounted it for a static firing. The Contrails 38mm, 16-inch motor is the same model I’ve used in the past with some success. Dimitri Timohovich also apprenticed under me and oversaw operations including remote fill and drain operations. Although a hybrid motor has a solid fuel grain, the compressed liquid oxidizer constitutes a liquid rocket classification by CALFIRE standards.

Dimitri Timohovich had built a portable switch box which I have used in prior operations. It simplifies connections and has the features necessary to assure safe and compliant operations. Rushd managed a good fill operation and a clean ignition. Severing the nylon feedline often requires a boosted charge on top of the electric match. A small portion of aluminum/HTPB/AP composite grain is sufficient to cleanly sever the line while assuring sufficient ignition energy to start the fuel grain burning in the flow of the exiting nitrous oxide.

The basic objective of loading and static firing a hybrid motor at the RRS MTA was met. Rushd and Dimitri are both seeking their Class 1 pyro-op licenses and this experience adds to their growing base. After safing the nitrous system, the motor and mounting was removed and stored for a reloading later. Rushd intends to fire again at a later date, but with a load cell in the system to record thrust.

Dimitri and I observed the restroom facility (Bldg 12) at the MTA now has a functional shower inside and a working hot water system. We thank Osvaldo Tarditti for making several trips to the MTA to complete this amenity for our members and guests.

Dimitri and I discussed and examined the propellant feed system for the upcoming LACMA project with American Artist. Most fittings were present, but some changes to the schematic were necessary to simplify our first firing operations expected next month in May 2024.

For those interested in using the RRS MTA, contact the RRS president.