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, 2024-04-14

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.


MTA Work Event – January 20th, 2024

by Dave Nordling and Joel Cool-Panama, Secretary, RRS.ORG


The RRS held a work event at the Mojave Test Area (MTA) on Saturday, January 20th. The primary purpose of this meeting was to give Joel Feree, our contact with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), an in-person tour of the whole MTA, so that he could get an idea as to what we were working with for our collaboration with American Artist which will involve the recreation of the 1936 Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) prototype liquid rocket engine. This was Joel Ferree’s first time at the MTA and he gained much insight into how we’ll be seeing the project through. Dimitri Timohovich also used his experience in the film industry to highlight some practical aspects for the production. Following this meeting, Dave Nordling, Dimitri, and Joel Ferree came up with a timeline for the project. Dave Nordling, serving as the project leader, is working hard to get hardware ready for an initial firing by our membership at the MTA. Once the system is proven to work reliably and safely, the static firing of this replica will be the centerpiece of the filming to take place at the MTA.

On the same day, four student representatives of Loyola Marymount University’s rocketry team came to meet with Dave Nordling. They intend to build a custom hybrid motor, which they plan to static fire at the MTA. Dave gave them some points on their motor and feed system designs, which they can certainly appreciate, given that this is their first experimental rocket project. Rushd Julfiker and Dave will continue to advise the team on their propellant loading system and ignition system, and they may well use a firing box of Dimitri’s design.

While there, Dave and Dimitri worked on moving some of the society assets from the Dosa Building to the new Bldg. 14 office container.  This was done partly to declutter the working space, in order to make it into a meeting and workspace once more. If the lease does end next year, then Polaris will be removing many items of theirs which are also in the Dosa Building, including refrigerators, stove, and laminar flow bench. Polaris is required according to the terms of the lease to notify the RRS Executive Council of the movement of their assets.

According to Dimitri, a company called Tortuga Industries has reportedly bought 183 acres of land along Munsey Road. According to the rumors, they are looking to turn their parcel into a private duck hunting reserve, complete with a large pond.

Dimitri also reported that Crisalli is taking the initiative to fix the northern road running along the eastern side of the MTA property. Gordon has so far filled in the trench near the northeastern corner of the property, removed the concrete barricades, and installed a gate across the road. He has reportedly been using this northern route himself, dragging it several times in the process. He reports that the 4 miles of the northern road leading to the highway is now certainly passable, albeit the creek bed is still soft as of this writing. The RRS still recommends all visitors and users of the MTA continue to use the western (Munsey) road from Cantil until further improvements can be made.  The RRS MTA has access gates along the eastern border but they are rarely used.

Next monthly meeting will be February 9th.

Next work event at the MTA is planned for February 17th. This will depend on planned Polaris operations which could close the access easement road. Coordination with Polaris will be required.