MTA launch event, 2021-05-29

by Dave Nordling, Reaction Research Society


The Reaction Research Society held a launch event at the Mojave Test Area mainly to support the UCLA Prometheus team for a static fire test of their high powered hybrid motor. UCLA chose one of the largest nitrous oxide hybrid motor designs, the M1575, made by Contrails Rocketry. Dave Crisalli was the pyrotechnic operator in charge for this event. I was his apprentice for the hybrid static fire.

There were three main activities at this event. The first was the UCLA Rocket Project making their preparations to launch their ethanol and LOX vehicle from the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) site from the 60-foot rail. FAR is just to the south of the RRS MTA where the UCLA Rocket Project had twice in one day static fired their 750 lbf liquid propellant rocket engine just four weeks earlier on 05-01-2021.

Weather conditions were ideal with winds being nearly still for most of the morning. This makes little difference for the hybrid motor static fire testing at the RRS MTA which was the second project by UCLA. Wind would factor heavily in the flight of the UCLA’s liquid rocket.

The third planned activity for UCLA was a series of model rocket flights from several high school teams mentored by UCLA graduate and undergraduate students. Still winds made for easier recovery of the first rockets launched that day.

UCLA Prometheus team prepares for static fire at the RRS MTA on 5-29-2021
Dave Crisalli gives the MTA safety briefing for the event in the loading area where the model rockets were assembled for flight.
UCLA graduate students conducted the model rocket launches from just west of the large test stand at the MTA

UCLA at the end of each Spring Quarter conducts a launch event where student groups build small rockets with egg payloads using single and dual-stage vehicles with model rocket class motors (G and under). UCLA graduate students and Professor Mitchell Spearrin were leading this event.

It is good experience for beginners and experts alike to build and fly model rockets., The RRS has it’s own such internal program called the Yoerg Challenge which is to motivate all members to build and fly a model rocket kit at least once from the RRS MTA. The RRS is known as an experimental society and not limited to the model rocket code, but we are also fully supportive of all forms of propulsion as long as it is safely conducted and compliant to the regulations set by the state of California.

As the UCLA hybrid rocket team was making their system checks, they discovered a problem in their nitrous filling system and valve commands. During this diagnostic period, some of the RRS members went to the nearby FAR site to see how the UCLA liquid rocket preparations were progressing.

UCLA’s liquid rocket set on the 60-foot rail launcher at FAR. The team preparing the vehicle for erecting, loading then flight.
RRS members from left to right, Bill Inman, Waldo Stakes, John Wells and Manuel Marquez, inspect the UCLA liquid rocket on the 60-foot launcher deployed at the FAR site.
A few last minute fixes and the rocket was made ready.
The liquid rocket sits on the rail before raising it for launch.
UCLA’s rocket is in position getting ready to clear the area for propellant loading and pressurization operations.

Some of the RRS members remained at the FAR site to witness the launch. After two years of design, planning, build and world pandemic, the UCLA team liquid rocket launch was an amazing success. Due to the relatively low winds that day under clear skies, recovery was made just under a mile away. Preliminary data from telemetry confirmed a new university team altitude record of 22,000 feet. It was an amazing sight to witness from the observation bunker at the RRS MTA.

UCLA’s liquid rocket had a perfect launch on 5-29-2021 setting a new altitude record of 22,000 feet by a university team. Photo by Xavier Marshall, RRS.

The UCLA Prometheus team had corrected their initial electrical problem and began the series of procedural checks to familiarize the new members of the hybrid rocket team. Some minor adjustments of the motor mount alignment was necessary before getting into test.

The UCLA Prometheus team makes some adjustments to better align the hybrid motor in the vertical skid mounted to classic I-beam at the RRS MTA.
The nitrous oxide K-bottle sits inverted in the sloped stand to allow the liquid to flow from the port. Some nitrous oxide bottles come with an internal siphon line to avoid having to invert the container. The bottle is also being chilled with ice to keep the oxidizer sufficiently dense and improve performance in hot-fire.
The top bulkhead of the hybrid motor is attached to the load cell for thrust measurement. A pressure transmitter is tapped into the nitrous oxide volume to further gauge performance.
The high-powered hybrid motor by Contrails uses four 1/4-inch fill lines and a single smaller vent line from the same floating injector at the mid-point inside
Dave Crisalli (right) inspects the hybrid motor on the test rails before the firing
UCLA Prometheus team tracks their written procedures as they progress to hot-fire in the old blockhouse.

The hybrid motor firing proceeded without further problems and resulted in a spectacular test meeting expected performance. Continuous thrust levels over 600 lbf were recorded but data analysis is still ongoing.

The hybrid motor at startup.
The UCLA hybrid motor at full thrust. Chamber pressure was over 1000 psia.

The team had a second hybrid motor grain ready for another firing so they proceeded with disassembly and inspection of the parts. The floating injector seals were still in good condition but the graphite nozzle having survived many prior hot fire tests did not survive that day’s test. Although the throat was in good condition, the inlet taper had cracked requiring a replacement the team did not have.

The top half of the floating injector with its internal siphon tube protruding up to near the top bulkhead.
The floating injector being removed from the lower half containing the spent fuel propellant grain.
The floating injector was removed after hot-fire and the dual O-ring seals were inspected. Seals were ok for re-use.
The nozzle assembly did not pass inspection after the first and only hot-fire on 05-29-2021.
The graphite nozzle fractured at the inlet taper from the first and only firing that day.

UCLA Prometheus was pleased with the results from the single firing and will proceed with integrating the motor into their flight vehicle for a launch from FAR on June 19, 2021. The RRS will hold an event at the Mojave Test Area on this same Saturday for member projects and will observe the flight from our northern vantage point.

UCLA avionics team conducted a few tests on the GPS tracking module that will fly on their vehicle in June 2021.

In the last hours of the day, after most of the UCLA liquid and hybrid teams had cleared the area, packaged and carried away their trash, packed their equipment and departed the RRS MTA and FAR sites. The UCLA avionics team remained at the MTA to conduct another series of tests on the GPS tracking system. The society was glad to support this diligence which will help assure success in one of the most important aspects of rocketry which is data acquisition from telemetry. If there is no data, it didn’t happen.

For any group interested in using the RRS MTA for their propulsion related projects, download one of our Standard Record Forms from our RRS.ORG website and submit this request to the RRS president. The society has had a long relationship with UCLA and USC, but we are also supportive to any amateur, professional or academic groups wanting to learn from test.

president@rrs.org


MTA launch event, 2021-05-01

by Dave Nordling, Reaction Research Society


The Reaction Research Society held an event at the Mojave Test Area (MTA) on May 1, 2021. Dave Crisalli was the pyrotechnic operator in charge. RRS president, Osvaldo Tarditti, was also present along with myself, It was not to be a launch event as all planned tests were static firings by the UCLA liquid rocket team and the UCLA hybrid motor team. The winds were very high that day consistently above 20 MPH and gusts above 50 MPH at times. The weather otherwise was very cooperative with comfortable temperatures.

Other than gusting and persistently hugh winds, it was a great day at the MTA on 5/1/2021

Dave Crisalli gave a safety briefing in the George Dosa building to all attendees before the first static fire campaign would begin. The RRS pyrotechnic operator in charge is responsible for the safety of all during the event. Hazard identification (spiders, snakes, sharp objects) and good practices (hydration, sunscreen) are always part of the briefing, One of the most important things, Dave Crisalli mentioned was not to be in a hurry. It is very important to take the proper time to do things correctly and safely even if it means not proceeding with the intended test that day. Taking your time means avoiding mistakes and improving your chances for success.

Xavier Marshall observes the UCLA hybrid motor controls setup at the RRS MTA on 5/1/2021.

RRS members, Bill Inman and John Wells came to the MTA for the event, but only as spectators. The Solar Cat project is still active and undergoing improvements to its sun tracking method. Bill is also expanding the collector area and adjusting the necessary support structures. It is likely Bill and John will be back for the next RRS MTA event.

Dave Crisalli (left) and Bill Inman (right) at the RRS MTA vertical test stand on 5/1/2021

Also in attendance was the Compton Comet team who have all recently joined the society as members. It was their first time visiting the MTA and getting a chance to see another university team conduct liquid rocket test operations at our vertical test stand.

Members of the Compton Comet team, Manuel Marquez, Aarington Mitchell, Tre Willingham (from left to right) wait at the Observation Bunker at the MTA for the hybrid motor firing with Waldo Stakes (at right).

RRS member, Wolfram Blume came by the RRS MTA to take measurements of the vertical test stand for a future static fire test of his ramjet upper stage engine. He intends to use a leaf-blower compressor motor to simulate foward air flow, but a lot of calculations and planning is required before proceeding. The vertical test stand has a winch and pulley system still attached from Richard Garcia’s liquid motor test in 2017. It should be adequate for Wolfram’s lifting needs when mounting the test equipment to the stand.

The vertical test stand with the winch and pulley system still mounted.

The UCLA team spent the night before on our site setting up their equipment. This advanced planning paid off as they were ready for the first of two hot-fires of the liquid rocket just past noon.

Camera adjustments made before the first hot fire of the UCLA liquid rocket on 5/1/2021

Often, it can take several hours to verify all systems are in good working order before testing especially with a liquid rocket, The hybrid rocket was no exception that day.

The UCLA hybrid motor team installs the fuel grain and nozzle into the 98mm standard motor casing,
The UCLA hybrid motor mounted for static fire on the RRS MTA I-beam

One of the two load cells had failed so the two teams had to share the same load cell between the hybrid motor and liquid motor firings. UCLA chose to let the hybrid team go next after successful results were seen with the first firing, The UCLA hybrid motor team corrected a few issues and were able conduct a successful hot-fire by late afternoon.

The society members in attendance also had time to make some minor repairs to the new mobile trailer asset, A steel plate was added to keep intruders from entering. Thanks to Waldo Stakes for doing the welding for this temporary fix.

The mobile trailer at the RRS MTA needs a lot of repairs

There was sufficient daylight remaining for a second hot-fire of the UCLA liquid rocket, The team had another engine with the previous injector design from last built and ready with a fresh internal ablative liner. They had retanked another load of ethanol and the liquid oxygen cylinder had sufficient stores for another loading cycle.

Preparing for liquid oxygen transfer to the propellant tank

Thanks to the hard-won, acquired experience of the UCLA team and their commitment to training new members and holding to their proven procedures, they were able to conduct the second firing safely for an impressive finish that day.

The UCLA liquid rocket team poses before their liquid rocket after a second successful hot fire on the same day.

Initial data from both UCLA static firings of their liquid motor suggest that the 650 lbf nominal thrust motor outperformed expectations and will be ready for vehicle integration and flight by May 29, 2021. The UCLA team had reason to celebrate at the end of the day. The RRS was glad to be a part of UCLA’s continued campaign to fly liquid rockets that are competitive with any university team in the country.

For other universities interested in working with the RRS, please contact the society president submitting a Standard Record Form downloaded from our website,

president@rrs.org


Liquid Rocket Components: Pyrotechnic Valves

by Tom Mueller


Editor’s Note: This is a reprinting of the original article written by RRS member, Tom Mueller on the subject of pyrotechnic actuated valves around 1995 (?). He mentions the build of two different rockets (the XLR-50 and the Condor) and a hypergolic rocket he intended to build after this article was written. We hope to gather more photos and details about these rockets and display them in future improvements to this posting. For now, please enjoy the subject matter as the information is very relevant today to amateur builders of liquid rockets. The RRS has been very active lately in re-exploring liquid rockets. The society thought this would be a timely and interesting subject to share with our readers.

For any questions, please contact the RRS secretary, secretary@rrs.org


For an amateur rocketeer seeking to build a liquid rocket, one of the most difficult components to obtain or build are remotely operated valves. A liquid rocket will require at least one valve to start the flow of propellants to the combustion chamber. In the two small liquid rockets I have flown in the last year or so, both used a pyrotechnic fire valve located between the pressurant tank and the propellant tanks. The propellants were held in the tanks by burst disks (or equivalent) in the propellant run lines. When the fire valve was actuated, the sudden pressure rise in the propellant tanks blew the burst disks, allowing propellant to flow to the injector. This method of controlling the flow to the rocket allows the use of only one valve, and eliminates liquid valves.

In the case of the first rocket, the XLR-50 which flew in October 1993, elimination of the liquid valve was important because the oxidizer was liquid oxygen, and a small cryogenic compatible valve is very difficult to construct.

For the second rocket, which flew in October 1994, the small size prevented the use of liquid valves. In fact, the single pyro valve I used was barely able to fit in the 1.5 inch rocket diameter. In this article I will describe the design of the valves that were used on these two vehicles, and variations of them that have been used in other rocket applications.

FIGURE 1: XLR-50 pyro-technic “fire” valve

The valve shown in Figure 1 consisted of a stainless steel body with a 0.375 inch diameter piston. The O-rings were Viton (material) and the squib charge was contained in a Delrin plastic cap. The Delrin was used to prevent shorting of the nichrome wire, and also to provide a frangible fuse in case the squib charge proved to be a little too energetic. In practice, I’ve never had the Delrin cap fracture.

The inlet and outlet lines to the tanks were silver brazed to the valve body. The valve was tested many times at inlet pressures of up to 1000 psi without any problems, other than the O-rings would need replaced after several firings due to minor nicks from the ports. To help alleviate this problem, the edges of the ports were rounded to help prevent the O-ring from getting pinched as the piston translates. This was accomplished using a small strip of emery cloth that was secured in a loop in one end of a short length of 0.020-inch stainless steel wire. The other end of the wire was clamped in a pin vise which in turn was chucked in a hand drill. As the wire was rotated by the drill, the emery was pulled snugly into the port, where it deformed into the shape of the inlet, and rounded the sharp edge. I used WD-40 as a lubricant for this operation, allowing the emery to wear out until it would finally pull through the port. I repeated this process a few times for each port until the piston would slide through the bore without the O-rings snagging the ports.

Another requirement is to lubricate the O-rings with a little Krytox grease. This helps the piston move freely and greatly reduces the problem of nicked O-rings.

FIGURE 2: Fire valve for a micro-rocket

The pyro valve I used in the 25 lbf thrust micro-rocket that was launched in October of 1994 is shown in Figure 2. This valve was identical in operation to the XLR-50 valve, with the major difference being its integration into the vehicle body. The valve body was a 1.5 inch diameter aluminum bulkhead that separated the nitrogen pressurant tank and the oxidizer tank. Because of the very small diameter of the rocket, the clearances between ports and O-rings were minimized, just allowing the valve to fit. The fuel outlet port was located at the vehicle center, providing pressure to the fuel tank by the central stand pipe that passed axially down the oxidizer tank. The piston stop was a piece of heat-treated alloy steel that was attached to the valve body by a screw. This stop was originally made from aluminum, but was bent by the impact of the piston in initial tests of the valve. The black powder charge in the Delrin cap was reduced and the black powder was changed from FFFg grade to a courser FFg powder, but the problem persisted. The stop was re-made from oil hardening steel and the problem was solved. In this application, the port diameters were only 1/16 inch so only a small amount of rounding was required to prevent the O-rings from getting pinched in the ports. The valve operated with a nitrogen lock-up pressure of 1000 psi.

FIGURE 3: Fire valve for Mark Ventura’s peroxide rocket

A more challenging application of the same basic valve design was used for the fire valve of Mark Ventura’s peroxide hybrid, as shown in Figure 3. This was the first application of this valve where liquid was the fluid being controlled, rather than gas. In this case the liquid was 85% hydrogen peroxide. The second difficulty was the fact that the ports were required to be 0.20 inch in diameter in order to handle the required flow rate. The valve was somewhat simpler than the previous valves in that only a single inlet and outlet were required. The valve body was made from a piece of 1.5-inch diameter 6061 aluminum, in which a 1/2-inch piston bore was drilled. The piston was also 6061 with Viton O-rings, which are peroxide compatible. The ports were 1/4-inch NPT pipe threads tapped into the aluminum body. The excess material on the sides of the valve was milled off, so that the valve was only about 3/4 of an inch thick, and weighed only 4 ounces. Even though the piston size was 1/2 inch, the same charge volume used in the 3/8 inch valves was sufficient to actuate the piston.

In testing the valve with water at a lock-up pressure of 800 psi, I was pleased to find that even with the large ports, O-ring pinching was not a problem. One saving factor was that the larger size of the ports made it easier to round the entrances on the bore side. The valve was tested with water several times successfully before giving it to Mark for the static test of his hybrid.

The only problem that occurred during the static test of hybrid rocket was that the leads to the nichrome wire kept shorting against the valve body. Three attempts were made before the squib was finally ignited and the engine ran beautifully. I have since been able to solve this problem by soldering insulated 32-gauge copper wire to the nichrome wire leads inside the Delrin cap. In this way, I can provide long leads to the valve with reliable ignition.

My next liquid rocket is a 650 lbf design that burns LOX and propane at 500 psia. This engine uses a Condor ablative chamber obtained from a surplus yard. For this reason, I call it the Condor rocket. This rocket uses a scuba tank with 3000 psi helium for the pressurant. I decided to build a high pressure version of my valve as the helium isolation valve for this rocket. When firing this rocket, just prior to the 10 second count, this valve will be fired, pressurizing the propellant tanks to 600 psi. I assumed going in to this design that the O-rings slipping past a port simply wasn’t going to work at 3000 psi.

At these pressures, the O-ring would extrude into the port. In order to get around this problem I came up with the design shown in Figure 4.

FIGURE 4: High pressure helium valve for Condor rocket

For this valve, the O-ring groves were moved from the piston to the cylinder bore of the valve body, so the O-rings do not move relative to the ports. The piston is made from stainless steel with a smooth surface finish and generous radii on all of the corners. The clearance between the piston and the bore was kept very small to prevent extrusion of the O-rings. The valve operation is similar to the one shown in Figure 3, and the valve body is made in the same way except female AN ports were used rather than NPT ports. When the valve is fired, the piston travels from the position shown in Figure 4a to that shown in Figure 4b. During this travel, the inlet pressure on the second O-ring will cause it to “blow out” as the piston major diameter translates past the O-ring groove. The O-ring is retained around the piston, causing no obstruction or other problems. This valve has been tested at 2400 psi inlet pressure with helium and works fine. It will be tested at 3000 psi prior to the first hot fire tests of the Condor rocket next spring.

As a side note, essentially an identical valve design as the one used on the Condor and Mark’s valve is a design shown in NASA publication SP-8080, “Liquid Rocket Pressure Regulators, Relief Valves, Check Valves, Burst Disks and Explosive Valves”.

A second pyro valve is used on the Condor system as shown in Figure 5. This valve is used to vent the LOX tank in the event of a failure to open the fire valve to the engine.

FIGURE 5: Emergency vent valve for LOX tank, Condor rocket

When the propellant tanks are pressurized by the helium pyro valve, the LOX tank auto vent valve (shown in Figure 6) closes. If the engine is not fired after a reasonable amount of time, the LOX will warm up, building pressure until something gives (probably the LOX tank). The pyro valve shown in Figure 5 is used as the emergency tank vent if the engine cannot be fired. The valve body is stainless steel with a stainless tube stub welded on for connection to the LOX tank. This valve has been tested to 800 psi with helium and works fine. In this case, some ‘nicking’ of the O-rings can be tolerated because the O-rings are not required to seal after the valve is fired. The ports in the bore are still rounded, however, to prevent the O-rings from getting nicked or pinched during assembly of the valve.

Even though it is not a pyro valve, I have shown the LOX auto-vent valve in Figure 6 because this design has proven to be very useful for venting cryogenic propellant tanks without requiring a separately actuated valve or control circuit. The valve uses a Teflon slider that is kept in the vent position as shown in Figure 6a.

This allows the tank to vent to the atmosphere, keeping the propellant at its normal boiling point. When the helium system is activated, the pressurant pushes the slider closed against the vent port, sealing off the LOX tank, as shown in Figure 6b. An O-ring is used around the slider to give it a friction fit so the aspiration of the LOX tank does not “suck” the slider to the closed position. This problem happened to David Crisalli (fellow RRS member) when he scaled this design up for use on his 1000 lbf rocket system. I have used this design on the LOX tank of my XLR-50 rocket, which used a 1/4-inch diameter slider, and on the Condor LOX tank, which uses a 1/2 inch slider. In both cases the vent valve worked perfectly.

FIGURE 6: Automatic LOX tank vent valve

The main fire valve on the Condor rocket is a pair of ball valves that are chained together to a single lever so that both the fuel and oxidizer can be actuated simultaneously for smooth engine startup. For static testing of the rocket, I will use a double-acting air cylinder to actuate the valves. For flight, however, I plan to use a pin that is removed by an explosive squib to hold the valve in the closed position. When the squib is ignited, the pin is pulled by the action of the charge on a piston, allowing the valves to be pulled to the open position by a spring. This method may not be very elegant, but it is simple, light, and packages well on the vehicle. David Crisalli has successfully employed this technique on his large rocket.

That covers the extent of the pyro valves I have built or plan to build so far. In the next newsletter, I will present the design and flight of the small hypergolic propellant rocket that used the valve shown in Figure 2.