As the world mourns the loss of the once fantastic flying machine known as the space shuttle Discovery, the future of full-scale rocketry hangs in the balance. Children of a vacant launch pad hang their heads low in Cape Canaveral, several miles from the ghostly visage of a skeletal support structure. Rockets are launched every day, from private corporations and government facilities, and even from empty lots most often used for little league games, by hobbyists for whom models — several times smaller than their life-sized counterparts — are close enough to the real thing (sans upper-atmospheric orbital trajectories).
“I’ve been launching rockets for 25 years,” said Ventura resident Al Frazier. He recently obtained permission to launch a charter branch of the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) in the county, but has run up against laws dating back to the 1950s that are keeping him, and others, grounded. “We were told that rockets are dangerous, that they cause fires and hurt people.”
Model rocketry was in its infancy in the ’50s, when the launch of the Sputnik satellite prompted tinkerers across the country to experiment with their own rocket engines. The film October Sky dramatized the popularity (and tragic mishaps) of the sport. It was around that time that the county of Ventura classified the rockets as more than simply a hobby, but in the same category as fireworks and other explosives.
“It’s not an unusual rule,” said Pam Gallo, operations supervisor for the County Parks Department, who made it clear that they do not recognize a difference between rockets and other, less refined, combustion-propelled hobbies. “It’s not done by magic, it’s done with some kind of explosion. That’s where the ordinance is very clear. You can’t come into a park and light a fire cracker, and you can’t set off your little rocket.”
Since the ’50s, the engines used for model rockets have become safer and more reliable than were their original designs — able to withstand high temperatures and the brute force of impact while containing the combustion.
Hobbyists themselves have appealed, raising the educational benefits of the construction of rockets, claiming that teachers would benefit from allowing launches on school grounds — a practice that Frazier had performed in the past.
“Model rockets are, amongst other things, a very educational thing to do,” said Frazier. “There’s a myriad of education involved in this,” he said, pointing out that launching rockets would make for an exciting extracurricular activity for students of science. “Two weeks ago, we were kicked off of a local junior college. It’s really detrimental to everyone involved.”
Cities often designate areas for sports considered dangerous, such as “hardball,” or baseball. As can be seen by the many fields in existence throughout the county, the city has made an exception for the sport. It’s the refusal of the county to make an exception for Frazier and his rocket friends in the county that frustrates him, as he watches his options fizzle.
“I’ve had a few crashes along the way, but crashes in the area where you’d expect the rocket to safely crash. I’m very careful when I launch a rocket. The city of Ventura doesn’t even want to hear it, but we’ve all talked about it, and everyone says you can’t fight city hall.”
Frazier is currently shopping private land owners for space to entertain the future rocket boys and rocket girls of the city with his controlled launches. In the meantime, he asks the county for recognition.
“We’re the Ventura County Rocket Association. We want to launch in Ventura.”
For additional information, you can find the Ventura County Rocket Association on Facebook.