Wall Street Journal Article on Rocketry (long)

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Well-Known Member
Dec 29, 2003
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Wall Street Journal
May 7, 2004
Pg. 1

Explosive Debate: Should U.S. Check Up On Model Rockets?

Under 9/11 Law, ATF Keeps Tabs on Propellant Buyers; Feds Visit Al's Hobby Shop

By Robert Block, Staff Reporter Of The Wall Street Journal

ELMHURST, Ill. -- Al's Hobby Shop in this leafy corner of suburban Chicago is always packed with mothers looking for Cub Scout badges, teenagers ogling imported slot cars and grown men playing with model trains.

But to federal law-enforcement officials, Al's is also a possible terrorist supply depot. And so, last October, a special agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was sent to Al's from Washington to buy $1,700 in model rocket motors.

"The guy told me that the government wanted to do some tests," recalls Tim Lehr, who sold the agent 40 motors containing almost 60 pounds of propellant. "He wouldn't say what the tests were for, but I could guess: The government wanted to ruin my hobby."

Since the passage of the initial post-9/11 antiterrorism laws in October 2001, hobby rocketry has been struggling to avoid regulation that enthusiasts say will destroy their sport, deter youngsters from pursuing an interest in science and waste the nation's limited law-enforcement resources. The Department of Justice says that federal agents need to keep an eye on who is buying model rockets because the toys are potentially dangerous and could be adapted by terrorists to attack airplanes and American soldiers.

At the heart of the problem is a long-running dispute between hobbyists and the ATF, which is part of the Justice Department, over how to legally classify the chemicals used to propel rockets. Ammonium perchlorate composite propellant, better known as APCP, is a rubbery mixture of resins, powdered metals and salts that ignites at 500 degrees Fahrenheit and burns like a road flare on steroids. It's the same fuel that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration uses in the solid rocket boosters on the space shuttle.

For hobby rockets, APCP comes in the form of pellets wrapped in cardboard about an inch in diameter and three inches long. The cylinders, which start at $12.50 apiece and can go up into the hundreds of dollars, can be stacked in reusable aluminum casings to power larger rockets.

Rocketeers have always maintained that APCP doesn't detonate, it deflagrates. That is, it burns intensely at a controlled rate. Since 1971, however, the ATF has branded APCP as a "low explosive" subject to regulation and licensing by the bureau. In practice, the ATF largely ignored the rocketeers as long as they weren't selling or buying APCP across state lines.

With new fears about national security after 9/11, President Bush signed the Safe Explosives Act, an antiterrorism law contained in the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security. In effect for a year, the law now requires permits for all purchases of rocket motors and all explosives, including APCP.

Suddenly, hobbyists who had been freely purchasing such motors for years had to be fingerprinted and to submit to background checks. They had to pay $25 for ATF low-explosive-user permits to purchase more than 2.5 ounces of APCP and allow local and federal inspectors onto their property anytime to check for proper storage of the propellant.

The government insists it is trying to balance civil liberties with homeland safety. But federal investigators say that since terrorists showed they could level skyscrapers with boxcutters, no potentially suspicious activity can be ignored. "Most of the people involved in these activities are harmless fanatics and nerds," says one federal law-enforcement official. "But since 9/11, we have a responsibility to make sure the nerds are not terrorists."

Other hobbyist have also come under federal scrutiny, including bird watchers on the Canadian border and operators of radio-controlled airplanes. But this does little to console the rocketeers. Terry McCreary, associate professor of analytical chemistry at Murray State University in western Kentucky and a hobby-rocket guru, says sport rocketry helps kids by interesting them in wonders of chemistry, physics, astronomy and aerodynamics. "If you look deeply into the background of our top mathematicians and scientists, you will find a kid with a model rocket."

Pointing at a troop of about 15 Boy Scouts at a recent launch in The Plains, Va., Doug Pratt, who runs his own hobby-rocket business out of his basement in Herndon, asked: "Does that look like a group of terrorists to you?"

Faced with the prospect of being fingerprinted and having agents poking around their past, many rocketeers are leaving the hobby. The rocket club at Kettering University in Michigan has closed down because of the new regulatory requirements.

Looking for help, rocket groups have turned to Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, an avid fan of hobby rockets and model airplanes. In May last year, Senator Enzi sponsored a bill to exempt hobby rockets from government regulation.

The Department of Justice, which oversees the ATF, then wrote him a letter saying that "large rocket motors could be adapted by terrorists for use in surface-to-air missiles capable of intercepting commercial and military airplanes at cruise level and for use in 'light antitank' weapons capable of hitting targets from a range of nearly five miles."

Mr. Enzi wrote back to Attorney General Ashcroft, asking to see the results of the tests that led his department to its conclusions. Within weeks, an agent from the ATF was sent to Al's Hobby Shop outside Chicago to buy the first rocket motors for testing. Over the past six months, according to ATF officials, agents and private contractors have been working at Air Force bases in Utah and Florida firing model rockets at drones, vehicles and simulated crowds of people. The tests are classified.

Some rocketeers have hit upon another solution: They make their own fuel. They get together on weekends with pizza, beer and jars of precursor chemicals for "cooking parties" in their homes and apartments or in the back rooms of their businesses.

"It's legal and completely safe," says Jerry O'Sullivan, an insurance agent who cooks fuel with his friends in suburban Washington. Mr. O'Sullivan, who is a member of the Maryland Delaware Rocketry Association Inc., is taking advantage of a loophole in explosives legislation exempting anyone who mixes an explosive for his own "personal" use from having to get a permit. The exemption was created mainly for farmers who mix fertilizers and fuel oil to blast their own irrigation ditches.

One oddity of the government crackdown is the focus on rockets and not guidance systems. "The secret is in the guidance systems," says Arthur "Trip" Barber, a former captain of a U.S. navy guided missile destroyer, who is now vice president of the National Association of Rocketry. "I can build a rocket overnight but I couldn't build a guidance system in a lifetime."
Originally posted by MetMan
Most of the people involved in these activities are harmless fanatics and nerds," [/B]

Are you a fanatic or a nerd? Personally, I think I'm a nerd.

John (not Jon) Arthur

I am an exacting scientist who has discovered a fine outlet for my needs of precision, order, and tedium.

(Ok, I'm a nerd. ;) )
I prefer to be referred to as a "geek" thankyouverymuch ;)

I like to think of geek as every bit as fanatic as a "fanatic" minus the somewhat socially negative connotation of "nerd".

Accepted term: "geek out" -- to openly profess your geekness in a public forum. There's no such thing as "nerd out"...

BTW, great article!!! Thanks for sharing :D

I am a geek. Nerd conjures up visions of pocket protectors and taped glasses. I only carry a pen and a pencil (usually in my pants pocket) and I don't wear glasses.

On the other hand, as a geek (and in my case Alpha Geek), I can destroy your workday on a mere whim.

<inset malignant evil laugh here>

Seriously in anti-air, the key is active guidance. I doubt idf 1 in a 1000 rocketeers could design a suitable system.

Anything else is simple ballistics. I could achieve the same effective use with 4 bungee cords and a funnel.
i'm not sure I want to hear the use of the word "fanatic" along with model rocketry or rocketry in general.......

don't we call the palestinian homicide bombers "fanatics".......

looks like serious over the top Federal hype to me.....nothing unusual there...
well, slightly off subject but still related, what is the current standing on propellant weight limits? i *think* i have two G33s coming towards me at the moment, and i remember some controversy b4 about them... any new info?

great article as well, btw. i don't really think it was necessary for them to say that were mostly 'harmless fanatics or nerds', but i guess they *do* have some legitimacy in saying that:D I think i'd be in the 'harmless fanatic' category more than a nerd.. but others may think differently :p
I don't know about you...but I think I just got intellectually profiled.... :)
Well, I read the article twice... I still dont get it...:eek: Are they saying the Govt is stupid investigating, background checking and fingerprinting "harmless fanatics, or nerds", or are they saying we are dangerous evil terrorists?

First were terrorists, then were harmless fanatics, then were nerds, then we are geeks, then we are terrorists again....:rolleyes: :confused:

I still don get it....:confused: :rolleyes: ;) :p

"hit an aircraft at cruise altitude and speed". Fat chance... Didnt the govt try and develope a salvo type missile to shoot at airplanes a while ago? And didnt they figure out the hard way that you needed guidance, even if you shot 50 "N" class rockets at once???

The US Armed Forces cant shoot down an airplane with 40 salvo-style unguided missiles, but they are saying that an individual with a single model rocket can?:confused:

Ill never understand government....
why on earth would terrorists PAY thousands of dollars for exotic retail formulations of APCP? a little AP and a bit of sugar is sure a lot more logical for fringe elements to be using. i think they ought to monitor spreckles and C&H!

fingerprinting cub scouts!
now there's a great use of our tax money!
who put these jokers in power, anyway?

I tend to agree with the thoughts previously expressed on the guidance systems. Having taken a government taught class on guidance and feedback systems for the Navy, I know how hard it is to design something that can guide a fast-moving projectile accurately. Heck, we routinely send our highly-trained ships out to fire the "real-deal" missiles at targets, and even then the teams of professional men and women rarely get a direct hit, despite being aided by billion-dollar tracking and computing systems.

Rocksim can show me how to build a marginally stable rocket that can be steered easily, just like the real thing. But only someone with a LOT more brainpower and financial backing can build you a guidance system that can be considered a threat.

I like the ending.

I personally would find it interesting if civilians did tests like the goverment is doing to see the results.
I think it's all crazy if you ask me. What I'd like to know is why wasn't fertilizer and diesel fuel regulated after they were misused in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing???

They really think that APCP is more dangerous? Crazy, absolutely crazy!!!:rolleyes: :rolleyes: :rolleyes:
My chemistry teacher came running up to me today with this... "David look at this!" I'm not exactly sure that the picture that they selected for the article (Neil McGilvray's "HOLY COW" rocket being tilted into place in the middle of a farm field at MDRA) was exactly the best choice, and they seemed to be a little hesitant... but they got the geek (a.k.a. "fanatical nerd") thing right :D
I once said that I wonder if they'd like it better if we used C4 for propellant instead of APCP.

My club members seemed to agree with me.
The publication of this story ends six months of work by NAR and TRA members to provide reporter Bobby Block with a complete and clear picture of the illegal and unnecessary regulation of our hobby by BATFE.

From the beginning, the NAR and TRA leadership coordinated Bobby's efforts with both our legislative and legal teams. Having been a Journal reader for the past 30 years, I now have a newfound respect for the integrity and diligence with which the Journal's reporters pursue their stories, having seen it firsthand.

The story's publication is important to the hobby for several reasons.

First, the Wall Street Journal is the country's most widely circulated newspaper. The paper is read and paid attention to by leaders in both industry and government. We could not have purchased at any price the breadth of penetration or credibility this article provides our hobby.

Secondly, the story itself paints the hobby in a positive light, and leaves the reader asking the question "why is the government wasting its time chasing these guys?" When I took a survey in my office today, where people do know about my rocketry life, but are not at all rocketry experts, they almost universally had the reaction "it's silly for the government to be bothering with you". Such reaction helps us build both public support for and credibility around the argument we've held all along that BATFE regulation is over and above anything reasonably required to protect national security or public safety.

Finally, having this article in the public record will help our efforts on Capitol Hill. Members read and respect this paper, and again the credibility we have gained from this exposure will ultimately help us achieve relief.

My thanks to the many NAR and TRA members who responded to my request to talk with and provide information to Bobby Block. I wish to particularly acknowledge the efforts of DC area NAR and TRA members, particularly those in the NOVAAR section, who spent considerable time at their launches to make sure Bobby got a good look at our hobby. They undertook this job on top of their already considerable work assisting the Team America flyoff and NARAM.

Recent suggestions in various electronic forums that we've lost this battle with BATFE are dead flat out wrong.

The tide is slowly but surely turning, folks. More and more people in more and more places are finding out about our troubles and the unjust treatment we're getting. If we can sustain our efforts to get the message out about our hobby, we can secure its unregulated future.
Well well well... This is very good!! I didnt understand it all at first, but I think I have figured out that its pretty good....:D ;) ;) ;) :eek:

So how many rocketeers cars will have "I Love the Wall Street Journal" bumper stickers now?;) :)