Begin in Gerlach, a nothing town in the middle of nowhere, Nevada – notable only, in late September, for the fact that it’s the last outpost of civilisation before the lone and level dustscape of the Black Rock Desert. Late September means Balls, the biggest rocket festival on the calendar, a three-day event that each year draws hardcore hobbyists from all over the United States, briefly doubling the population of the 200-strong town.
For its devotees, Balls is a magnet, a Mecca, the ne plus ultra of its type, the event of the year. For an outsider, it serves as a potent reminder that the land of Walmart and drive-thrus is still home to a do-it-yourself nation of tinkerers and craftsmen – of people willing, with no thoughts of material gain, to sink huge amounts of time and effort into feats of engineering, the success of which is uncertain and glory the only reward. A certain amount of jut-jawed stubbornness is required. After all, who says you can’t cut rocket fins out of carbon fibre, epoxy them to a fibreglass tube and launch that bastard into the stratosphere?
Even in America, though, the high Nevada desert is just about the only place where civilians are allowed to launch class three rockets – the designation for those with a total impulse of more than 40,960 Newton-seconds – who are attempting altitudes above 50,000 feet. Consequently, Balls is where people go to show off the highest of high-end experimental homemade rockets, some of them shooting more than two dozen miles up into the atmosphere and exceeding speeds of Mach 3 – speeds at which epoxy melts, fins are ripped off and even the heads of screws leave scorch marks on the airframe.
Begin, then, in Gerlach, at Bruno’s, a motel that is full up with rocket men (and a few women) and where the doors to their rooms, booked months in advance, stand open along a bare white corridor, the better for them to talk motors and avionics with their neighbours. Inside, their rooms are crammed with gear, and big tubes of fibreglass and roll-wrapped carbon fibre line the walls. “These guys sleep in the rooms with their rockets,” says one attendee.
In the motel bar the atmosphere is convivial. There are people from all walks of life. Some are bona fide aerospace engineers, while others just grew up with the hobby – like John Jamieson, a 61-year old retired machinist who made the 16-hour drive to Gerlach from his home in Golden, Colorado, just to watch the flights. Jamieson has been flying rockets since 1967, but his personal altitude record is only about 10,000 feet. He is astonished to find guys at Balls aiming for 200,000 feet. He’s here for the camaraderie and the shop talk. He can’t get enough. “People just sit around and talk about rockets,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing how much information gets transferred.”
Back home, Jamieson helps arrange launches for his local Cub Scout troop. When he was very young, he says, “the first Mercury flights were going up, and my brother and mom would get me up at three or four in the morning to watch. They were usually delayed until sometime the next day, but I remember actually getting up and watching the first astronauts take off into space. That told me something important was going on, even though I was too young to know what it was. And then, of course, I lived through the moon missions…”
Friday morning sees you back in your car, heading for open desert. The festival takes place on the playa, a 400-square-mile dried-up lake bed from the last ice age. It is the largest piece of flat terrain on the continent, vast beyond vastness – absolute desert, entirely devoid of vegetable, animal and insect life. A piece of Mars on planet Earth. The sound barrier was broken here in a car.
On the open playa, distance becomes tricky and it’s easy to find yourself accelerating past 70mph with no sense of your speed – realising only when your vehicle begins to fishtail, the tires slewing around and great gouts of alkaline dust boiling up in your wake. For a long time, you don’t see anything but the dry cracked alien surface, dotted every 50 metres or so with a traffic cone: a sparse but reassuring line leading you deeper into the dust until, finally, the tiny dots of the RVs start to materialise in the distance, strung out along the viewing line.
Upon arrival, “you do your rocket talk, shake hands, have a beer and tell war stories,” says Chris Harris, the de facto leader of a group of Texan rocketeers. He and three friends have road-tripped out to the Nevada desert from Houston, 30 hours away, to attend. On the first night, Harris, an astronomy buff, will confront, awestruck, a sky as velvety and black and glittering as a jeweller’s cloth. “It was spiritual,” he says later, groping for words. “You could see the Milky Way perfectly.”
In full daylight the festival is a hive of activity – dirt bikes and buggies kicking up trails of dust as they criss-cross the playa, team members carting gear out to the launch platforms scattered across the hardpan, some of them a mile or more out from the viewing line. Only people with the proper wristband can cross the ribbon that separates spectator from participant. A public-address system counts down each launch. Friday is reserved for small and medium-sized rockets, with the big ones slated for Saturday and Sunday. Over the next three days you will see more than 100 launches – unless, like some participants, you have to spend the better part of a day retrieving your own rocket after it malfunctions and comes down miles away from camp.
With a sound like a jet engine passing overhead, the rockets go arrowing up into the sky. One thing you learn early is not to equate rocket size with altitude potential. “A lot of people will build these great, big, beautiful rockets that only reach 4,000 feet,” says Harris. “But they look amazing.” He has a 13-footer himself whose ceiling is only 8,000 feet. Non-rocket folks always ask how high you went, but there are other meaningful metrics: how big the rocket is, how cool it looks, how many motors it has.
This year at Balls, Harris flies a seven-foot tall rocket whose second stage is painted red and blue and whose first stage he didn’t have time to paint, leaving it raw green fibreglass, the tail fins black carbon fibre. His goal this time isn’t altitude per se, but acceleration; having fitted the rocket with custom electronics, he wants to push them to the limit. His airframe isn’t the prettiest sight but it shoots up to 24,000 feet and hits a top speed of Mach 2.2: faster than most military aircraft.
Read the full feature and see all the images in issue 5 of Avaunt, available to buy here.