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Adventures from the Technology Underground is Gurstelle’s lively and weirdly compelling report of his travels. In these pages we meet Frank Kosdon and others who draw the scrutiny of the FAA, ATF, and other federal agencies in their pursuit of high-power amateur rocketry, which they demonstrate to impressive—and sometimes explosive—effect at the annual LDRS gathering held in various remote and unpopulated areas (a necessary consideration since that acronym stands for Large Dangerous Rocket Ships). Here also are the underground technologists who turn up at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada high desert, including Lucy Hosking, “the engineer from Hell” and the creator of Satan’s Calliope, aka the World’s Loudest Thing, a pipe organ made from jet engines. Also at Burning Man is Austin “Dr. MegaVolt” Richard, who braves the arcing, sputtering, six-digit voltages of a giant Tesla coil in his protective metal suit. Add in a trip to see medieval-style catapults, air cannons, and supersized slingshots in action at the World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition in Sussex County, Delaware, and forays to the postapocalyptic enclaves of the flamethrower builders and the future-noir pits of the fighting robots, and you have proof positive that the age of invention is still going strong.
In the world of science and engineering, despite its buttoned-down image, there’s plenty of fun, humor, and sheer wonder to be found at the fringes. Adventures from the Technology Underground takes you there.
- Launch homemade high-power rockets.
- Catapult pumpkins the better part of a mile.
- Watch robot gladiators saw, flip, and pound one another into high-tech junk heaps.
- Dazzle the eye with electrical discharges measured in the hundreds of thousands of volts.
- Play with flamethrowers, potato guns, and other decidedly unsafe toys . . .
If this is your idea of fun, you’ll have a major good time on this wild ride through today’s Technology Underground.
From the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s high desert to the latest gathering of Large Dangerous Rocket Ship builders to Delaware’s annual Punkin Chunkin competition (a celebration of “science, radical self-expression, and beer”), you’ll meet the inspired, government-unregulated, and corporately unfettered men and women who operate at the furthest fringes of science, engineering, and wild-eyed arc welding, building the catapults, ultra-high-voltage electrical devices, incendiary artworks, fighting robots, and other machines that demonstrate what’s possible when physics meets human ingenuity.
From the Hardcover edition.
Your finger hovers over the red button, and you move the microphone close to your mouth. You test the public-address system and are relieved to find that it works: When you speak, your voice is clearly heard all over the firing range.
Several hundred feet away is the launch pad, and on it stands the culmination of many hundreds of hours of labor and many thousands of dollars of your hard-earned discretionary income. It is your rocket, a 15-foot-tall accurate scale model of an American early 1960s solid-fuel Pershing I nuclear ballistic missile. It is a machine that you designed and built from scratch.
Your rocket is loaded with two stages of powerful chemical engines. Like the original Pershing, your motive power comes from two stages of precisely packed chemical fuel arranged in solid form. Each rocket engine is designed such that after it ignites, the gas from the burning chemicals will issue rearward in a high-velocity, high-temperature stream from the ceramic nozzle and propel the rocket up toward the stratosphere. Your rocket will reach empyreal heights, tens of thousands of feet--if all goes well.
You pay rigid attention to the preflight checklist. So far, everything looks like a go. There are small indicator lamps on the firing controls that signal launch status, and the ignition lamp shows green. This means that you have a working circuit, and so when the Fire button is pushed, enough current will be sent through the thin metal wire rammed into the motor to heat it red hot and thereby initiate the self-sustaining chemical reaction that occurs within the main motor's combustion chamber.
The countdown begins. Ten. Nine. Eight . . . At zero, you push the button and instantly great plumes of white smoke surround the base of the rocket. For a moment, the rocket doesn't move, and you too hold your breath. Then suddenly it leaps toward the sky with neck-jerking acceleration. The noise from the launch comes a split second after you see it leave, and when the noise does come, it is nearly deafening. The rocket climbs 100, 200, 500, 1,000 feet, its speed escalating logarithmically as it ascends. It climbs and climbs, and it becomes difficult, then nearly impossible, and then totally impossible to see the rocket itself, although the smoke and nozzle fire remain visible.
Everyone congratulates you on a successful launch. There is applause and backslapping, high fives all around.
But the celebration is cut short by the sound of the range safety officer's warning horn: Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! The RSO's voice is plainly heard over the public-address system. "Attention! Look up! Look up! We have a rocket coming in hot!" This is not good for you. This is not good for anybody. In fact, this is trouble with a capital T.
What has happened is this: your rocket has two stages. The first stage consists of several large chemical rocket engines that lift the entire rocket for the initial or "booster" phase of the flight. When expended, the booster rocket falls away, and a second engine, mounted above it, is supposed to automatically ignite and continue powering the remaining components upward.
But the second stage, powered by its own very large engine, has ignited later than it was supposed to. In fact, it ignited after the rocket reached apogee and had already turned and begun to head back to earth. So the engine is not powering the rocket to fly...