Rocket launch planned at Bonne Terre

Saturday, July 11, 2009 | 3:14 p.m. CDT; updated 5:57 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 11, 2009

BONNE TERRE — Two of the world's most notable amateur rocket launches have been in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. An ancient lake bed, it is a vast expanse of exceptionally flat, unpopulated desert — and a magnet for record breakers.

The sand flats north of Bonne Terre are hardly known for records or rocket science, but they are flat and big enough to be part of what might be a third notable noncommercial rocket launch someday — or at least a few of the tests leading up to it.

The Space Museum in Bonne Terre is teaming up with the General Aviation Space Group to launch a rocket from the flats at 11 a.m. July 18.

Though part of a preliminary test, the Aurora I rocket is large enough its launch had to be approved by the FAA. It is 6 feet tall, 4 inches wide and weighs 6 pounds with payload.

The launch is the first in a series of tests aimed at sending a small satellite into low earth orbit. The Astra will be 7 inches in diameter — a little smaller than Sputnik — and will carry with it the names of contributors who have supported the group's efforts.

It will take a three-stage rocket to send Astra into space and that will be too powerful to launch in Bonne Terre. That will most likely have to take place at Black Rock Desert. If successful, it will be the first enthusiasts' satellite launch in the world. And it will forever link Bonne Terre's sand flats to Black Rock legend.

"There's a buzz already in Bonne Terre about us," Gary Streeter said at a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting. "It's going to be very whiz-bang and wow-cool — a rocket going off in Bonne Terre! As word gets out, Bonne Terre is going to be the place to be."

He said a Discovery channel reporter has already asked to film the July 18 launch for a documentary.

The sand flats were chosen as a phase one test site for the GASG project because of their flatness, relative isolation and proximity to the Belleville, Ill.-based group. It will be an ideal test site for recovery devices, fuel formulations and motor innovations leading up to the satellite's launch, Streeter said.

GASG was formed to bring space to everyone. It's a $2 million mission funded by private donations, dreams and a little determination.

"Doubts will prove fatal to dreams," Streeter said. "I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid and I tried for the space program, but they wouldn't look at me because I had an ulcer when I was 16."

His passion for space didn't end, however. In addition to the satellite project, he has been working to bring rocketry programs to youths. "This is one way I can make my contribution to not just general aviation and space, but to youths, too," he said. "Let them get a taste of space. If I can change one kid's life, I have done my job."

The group has an advisory board that includes astronaut Dick Richards and other notable names in aviation. Many of the club's members also work in aerospace or aviation.

The project has been carefully planned in stages, said Diane Earhart, a co-founder of GASG. The test at the flats will establish specific parameters for the sucrose-based fuel the group is using, to ensure everything works exactly as calculated before investing in a more powerful rocket.

The public will not be allowed near the launch point itself because of the experimental nature of the test, but the rocket's launch will be visible from a good distance away. A substance is purposely added to the rocket's fuel to track its flight from the ground.

"People can see the launch most likely from anywhere in town," said Earl Mullins, director of the Space Museum. There are a couple of restaurants near U.S. 67, he pointed out, and the launch will be highly visible from parking lots along there. "I'm sure the restaurants won't mind if people watch from there — as long as everyone buys a little ice cream or something to eat while they are there."

The test launch of the Aurora I rocket also commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch that put a man on the moon. A piece of foil from the Columbia Command Module provided by the Space Museum will be carried aboard Aurora I to about 5,000 feet.

The rocket does include a recovery system, so it will land about where it launched, intact. It is to be displayed at the Space Museum, along with the foil from Apollo 11.

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