On Saturday the Metro section ran an article on a team of undergraduates at Boston University that plans to launch a custom-built rocket to the lower edge of space this July. It would be a dramatic feat that would put them in company with the top amateur rocketry organizations around the world.
The BU effort comes at the same time that companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are moving ahead with plans to conduct passenger and cargo deliveries to space. You might think there is a bright line between your kid’s model rocket and these big new commercial experiments — and there is, though it has to do with more than simply altitude.
“100,000 to 300,000 feet, just below the edge of space, is a place for advanced amateurs,” says Ken Biba, the director of education for a rocketry club in California called AeroPac. “There are four or five groups capable of going there now.”
One of the biggest names in amateur rocketry is Ky Michaelson, who’s led amateur teams that have launched rockets into space twice in the last decade — in 2006 and again in 2014. Michaelson’s launches were roughly similar in scope to the one the BU team has planned: They cost around $200,000 (the BU budget is $110,000), went as high as 70 miles (the BU team hopes to get to 62 miles, or 100 kilometers, where space technically begins), and took place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada — the same place the BU team plans to launch from this summer.
In these kinds of projects, “the key thing is to get [the rocket] to go straight up,” Biba says. After that, he says, it’s a matter of using avionics to measure peak altitude and then conduct a controlled descent.
Reaching space is one thing. Orbiting and operating there, like NASA and SpaceX do, is another.
“Getting to orbit is getting 50 to 100 miles high, then making a sharp right turn and accelerating to 17,000 miles per hour. The second part is really hard,” Biba says. He explains that turning and accelerating in space requires a huge amount of fuel and a large rocket to carry it. “That moves it out of the scale that’s within reach of amateurs,” he says.
If space commerce will remain the territory of governments and billionaires, there is still plenty of progress to be made at the amateur levels. Biba expects to see the complexity and cost of high-altitude launches decrease over the coming years, giving more hobbyists the chance to do what the BU team plans to do.
“Ky [Michaelson] was the first to do it in a bold, brute force way,” Biba says. “Groups like ours will think about getting to space in ways that are less expensive and easier to do.”
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Ken Biba’s title. He is the director of education at AeroPac.