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Pipe Dreams 

A veteran of the Apollo program continues a quixotic quest to send a small rocket of his own design 60 miles high and, in the process, save his soul. Maybe ours, too.

Wednesday, Jun 11 2003
Hollister Municipal Airport sits on 350 acres at the northern edge of town, within a knot of narrow roads named Astro, Mercury, and Mars, and hard by the Elks Lodge, the Ding-A-Ling Cafe, and a tax service. Out on the apron, next to a row of corrugated-metal hangars, new Cessnas and old war birds bake in the Central Valley sun. And inside Hangar 10, a short, round 67-year-old named Bill Colburn points at a wooden beam. Colburn has a long diamond-shaped goatee and a black loose-brimmed hat pulled over his white hair. He is standing with an assistant, Bob Fortune, in a dusty corner of the hangar, which is lined with furloughed gliders. A little sunlight has slipped through the semitranslucent panels in the roof, giving the place a gloomy turquoise wash. Next to Colburn and Fortune is an aircraft's wooden corpse. Just above their heads, bolted to the beam, are four fins.

"That's Fat Bastard," says Fortune, motioning to a set of two aluminum fins.

"Fat Bastard, yeah," Colburn agrees.

"This one was, uh ..."

"Something Wicked."

"Something Wicked," Fortune agrees.

These are the names of rockets, built by Colburn and his team as part of an 8-year-old project to launch an unmanned, privately financed rocket 62 miles into the air -- that is, into international space. Something Wicked exploded in the clouds over the Mojave Desert; Fat Bastard clipped a fin and slammed into the ground. Others have blown up at 3,300 feet because of a bad rivet, or burned down like a Marlboro on the launch pad after a sudden wind gust knocked a hose loose. In a few cases the fins were recovered from the wreckage, then drilled to the beam: headstones. "There is something sad about a failed rocket," Colburn says. "Goddard" -- Robert Goddard, one of the fathers of rocketry -- "buried all of his. Isn't that something? I always thought that was a subconscious thing, you know?"

Colburn's SORAC (Sub-Orbital Rocket, Amateur Class) project is maybe two years from its target of 62 miles, an altitude that Army rockets first attained nearly 60 years ago. Its nine launches to date have only been tests, and none of its rockets has flown higher than four miles. (No amateur rockets have climbed above 50 miles.) The price tag thus far has been about $300,000, some of it covered by sponsors. Why is Colburn doing it? "Why did Lindbergh cross the Atlantic?" he says.

But there's more, and less, to it than that. The project was born as HIJUMP in 1956, a year before the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik into Earth's orbit, leaving a paranoid United States to scramble for a response. Colburn, then 20 years old, had wanted to send a satellite the size of a soup can into orbit. When proposed, the project was transcendently ambitious; after Sputnik, the U.S. pursued a highly funded program of scientific and military aerospace research, culminating in the moon landing. America's first satellite wasn't going to be a 20-year-old's metal can. The idea was eventually shelved.

But in the 1990s, with the post-Challenger space program in a cul-de-sac, Colburn resurrected HIJUMP as a private project, giving it a new name and a more modest goal. It's perhaps the final expression of Colburn's well-preserved obsession with rockets. Before he was 10, Colburn invented one of two propellants now widely used in amateur rocketry. In the 1950s, he launched ramjets in Libya while eavesdropping on the Soviets for the Air Force. A decade later, he was one of the thousands of earnest aerospace engineers in black-rimmed glasses and white short-sleeved dress shirts helping NASA put men on the moon. He looked forward to lunar colonies, even Mars exploration.

These days, he's sending 20-foot cylinders a few miles into the desert air -- toward the bottom fringe of space -- and picking the snapped-off fins out of the dirt, a 67-year-old trying to realize what may just be a teenager's pipe dream.

Colburn and the SORAC team work out of a messy rented laboratory in the hangar. Various pieces of busted rockets sprout from every corner of the room -- a nose cone, a blue canister no bigger than a wastebasket, a scorched rocket stage. Along one shelf, there's a cluster of old museum pieces -- rocket motors, nozzles, igniters -- culled mostly from scrap yards and collectors. At Colburn's desk in the corner, a computer sits next to a $50 toy microscope and a stack of science-fiction paperbacks. "That place looks exactly like my mind," Colburn says. "I'm thinking about 25 different projects at one time." (One of those is a six-month job for NASA, developing a gel propellant for satellites that's safer than what's currently in use.)

When Colburn talks, he fiddles with screws, washers, syringes, whatever's lying on the table in front of him. He's quick with an old anecdote, often told to emphasize how much things have changed and often punctuated, appropriately, with, "My heavens!" As a boy, he'll point out, he'd play with drops of mercury as if they were marbles, and he'd mold like clay the wet asbestos his stepfather, a welder's assistant, would bring home from work. Later, during Air Force training, he was apparently exposed to mustard gas, tear gas, nerve gas, and so on. "And I'm 67," he says. "Oh, my heavens!"

A serious rocketeer needs an even mix of pragmatism (for the science) and whimsy (for the ideas); he should be someone who can build a castle in the sky, then show you the blueprint. It's no wonder, then, that the cradle of American rocketry is also the altar of UFO believers: Roswell, N.M. And it's not at all out of character for Colburn to have had careers as an aerospace engineer, itinerant magician, and special-effects producer. "It's a right-brain, left-brain thing," Colburn says.

Conceived during an aurora borealis and born in Hollister the week Goddard was testing a 13-foot-long rocket in Roswell, Colburn grew up on Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. He'd read science fiction, sometimes going through two books a day. And when an uncle pulled a quarter out of his ear, he took up magic, too. At the same time, he formed the Tracer Club with some friends in Hollister, and a few years later organized the Rocket Missile Research Society in Watsonville. The latter group stayed together, albeit loosely, for 20 years. The RMRS boys met after school and on the weekend, testing their homemade rockets at the beach, or sometimes in their yards. They'd find materials in junkyards or pinball machines; they'd fire dummy bazooka shells taken from Fort Ord, on the coast near Monterey. "Bill was very intelligent, very methodical about the work he was doing," recalls Herb Praskey, a former RMRS member. "He documented everything."

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


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