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Backyard Rocketeers Keep the Solid Fuel Burning 334

Posted by timothy
from the bureaucratic-nincompoop-idiot-handwringers dept.
Jamie Clay points out a New York Times article about one sticky wicket faced by members of the Tripoli Rocketry Association, whose members are some of the private citizens trying to bust into the space-launch business (or just having fun) by financing and building their own rockets. An excerpt: "On Tuesday, lawyers representing Tripoli and the National Association of Rocketry and officials of the firearms bureau will head to Federal District Court in Washington to resolve the seven-year-old dispute over the hobbyists' use of a flammable propellant, ammonium perchlorate composite, or APCP. The chemical is the main ingredient on the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters. ... The firearms bureau classifies APCP as an explosive and, amid post-Sept. 11 security concerns, requires that anyone who uses more than two ounces of propellant undergo federal background checks."
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Backyard Rocketeers Keep the Solid Fuel Burning

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 15, 2006 @10:05PM (#16448389)
    I have some rocket friends that are into the high power stuff... It is not even the background check that bothers them, it is some of the insane storage requirements. To legally store more then a small amount, you must submit floor plans of where it is stored, and local authorities MUST have a key to the location, and have full rights to inspect the location at any time, as often as they want. So nevermind the local law enforcement or FBI wandering around your house at 2 in the morning, there is nothing you can do...

    Most of the people I know gave up at this point, or built small storage sheds that were up to code just to house their fuel which technically, according to the FBI, is not explosive anyway. (it burns rapidly, but does not explode, there IS a big difference actually)

    • by daeg (828071) on Sunday October 15, 2006 @10:09PM (#16448427)
      I came here to point out the same thing. Most rocketeers don't mind the background checks, in fact, I don't know anyone that oposes them. They are no more invasive than employers require these days.

      It's the storage requirements that basically block anyone from keeping any of the stuff. Not only are the storage requirements strict, so is the transport. Don't really expect to transport it in the back of your SUV. Obviously there are strict guidelines for storing it near high population areas, but that doesn't really affect hobbyists since they need wide open spaces anyway.

      Really, I don't think the strict rules are that bad. At least you can get the stuff, as it is rather dangerous, even if it just burns fast and hot.
      • by ec_hack (247907) on Sunday October 15, 2006 @11:41PM (#16448955)
        It's the storage requirements that basically block anyone from keeping any of the stuff.

        Yep. I live in Houston, TX and the city has decided that you need an explosive storage permit to keep any. And they won't give a permit to anyone in a residential area. (A club member found out after paying the non-refundable permit fee of over $200.

        Obviously there are strict guidelines for storing it near high population areas, but that doesn't really affect hobbyists since they need wide open spaces anyway.

        So where do you keep it if not at home? Look, the ATF people have refused to discuss any kind of compromise on this. They want it treated like all other low explosives, even though lab tests show that it's not an explosive.
      • by terrymr (316118) *
        If most rocketeers don't oppose it, then why on earth are rocketeers funding the costs of a lawsuit to overturn the permit requirements. ATF has been stretching out this case for more than 6 years.

        Oh and buy my T-shirts from the link below .... help support the cause.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Dan East (318230)
      Well, if my neighbor's house catches on fire, it would be kinda nice if the fire department knew that x amount of explosives were stored in the house, so they could evacuate surrounding homes, etc. At the very least it could save a firefighter's life.

      Perhaps what is needed is an additional tier to the regulations, so a typical rocketeer could keep a "normal" amount of APCP on hand without quite as many requirements.

      Dan Erast
      • by ec_hack (247907) on Sunday October 15, 2006 @11:35PM (#16448909)
        Well, if my neighbor's house catches on fire, it would be kinda nice if the fire department knew that x amount of explosives were stored in the house, so they could evacuate surrounding homes, etc.

        The problem is that the composite propellant they regulate isn't an explosive. It just burns hot and fast. Homes have all kinds of items more dangerous to firefighters in them and no permit is needed, including: gasoline in cans, aerosol cans, propane bottles (I have 6 for my grill), insecticides, ammo for guns, etc.

        This is about a government agency that did something wrong and won't back down.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by terrymr (316118) *
          According to ATF's own figures APCP burns slower than bond paper. According to experts I've talked to it also burns a lot slower than the ATF says it does. Rcoket motors are gas generators you don't need rapidly burning propellent to generate gasses.
        • The problem is that the composite propellant they regulate isn't an explosive. It just burns hot and fast.

          Oh, well, in that case, that's absolutely no danger to a firefighter then!

          Homes have all kinds of items more dangerous to firefighters in them and no permit is needed, including: gasoline in cans, aerosol cans, propane bottles (I have 6 for my grill), insecticides, ammo for guns, etc.

          Correct, and firefighters are well aware that most homes will have some / all of the above, and can prepare suitably. F

    • by Kris_J (10111) * on Sunday October 15, 2006 @11:06PM (#16448729) Journal
      or built small storage sheds that were up to code just to house their fuel
      That sounds ideal and not at all insane.
      • by NerveGas (168686) on Monday October 16, 2006 @12:21AM (#16449181)
        Many high-power rocketeers that I know are more than happy to build the storage sheds. In fact, if you talk to folks who have actually gone through the process, some of the local officials and fire marshalls have been helpful, and been willing to look into variances when appropriate, some are just anal and don't want anything to do with it. In other words, it's just like any other government process! =)

        steve
        • by terrymr (316118) * <`terrymr' `at' `gmail.com'> on Monday October 16, 2006 @01:11AM (#16449433)
          And some fire marshals won't permit any explosives storage in their area at all so those rocketeers are hosed.

          You can legally posess 50lbs of gunpowder without any permit or inspections according to ATF regulations. 50lbs of gunpowder is a heck of a lot more dangerous than a few rocket motors.
    • In Australia there are similar restrictions if you want to keep a handgun at home. My brother-in-law had one set up for his gun collection but compliance was a pain so he switched to using the gun club's armoury, I have never heard of cops knocking on the door in the middle of the night to inspect a private armory.

      I personally couldn't be happier that the authorities demand a demonstration of responsibility from people with dangerous toys.
    • by terrymr (316118) *
      Also the requirements aren't static ... ATF is currently working on rule changes that would require many users of explosives to rework their storage to meet more stringent requirements for bigger locks and such. For the explosives industry this is expensive for hobby rocketeers it can quickly become more expensive than its worth.
  • by Kris_J (10111) * on Sunday October 15, 2006 @10:09PM (#16448425) Journal
    I mean, is it really an infringement of civil liberties to require federal background checks, or some sort of goverment control if you're launching rockets into the air using the same stuff the Shuttle uses? I'm fairly sure fireworks people need some sort of licence too, should we get out the protest signs?

    (Disclaimer: I would have RTFA if it wasn't on the NYTimes.)

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 15, 2006 @10:21PM (#16448493)
      Yes, it is. This is a new restriction being placed on an existing use of a material. The risks haven't changed since the 1960's, yet now these people need to have a federal background check just to partisipate in there hobby?

      Its wrong, and its an abuse of power by our federal government.

      By the way, what happens when someone fails the check? They can't launch a model rocket because they did something stupid in collage?

      Its wrong, it goes against the principals the USA was founded on, and that someone is invoking the word terrorism doesn't change that.
      • by dsanfte (443781) on Sunday October 15, 2006 @11:36PM (#16448923) Journal
        "They can't launch a model rocket because they did something stupid in collage?"


        Well that depends, some of those college art classes are havens for subversive types. I mean, all those girls with dark clothing and piercings, you know they're up to something. Probably just creating more body cavities in which to hide rocket fuel for the terrorists.
      • They can't launch a model rocket because they did something stupid in collage?

        I didn't know mistakes in art class could be so far reaching.
      • by edusmoreira (978831) on Sunday October 15, 2006 @11:49PM (#16449009)
        I disagree. Perhaps this is nonsense, so excuse me in advance. I am not american. I've been hostilized in airports when I needed to visit some relatives in the US. I don't endorse the so-called "war on terror", nor the suppresion of civil rights and liberties that I believe is happening there. But if paranoia is now the standard, one should understand that the government is being at least coherent. Better than having bad rules, is to have no rule at all, as this would be institutional schizophrenia. The last thing you want is to undertake thorough investigations that violate your privacy, to have your phonecalls tapped, to board a plane with your essential belongings in a plastic bag, and all that to have in the end a "rocketeer" blowing up your kid's school bus.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by patrixmyth (167599)
        Oh my god, like my government, totally treats me like such a child. All my friends are using solid rocket fuel. It doesn't hurt anything. They want me to store it securely. Like, whatever. They say fast burning chemical rocket fuel is dangerous in residential neighborhoods. NO WAY! Totally more people slip in the bathtub and stuff. It's so unfair. They even want me to keep records and have a permit and junk like that. What do I look like, some kind of clerk. I'm gonna be a rocket scientist, somed
      • by westlake (615356)
        This is a new restriction being placed on an existing use of a material. The risks haven't changed since the 1960's, yet now these people need to have a federal background check just to partisipate in there hobby?
        Its wrong, and its an abuse of power by our federal government.

        Last week you could fly a private aircraft down the East River without being in contact with air traffic control. FAA restricts Manhattan flight path [cnn.com] "The risks haven't changed since the 1060s..."

        The rules governing the use, storag

        • by Nataku564 (668188)
          You have no constitutionally protected right to build a rocket or to pursue any other hobby that presents a clear and present danger to others.
          I hereby request we remove all rights to drive motorized vehicles. They are proven to be far more dangerous than model rocketry, and ANYONE can do it. OMG save me from teh TERROR!!!
    • by theLOUDroom (556455) on Sunday October 15, 2006 @10:41PM (#16448601)
      It's amazing the way things have changed in this country.
      One used to be able to ride their horse down to the general store and buy whole sticks of dynamite.
      What happened to personal responsibility? Land of the free?

      We're all a bunch of scared little babies. In my state, you can't even buy sparklers anymore!

      These regulations should be relaxed by at least a factor of ten. Model rocketry is a great hobby. It is something the state should promote.

      There are entirely too many people willing to treat every citizen as a potential terrorist in response to a threat that is much more remote than even a simple traffic accident.
      Sure, there's a risk associated with every freedom, but let's be realistic. Being terrified because someone has three ounces of explosives does no one any good.
      • by c6gunner (950153) on Sunday October 15, 2006 @10:57PM (#16448673)
        "What happened to personal responsibility? Land of the free?"

        Same thing that happens in every successful liberal democracy. Most people get lazy and complacent, expecting all their needs to be taken care of with no effort, while others become hostile to the status quo and dedicate their lives to creating havoc.
      • Not to mods
        PARENT POST IS NOT A TROLL

        These are my honest opinions on the subject.

        "Definitions of troll on the Web: From the fishing term. As a noun, synonymous with flamebait. As a verb, to post controversial or provocative messages in a deliberate attempt to provoke flames."

        A moderation of the parent post as "troll" is simple modertaion abuse.
        • by macshit (157376)
          As a noun, synonymous with flamebait.

          I don't think they're quite synonymous. In my mind (and this reflects how I moderate), a "troll" is a message whose main purpose is to provoke flames; "flamebait" may have the (often intentional) effect of provoking flames, but it does at least attempt to express a real opinion at the same time.
      • by westlake (615356)
        One used to be able to ride their horse down to the general store and buy whole sticks of dynamite.

        and nine year old farm boys were hired to pack black powder into bore holes for the construction of the Erie Canal in the 1820s.

        freedom ought to mean more than the exploitation of the innocent. freedom ought to mean more than a demonstration of your own lethal incompetence.

    • by jaysones (138378)
      What's the problem with the New York Times?
    • by evanbd (210358)
      Besides, the rockets in question are useless as terrorist weapons, and the chemicals in question are a poor choice as an explosive.

      ANFO makes a far superior terrorist explosive. If you want a delivery system, rockets are really quite bad -- they're hard to control and have a relatively short range. Model airplanes are far superior in most respects. If you're fighting a guerilla war, then cheap rockets become interesting -- see Qassam rockets in the middle east. Which, while they bear a few superficial

    • by c_forq (924234)
      The fireworks makes me think...
      I live near an Native American reservation. Because of treaties and such this area is treated as a sovereign nation (they have their own police complete with grenade launchers and fully automatic weapons with a SWAT-like force). Now because it is treated like a sovereign nation you are able to buy illegal fireworks there* (three people sell them, one out of his garage). Would this be something that I may be able to buy/use on tribal lands without federal interference?

      *I wo
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by jsm300 (669719)

      There is such a thing as reasonable government control as compared to unreasonable government control. We already have to get a waiver from the FAA to launch high power rockets. This isn't a simple process. We have to submit forms explaining where the launch will be held, what the maximum altitude will be of any rockets we will launch, what times the launch(es) will be held, etc. The FAA can then modify and/or refuse our request. Typically, since this takes a fair amount of effort, we get approval for a who

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by terrymr (316118) *
      Oddly enough the FAA regulates what we're launching into the air and also sets limits on the rocket motors (specifically a burn time of 15 seconds or less, weight of rocket, materials etc. check out FAR 101) to minimize the risks. Any deviation from FAA limits requires a pre-approved awaiver of the restriction. So why do we need another government agency regulating us on top of that.
  • by Doug Coulter (754128) on Sunday October 15, 2006 @10:15PM (#16448471) Homepage
    I know some guys making really big rockets, and they are using ammonium nitrate and aluminum with a binder, mixed in a blender. Doubt this would ever detonate by accident, AN takes a really big hit (more than a blasting cap) to go in this combination. It might be getting harder to get, though.

    Yes, the background check is a pain (and in some cases I think you pay for it) but that requirement for a "magazine" is pretty stiff. It can't be in your house anyway, no worries there about being searched (the background check is worse anyway sometimes), but in a non-rural setting you're going to have a hard time finding a place "far enough away from people" to put one, and that is a requirement. I do some of this stuff here, in fairly small quantities, and had occaision to talk to the local BATFE guys about it. When they saw what I was doing they had no problem with it, is all I can say. Doesn't matter what the laws are if the cops are alright. Of course, you'd better have a nice big place to shoot nice big rockets anyway.

    Heck, it's legal to have quite a quantity of smokeless powder for reloading, and that is darn powerful stuff, and can be detonated at least in small quantities. This is just one of those silly things about ignorant lawmakers (some of whom are unelected) trying to CoverTheirAxx.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Aufero (993962)
      Your friends using ammonium nitrate may have to register with Homeland Security soon, according to USA today. [usatoday.com]

      Just hope Homeland Security doesn't start conflating their explosives registration and no-fly lists...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by NerveGas (168686)
      Ammonium nitrate is more dangerous than the stuff we're talking about. Had Timmy used a Rider truck full of ammonium perchlorate, the federal building would be just fine, but he would have burned a very big hole in the street.

      As far as smokeless powder, it's been quite some time since I checked, but I think that you can't have very much of it before you fall under the same requirements, although since it doesn't take a permit to buy, most folks either don't obey or are unaware of the law.

      steve
  • "Sticky Wicket" (Score:5, Informative)

    by chr1sb (642707) on Sunday October 15, 2006 @10:43PM (#16448605)
    For those not familiar with the term "sticky wicket", it is a cricketing term referring to the state of the cricket pitch. A sticky wicket is typically one that contains too much surface moisture, and can cause the ball to deviate unpredictably as it bounces in front of the batsman. A cricket ball is similar in size and mass to a baseball, and can be bowled at a batsman's body (or head :). Batting on a sticky wicket is a lot less fun than bowling (pitching) on it!
    • by Dunbal (464142)
      You know I lived in the UK for 6 years, and I _STILL_ don't understand either the rules, or the point, of the game of cricket (except for the opportunity to have a piss up afterwards)!
      • by robbak (775424)
        Well, I don't understand the rules or point of baseball, for that matter.
      • by sr180 (700526)
        The great thing about Cricket is that the Piss Up occurs while the game is in progress. Theres nothing quite like sitting on the hill drinking at Adelaide Oval while a good test match or one day international game is in progress.
    • by kimvette (919543)
      I think there are laws covering the real intent, you know, laws banning murder, vandalism, etc.

      That ought to cover it.
  • The [A.T.F.] is also concerned that large rockets could be used as weapons. But weapons experts say it is doubtful that the rockets could be significant threats because they do not have guidance systems, which are prohibited by federal law.

    "Designing a rocket to go straight up and down is hugely different than making it controllable to hit any kind of a target," said John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Key words being: guidance systems, whic

    • by NerveGas (168686)
      It hasn't been replicated because once you add active guidance, a model rocket is no longer a model rocket in the US, but a military weapon - even if it has no classified or controlled systems. That means that you end up spending a long time in federal prisons if you're lucky, or a secret CIA interrogation center if you're not.
  • The summary says that officials are concerned because these hobbyists are using a "flammable propellant" to launch their rockets. Isn't that the whole point? I mean, come on now, what good would it be to use a nonflammable propellant?
    • they could use pressurized water :)
  • so dumb... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by OiToTheWorld (1014079)
    I find it fairly silly that a relatively weak explosive like rocket fuel is monitored, restricted and so on when: A: you can buy black powder and other more powerful explosives without much fuss and B: any moron with half a brain and access to google can manufacture plastic explosives in a bathtub with the stuff under their sinks. If people want to make things go boom, they will find a way. I think the only real way to avoid terrorist bombings is to work to not piss them off to the point where they think it
    • by sirket (60694)
      Not just foreign terrorists either- we're going to restrict so many things in this country that our own citizens are going to start fighting back- in some cases by blowing things up. The tighter you squeeze the citizenry the more they slip through your fingers. The biggest danger in the future is not going to be a crazed Al Queda operative- it's going to be some guy from the midwest who wanted to fly a rocket and couldn't.

      People were making these chemicals in home labratories for years and years. It's just
  • by slickwillie (34689) on Monday October 16, 2006 @12:03AM (#16449077)
    How about my cow-launching catapult?
  • by Sooner Boomer (96864) <sooner.boomr@gmail.PERIODcom minus punct> on Monday October 16, 2006 @12:43AM (#16449303) Journal
    The point of the lawsuit against the BATFE is not whether they should regulate explosives or conduct background checks. The point is that APCP is NOT AN EXPLOSIVE and SHOULD NOTT BE REGULATED AS SUCH.
  • by NerveGas (168686) on Monday October 16, 2006 @12:43AM (#16449305)
    ... part of the lawsuit is because the ATF has failed to classify the stuff in accordance with the procedures required by law. If they followed the law, the stuff would not be classified as an explosive, but they have (in direct conflict with procedure) said "Too bad. We're going to call it an explosive anyway."
  • by sakusha (441986) on Monday October 16, 2006 @12:46AM (#16449327)
    These ridiculous restrictions on chemicals sounds familiar, I've run into the same thing in my trade, photographic printing.

    I work in antique photochemistry processes, and the chemicals I've used are now subject to regulation by the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Just last month, I was checking prices at the same supplier I've used for 30 years, and to reorder the same old chemicals, now I have to file DHS forms with the vendor, including a copy of my photo ID, the location where I will store the chemicals, a detailed description of the chemical formula I use, and a waiver allowing the DHS and DEA to inspect the records at will. I phoned the supplier and asked about these forms, and they said, "oh don't worry about it, we've only had DHS inspect the records 2 or 3 times." Oh I feel so much better after hearing that.

    So now I know why the processes I use have almost completely disappeared in the last few years. Nobody wants to subject themselves to scrutiny by the DHS just to make a few prints. The really stupid thing about this is, the chemicals on the restricted list aren't really the most dangerous ones, you can buy stuff from the same supplier that's way more hazardous without filing any paperwork.
  • Paraffin/LOX hybrids (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Josh Triplett (874994) on Monday October 16, 2006 @02:57AM (#16449873) Homepage
    I work with the Portland State Aerospace Society [pdx.edu]. We build open source rockets, in every sense of the term: you can find all the details of our work on our site, including software, avionics designs, airframe schematics, and engine/propulsion work. We currently use ammonium perchlorate engines, and we do indeed have to deal with these issues, which prove quite onerous. For this reason, our propulsion team [pdx.edu] currently has as their primary project the development of a hybrid paraffin and liquid oxygen motor. Both of these components have no regulatory issues whatsoever: the paraffin wax came from a craft store, and the liquid oxygen came from a welding supply store (or with the right equipment, you could make it yourself). Their test-fires have gone quite well; in addition to testing paraffin/GOX, they've also test-fired salami/GOX, which actually provided more thrust than the paraffin prototype tested that particular day. :)

    That just leaves us having to deal with any restrictions on active guidance that get thrown our way, which we'll deal with when we finish our active-guidance prototype.

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