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Amateur rocket breaks the space barrier

Rocketeers say they have succeeded in their years-long quest to launch a rocket higher than 100 kilometers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A team of rocketeers has claimed success in its goal of launching the first amateur rocket into space, sending a 21-foot (6.5-meter) rocket an estimated 70 miles (112 kilometers) above the Nevada desert.

Former Hollywood stuntman Ky Michaelson, 65, had been working since 1995 to blast an amateur rocket into space, defined as 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the earth. His first two attempts, in 2000 and 2002, failed. The third time was the charm.

"I just freaked out," Michaelson said of Monday's successful launch. "All those emotions after all those years came out of me. I just couldn't believe it."

Built in six states
This year's model, dubbed the GoFast Rocket, was built in six different states and assembled at the launch site in northwestern Nevada.

About 25 members of the team that built the rocket, Civilian Space eXploration Team, or CSXT, were on hand to watch Monday morning's launch. Everyone held their breath as the countdown reached liftoff, he said.

"I was concentrating on watching the motor," Michaelson said. "If the motor blows up, it's all over."

Michaelson said they were still working to recover the rocket on Tuesday, and that its telemetry package should tell them the exact altitude. But he said it reached 4,200 miles an hour in 10 seconds, so the laws of physics would have taken it up about 70 miles.

"Once you hit 4,200 miles an hour, that thing's gone into space," he said

The Federation Aeronautique Internationale in Lausanne, Switzerland, the governing body that certifies international aviation records, doesn't have a specific category of records for such accomplishments, but sometimes establishes one after a precedent is set, said Thierry Montigneaux, assistant to the secretary general. He said he didn't think the FAI had a record of such a previous unmanned amateur rocket flight in its archives.

History of a quest
Michaelson founded CSXT in 1998, bringing together amateur rocketeers including teachers, students and real rocket scientists. In 2000, they launched a rocket that reached 3,205 mph (5,128 kilometers per hour) before wind shear snapped off a fin at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters). In 2002, they launched a rocket that soared for three seconds before the motor burned through the casing and it exploded.

Other amateur groups are competing to blast though the same door. Last week, a group led by Burt Rutan launched a piloted rocket from a plane that climbed to 211,400 feet (64 kilometers).

The launch in the Black Rock Desert was monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Donn Walker, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, noted that many private companies already have launched spacecraft such as those carrying satellites. He said CSXT is essentially engaged in a purely amateur space race but has earned the respect of federal regulators.

"They're very legitimate and they do know what they're doing, absolutely," Walker said.

Call him 'Rocketman'
Michaelson, who has more than 200 movies and TV shows to his credit, has been obsessed with rockets all his life. As a young man, he owned a rocket-propelled motorcycle that led to his nickname "The Rocketman."

Michaelson's 4-year-old son is named Buddy Rocketman Michaelson, and Michaelson says his son calls himself "Rocketman Buddy." He also has a 6-year-old daughter, Miracle.

Now that he's reached his longtime goal, Michaelson says, he plans to return home to Bloomington, Minn., and spend the summer with his wife, Jodi, and their children. They plan to rent a motor-home and visit Alaska.

"Do some fishing," Michaelson said.