IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Rocket boys of Forks capture a town's imagination

They didn't win the ballyhooed X Prize, but the rocket boys of the Olympic Peninsula are still at it.
/ Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

FORKS -- A thin November fog clung to the ground in the forest clearcut as a log loader, a grappling vehicle that looks like a mechanical brontosaurus feeding on trees, placed harvested wood into logging trucks for transport to the sawmill. Suddenly, out of the woods just down the road, a 10-foot silver rocket blasted into the sky.

The rocket boys of the Olympic Peninsula are still at it.

"There goes the second stage," said Philip Storm, co-founder of Space Transport Corp. Inc., as he squinted up at the contrails marking the path of the rocket.

Storm's partner, Eric Meier, said nothing but aimed an awkward assemblage of antennas and video equipment to track their craft -- a three-stage, solid propellant rocket they had equipped with a digital video camera for sending live images.

Meier and Storm didn't win the ballyhooed X Prize, but they didn't give up, either.

Perseverance is highly valued in this beleaguered community. Many here are still recovering, economically and psychologically, from the Pacific Northwest "timber wars" of the 1990s -- the fight to save old growth forest from an industry that even some of the local loggers say was cutting too many trees too fast.

But today, in this clearcut, it's all about the people of Forks helping these two young men fight for turf in the new space race.

Unlike the August maiden launch of Storm and Meier's larger Rubicon rocket -- a spacecraft designed to carry passengers and compete for the X Prize -- this one didn't explode.

"I've got video," shouted 15- year-old Noah Dillon from inside the family minivan, perched on a steep, dirt road overlooking the clearcut. The worn, blue van had been temporarily reconfigured by the boy's handyman father, Forks High School metal shop and computing teacher Martin Dillon, to serve as mobile mission control for the launch.

The younger Dillon sat hunched in the van, in front of a computer monitor showing a halting, grainy video image as the rocket climbed closer to the edge of space. A laptop computer used to remotely launch the rocket and monitor its ascent was on the van floor. Wires snaked out from the computers to a power inverter the senior Dillon had mounted on the car engine and beyond to the antennas held aloft by Meier.

"Wow! That's great," Noah Dillon exclaimed. An image showing the blackness of space and the Earth's curvature appeared on the screen. The video scene whirled around due to the rocket's rotation. A portion of the coastline, or maybe it was a cloud front over the Pacific, flickered on the monitor. Then it went black.

"Are we still getting data?" Meier asked.

Storm checked the monitor screen and the laptop. The rocket was sending back information (altitude, position, trajectory and the like) as it climbed, he said, but there was no longer any video image.

"I think we lost the video at about 60,000 feet," Storm said.

He ran his perpetually grease-smudged hand through his dark brown hair and stared at the computer screen. A mathematician by training, Storm's mind easily oscillates between physical reality and abstract thought. For the moment, he appeared to be in the abstract realm.

"Did you hear the second stage come down?" said John Anderson, one of the locals helping Storm and Meier. The burly, bearded man wearing jeans, heavy boots and suspenders over a neck-zippered work shirt, grinned and pointed over the hillside: "It came whistling down and crashed right over there."

His teenage sons, Patrick and Steven, were ready to hunt for the rocket section. Anderson, a plumber by trade, is renowned for his retrieval skills. His prodigious beachcombing discoveries over the years have been featured in many publications, including Smithsonian magazine.

But Storm and Meier weren't interested in retrieving the rocket section. This was one of their equipment test rockets, which cost about $2,000 to build. The second-stage, 4-inch-diameter, empty aluminum tube that came back wasn't worth beating the brush for.

They speculated about why the camera signal failed.

"The antenna on the rocket probably burned off," suggested Storm. The antenna mounted on the rocket had to stick out slightly to send the camera's signal back. But the friction and heat from the rocket's rapid ascent (at its fastest, Mach 5, five times the speed of sound) may have been too much, Storm said.

If they try this again, he said, they might build a protective hood over the antenna to protect it from the heat and force of the flight.

It's not a lot of money to give the three-stage rocket another go, but then again, they don't have a lot of money. There's a lot of green around here, but not the bankable kind.

Seeking space on the cheap

America's best stories are about its dreamers, pioneers and adventurers. Storm and Meier, both 26, fit in this genre. Some may argue they fit more on the crazy end of the spectrum, but there's no question they are on an adventure.

After putting in a few years working on rocket engines at the Redmond branch of Aerojet, a company that builds engines for NASA spacecraft and military rockets, Storm and Meier quit to start Space Transport Corp. in 2002.

"We moved to Forks because it was inexpensive and we could test our rockets," Storm said. They raised about $200,000 cash from friends and family, including from those living in cash-strapped Forks, and built everything themselves.

They mixed up their own solid rocket propellant, a cost-saving measure that led to the dramatic explosion in August of Rubicon 1 on the coast near Queets. The propellant had not been mixed properly, and the rocket exploded at launch, obliterating their already unlikely bid for the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

The X Prize, won last month by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and billionaire Paul Allen, received worldwide attention as the contest launching a "new space race" -- a near future of commercial space flights, exospheric tourism and orbiting hotels. The X Prize milestone has been compared to Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic "Spirit of St. Louis" flight and the early days of commercial air travel.

"Space is now open for everyone," is how Peter Diamandis, chairman of the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation, likes to sum it up. But this is a race that, so far, seems to favor those who have lots of cash.

Allen reportedly invested nearly $30 million in SpaceShipOne, the Rutan-designed rocket-plane that captured the X Prize. Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a company that owns the technology for SpaceShipOne, has signed a $21.5 million deal with billionaire Richard Branson allowing his firm to develop a space tourism vehicle.

Branson says he will spend another $100 million to launch his space tourism company, "Virgin Galactic." He said tickets would start at around $190,000 per person.

This is space travel for everyone?

"We're trying to really make this affordable, now, for regular people," said Storm. Space Transport's goal is to launch people up into sub-orbital space (more than 62.5 miles up) and float them down into the ocean -- just like the early, John Glenn days of space exploration. The airplane approach, Storm and Meier contend, is actually more challenging and technically prone to failure.

With what little money they still have, the two young men have since rebuilt "Rubicon 2." They intend to launch again after conducting more small rocket tests aimed at refining their technologies and perhaps attracting new investors.

"Failure is an option," joked Meier, perverting the mantra of the NASA manned space program to better fit the attitude of Space Transport Corp. Failures are to be expected, he said, and exploited as a learning experience in their struggle to do on a shoestring what others are trying to do with millions.

"We're actually building, testing and getting things done when a lot of others are still all talk," Meier said. Rutan and Allen have shown that this can be done with stratospheric funding, he said, and Space Transport wants to prove what can be done starting from the ground level.

Seeing stars from the forest

"I'm ready to go whenever they think they're ready," said Dale Montgomery. The 57-year-old logger has volunteered to take the first passenger flight on the Rubicon 2, or 3, or whatever it takes.

"I'm not crazy. I'd just like to fly," Montgomery said. "They won't let me go until they're sure it's safe, but I think they're going to do it. I see it as a great opportunity I sure wouldn't get otherwise."

Whether or not they ultimately succeed in the new commercial race into space, Storm and Meier are already a local success story.

"Forks is still struggling as a community," said local barber Mark Johnson, who supplied the mannequin head for the dummy pilot on the ill-fated Rubicon 1. "A lot of people have really taken to these guys, partly because they're something new -- but also because they don't give up."

Martin Dillon, the Forks High School teacher, said it's hard to know exactly how much of an impact the presence of these two rocket scientists have had on the community.

"I think it's inspiring to some students, certainly," Dillon said. His college-age daughter Hannah, he noted, has been working with Storm and Meier and is now thinking of pursuing an engineering degree.

"I think it's pretty cool," said Dick Hart, a senior in Dillon's metal shop class. Hart, whose father is a logger, works six days a week after school in a local mill. He doesn't think it too likely Forks will soon be in the space business, but he's glad the "space dudes" are in town.

"I met that one guy with the hair," Hart said -- Storm's hair is frequently unkempt. "He seemed like a nice guy, but he didn't know how to make a campfire."

Another senior, Preston Tilus, has indirectly benefited from the new space race in Forks. Tilus wanted to take a college-level physics course, but nobody was available in town to teach it. So Meier has volunteered to tutor him for an Internet course, meeting twice a week for hours at a time.

"We meet at the library and go over it problem by problem," Tilus said. "He does it for free. It helps enormously."

Meier and Storm, in turn, said the city of Forks has been enormously helpful to them. The city gave them a good rental rate on the use of a 3,500-square-foot shop-and-office building on the outskirts of town. Locals have invested in the company, volunteered on projects and donated materials to their efforts.

The Dillons have the rocket boys over for a family dinner at least once a week. For two guys living the "adventure" of an unfurnished apartment in Forks on a Spartan budget, that kind of support is worth at least a billionaire or two.

P-I reporter Tom Paulson can be reached at 206-448-8318 or