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U.S. to put brakes on toy rockets
Hobbyists who launch the most powerful rockets are upset because they will
be limited by government rules aimed at preventing terrorism
By Amy E. Nevala Tribune staff reporter
May 11, 2003
A new federal law intended to keep explosives out of the hands of terrorists
has set off a flurry of protest from model rocket hobbyists, who fear being
treated as potential criminals because of restrictions on the propellant
used in the rocket engines.
Hobbyists wishing to launch the most powerful rockets will need a permit and
will be subject to fingerprinting, background checks and interviews with
"Model rocket enthusiasts across the country and even across the ocean are
very worried," said U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) in a written statement.
Enzi introduced a bill in March that would make the hobbyists exempt from
The new provisions apply to dozens of explosives, including ammonium
perchlorate composite propellant, the same propellant used to fuel boosters
that launch NASA's space shuttles.
For decades, Scouting troops, science classes and back-yard rocket
enthusiasts have launched the models using small but powerful amounts of
that propellant. Boy Scouts, for example, build and launch a model rocket to
earn the Space Exploration Merit Badge.
When the law goes into effect May 24, anyone who buys or sells a rocket
motor that contains more than 62.5 grams of the propellant--common among the
largest model rockets--will need a federal permit.
United Parcel Service and the Burlington National Santa Fe Railway already
have stopped shipping rocket motors because they want to avoid subjecting
employees to federal background checks, spokesmen for the companies said.
The law will not apply to people who buy smaller rocket engines that use
less fuel. Even so, Ken Herrick, who has been launching rockets for 40
years, said the law will have a chilling effect.
"It's a hobby, for heaven's sake, a toy we play with," said Herrick, 48, of
Melrose Park, a salesman at Al's Hobby Shop in Elmhurst. "It's going to put
an undue burden on a lot of us."
Fear of lost business
Tim Lehr, who owns the hobby shop, said he anticipates the requirements will
hurt his business as more people turn to remote-controlled cars or other
hobbies not under government scrutiny. He said he may cut back on stocking
"It won't kill me, but I'll be losing that section of business," Lehr said.
"With the federal government as paranoid as it is right now, it may be just
what I have to do."
The U.S. Bureau of ***, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives defended the
law as part of the government's crackdown on materials that could be used by
However, an ATF spokesman declined to specify how the propellant could be
used for terrorism.
Though the highest-flying model rockets can reach 8,000 to 10,000 feet--high
enough to reach some airplanes--the likelihood of a model rocket being used
as a terrorist weapon is extremely small, said Paul Yarnold, a research
professor of medicine at Northwestern University who has been an amateur
rocketeer for 30 years.
"To hit a target like an airplane using a model rocket that is not guided is
completely unrealistic," Yarnold said.
The greater fear seems to be that the engines could be bought in bulk and
the propellant used as an explosive. For that reason, even with the federal
permit a person would be limited to six purchases a year and the permit must
be renewed annually.
When model rockets first became popular in the early 1960s, as the United
States raced the Soviet Union into space, hobbyists concocted
often-dangerous mixtures of black powder, propane and nitroglycerin for
power. Eventually, the hobby turned to ammonium perchlorate composite
propellant, which is more stable.
"This is by far the safest alternative," said Robert Bigelow, 48, owner of
Friends' Hobby in Waukegan, who began building rockets as a Cub Scout.
The propellant generally is not sold by itself but rather as part of a
complete rocket motor. It comes in a hard cylinder that, when ignited, burns
quickly in a rocket's enclosed tube, creating heat and pressure that push
the rocket skyward.
The most common rockets, which can reach a few hundred feet, contain 10 to
25 grams of the fuel.
Most hobbyists not affected
The ATF estimates that about 90 percent of the hobbyists use small motors
and will not be subject to the new rules. About 10 percent buy larger rocket
motors that contain more than 62.5 grams of propellant, said the agency's
spokesman, Andrew Lluberes.
Model rockets come in many shapes and sizes, from 3-inch-long varieties that
require just a few grams of fuel to 6-foot-long powerhouses with names like
The largest--slender rockets resembling broomsticks that can use more than
2,500 grams of fuel--may soar as high as 10,000 feet, said Boy Scout leader
Randy Culp of New Berlin, Wis., who helps kids earn their Space Exploration
"If the regulation says up to 62.5 grams, then we'll have no problem making
sure our Scouts get their badges," Culp said. "But then you're going to lose
the kids who want to go on to larger rockets."
The new regulations are spelled out in the Safe Explosives Act, which is
part of the Homeland Security Act. The ATF will conduct background checks
and issue permits. The application process for an explosives permit takes
about 90 days, Lluberes said.
Not everyone will get a permit, Lluberes said. Among those who would be
refused are felons, foreigners without legal resident status and people
committed to a mental institution, he said.
Applicants must pay $25 and submit photographs, he said.
Enzi said his bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Copyright ? 2003, Chicago Tribune
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