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Kirby: Up in smoke on the Salt Flats

Published August 9, 2012 10:04 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Bonneville Salt Flats is famous for three things. It's flat, has a long racetrack, and it's one of the few places on earth where it's possible to sunburn your secret parts while wandering around fully clothed.

A lot of people don't know that last one. I learned about it Saturday when Sonny and I spent the day out there entirely on purpose.

It wasn't the hottest day the Salt Flats has ever recorded. But sunlight reflects well off white salt and up the legs of baggy shorts, loose skirts, kilts, and any other form of apparel that doesn't have a bottom seal.

Reflected light there feels kind of good at first. By the time it doesn't feel good, it's too late. You'll drive a hundred miles back to civilization whimpering every time your seat touches the car's seat.

We didn't go out to the Salt Flats for that. We went because we had been invited by a group of science nerds known by the acronym URC.

NOTE: URC (also UROC) stands for "Utah Rocket Club," the official organization of local model rocket nuts/enthusiasts.

ANOTHER NOTE: Coincidently, "Urc!" is also the initial noise a rocket hobbyist makes when, leaning over backwards as far as possible, he or she realizes that something has gone expensively wrong aloft.

FINAL NOTE: Amateur rocketry is hard. An entire year of hard work and thousands of hard-earned dollars can get turned into a smoking hole through the application of hard science and even harder ground.

On Saturday, UROC was well into its annual Hellfire launch when Sonny and I arrived. We pulled into an empty space (lots of those out there) and set up camp: sun shade, lawn chairs, and neck braces.

Neck braces are important for Hellfire spectators. The human head was never intended to operate like a yo-yo. An hour of following rockets from the launch pad to sky puts a serious kink in the string/neck.

"Rocketeers" have their own language. They talk about stuff like apogees, ammonium perchlorate, "Newton seconds," and "watch out!"

Luckily, Sonny and I were camped next to rocket enthusiasts Randy Hughston of North Salt Lake, and his 14-year-old son Jackson. They could explain technical stuff to us. They could also explain it to a couple of brine flies for all the good it would do.

For example, a "Newton second" is…I don't know. I made Randy explain it three time and it's still a mystery. Something to do with speed.

When I got home, I looked up the mathematical formula for a Newton second. Grab a pencil. Ready? OK, it's a capital F with an arrow over it, period, equal sign, a triangle, followed by the letters "m" and "v" in italics, another arrow, what looks like a mushroom cloud, and a stick figure running away.

Sonny and I watched rockets go up all day long. Big ones, little ones, and a couple the size of anything North Korea might have in its arsenal.

We sat in camp chairs and listened to mission control over loudspeakers.

"Going in five, four, three, two, one…or not."

That was the count if the rocket failed to launch. A couple of times the count went, "Going in five, four-whoa!"

Most of the time the launches were by the numbers and successful. In a flash, the rockets scorched the clear sky and disappeared. Everyone watched for the parachute bringing it gently back to earth.

No parachute is bad. You keep looking up, though. All that stuff is going to be coming back down. If the parachute fails to deploy, you want a head start.

Not that it would necessarily do you any good. Something big and heavy that disappears overhead in less than a second is probably coming back down faster than you can get out of the way. We saw it happen.

But Saturday's Hellfire was as safe as high velocity, high explosive, and high altitude could be made by human beings. We watched launches all day long and nobody got hurt — if you don't count the sunburns, that is.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.