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Kirby: Bowling ball land speed record

Published August 7, 2014 10:18 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Bonneville Salt Flats • Driving west on Interstate 80 Saturday morning, Sonny and I felt our already meager maturity levels decline the closer we got to Wendover.

Instead of driving into town and spending the day having ruinous fun in the casinos, we turned north onto the Salt Flats, where the real action was. Say what you want about shooting the moon at craps, there's greater risk shooting at the moon for real.

A few miles north of I-80, out on the salt, the Utah Rocket Club (UROC) was having a blast with its 19th annual Hellfire launch, this year aptly titled Bat Out of Hell.

This was not the normal low-brow guy version of blowing [stuff] up (BSU). UROC hobbyists are comparative geniuses when it comes to the art of how far, how fast, and how loud something will go.

In order to achieve their goal of boosting something into the stratosphere, rocketeers have to follow very exacting steps. Doing this requires a measurable attention span. They have to know genuine science stuff like arithmetic and the ability to read warning labels.

Conversely, if a guy only wants to know if a soda can filled with concrete and a rebar spike will go clear through a 1985 Chevrolet, pretty much all I need is the ability to think, "Hey, that sounds like a good idea."

Rocketry is not without risk. Despite the science, the safety, the meticulous attention to detail, things can still go horribly wrong. And it can be expensive.

The rocket can detonate on the pad, go sideways in flight, explode in the air, fail to deploy its recovery parachute, and even reverse course and come back looking for you.

Still, this is the way to spend a Saturday ­— kicked back on a lounge chair under a sunshade, drink in hand, watching somebody else's expensive stuff go boom.

There were small rockets, medium-size rockets, large rockets, and even a couple the size of surplus German V-1 rockets. They snapped, whined, shrieked and roared into the sky.

One of Saturday's largest rockets was a black and yellow monster 10 feet tall and enormously heavy. It took several guys to lift it onto the launch rail. We backed off a safe distance and listened to the countdown.

Instead of ripping the heavens open, the rocket sat motionless. Then it belched and caught fire. The nose cone popped open and the parachute deployed. Then the entire thing burned. It was a serious loss of time, money and effort.

As the horrified rocket's owner watched, the group tried to console him.

Guy #1: "That really sucks, Alan."

Guy #2: "Not your fault, man. Engine failure."

Sonny: "Bummer, man"

Me: "Did the monkey get out OK?"

It's against UROC rules to launch animals into space. I was just making sure.

Back at our "camp," Sonny made paper rockets for the kids camped next to us. The Koecher family from West Jordan consisted of Peter, 7; Rebecca, 9; Elizabeth, 4; and William "I have a hat," which I believe meant "2."

They fired their rockets off a launch rail using compressed air from a bicycle pump.

And then it was time to show the rocket guys what shooting is all about. Sonny and I hauled the bowling ball mortar out of the truck and took a shot at the moon. Everyone went silent when the gun went off.

A bowling ball does not have a parachute to slow its re-entry. It's up there for about half a minute, and comes back to you at roughly the same speed it left.

If you lose track of the ball against the sky, the whistling grows louder until it either smacks the ground somewhere else or pile drives you into the dirt.

The boom attracted the attention of BLM Ranger Randal Griffin, a nice guy, who told us that while he appreciated our enthusiasm, we needed a permit to shoot at the Salt Flats.

I didn't even think of arguing with Randal because I would only end up having the exact same argument with a federal magistrate after being Tasered, hauled back to Salt Lake in chains and locked up.

Besides, it's entirely possible Randal saved our lives. That bowling ball came back faster than any of the rockets.

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