Bonneville Salt Flats • Sonny and I have attended the annual Utah Rocket Club (UROC) summer launches for years, hooked ever since we watched a rocket explode on the pad in a ball of fire.
We’re not rocketeers ourselves, but we do admire the dedicated craziness in making things go boom. Also, there’s something addictive in watching an event that stands a good chance of going spectacularly awry.
Note: Before you get all sanctimonious, this is the same reason people watch hockey, NASCAR, air shows and political campaigns.
For “HellFire 22” this year, we followed Herriman resident Travis and Kelly Tabbal. Kelly, who is a friend of my daughter, looked like she might need help in the event her husband’s rocket went to pieces followed immediately by his mind. He was under a lot of stress this year.
Travis was putting the family’s finances and sanity to the test by attempting to launch an 11-foot-tall, 110-pound, $2,500 rocket, which required more than a year to build. With a successful launch (and return), he would achieve his coveted Class 3 rocketeer certification.
The rocket was an early Christmas gift/bonus last year from SolutionStream, the company where Travis works. Not only was his certification, pocketbook and work at stake, so was his office reputation.
As with most objects of deep affection, the rocket had a name: Firebolt. Travis’ 9- and 7- year-old sons, who had just finished reading Harry Potter, got to name it.
The Tower of Tabbal (my personal name for it because it looked so cool) was expected/hoped to reach 7,000 feet in a matter of seconds, pushed by $300 of fuel.
But a lot can go wrong in rocket launching. Even NASA doesn’t get it right every time. After everything is checked and rechecked, something might still go amiss.
It’s possible that Travis’ creation would not launch, that it might blow up, burn or, even better, fall over and travel in any direction of the compass at 3.5 miles PFT (rocketeer speak for “per facial twitch”).
Yes, I said “better.” If something of this magnitude is going to fail, you want it to be exciting.
We didn’t mention any of this to Travis, of course. He was under considerable pressure at the moment. His happiness for the foreseeable future was now based on the flip of a switch.
When it was time, we trudged out across the greasy salt that contributed so much to turning the Donner Party into cannibals in 1847. Salt Flat salt is not nearly as pure as it looks from Interstate 80.
Kelly helped her husband carry Firebolt. The chivalrous thing to do would have been for Sonny and me to help Travis, but, like I said, you never know about these things. We followed at a safe distance.
Travis carefully placed Firebolt on the launch rail and stood it upright. It was an impressive sight. When he stooped to arm the rocket by connecting the wires, we hurried farther away.
On the way back to mission control, Kelly asked if I would mind sticking close by for the launch.
“If this goes wrong, we’ll need to tie up Travis so I can get him home.”
The countdown began … three, two, one, ignition.
By that I mean that Firebolt sputtered, sparked and then suddenly disappeared in a flash. When it was obvious that no one was seriously injured, a couple of thousand pairs of eyes turned skyward.
In a matter of seconds, Firebolt reached its zenith (later determined by altimeter to be 6,477 feet), curved over and headed back to earth. A chute popped open, and Firebolt drifted to the east, where it landed safely.
Travis screamed and yelled and bounced around. Kelly cried a bit.
It’s the little things we live for — no matter how much time, money, energy and dread they cost.