Saturday, August 09, 2008

At the intersection
of land and sky

July 18 and 19th the Rocket Mavericks Foundation hosted its second annual Competition in the Black Rock dry lakebed, about 2 1/2 hours northeast of Reno, Nevada, in the same general area Burning Man is held.

It's a rough-and-tumble affair, where grizzled and not-so-grizzled rocketeers truck their privately built devices out to the open spaces and fire them into the sky, sometimes as high as 100,000 feet, high enough to record the curvature of the earth on little webcams that instantly transmit photos back to earth. The whole thing has to be cleared with the FAA and the BLM beforehand, and the monument has what they call a "leave no trace" policy, meaning everything you bring in you are obliged to bring out. If the friendly ranger finds any sign of transgression he gleefully writes a big fat ticket. The Mavericks assemble an RV city, an instant camp that during the baking hot day, under an intense sun, hums with people at tables putting together strange electronics, vehicles rushing about the lakebed kicking up dust clouds, and the occasional moment when the whole camp freezes, absolute silence and the guy with the red button starts a countdown everybody can hear, "5-4-3-2-1." Then out to the north comes a crackling gutteral roar as the engine ignites and for a few brief seconds you catch the slender shape kick up a cloud of dust and head skyward, borne atop a brilliant flame.

Higher she climbs out of sight, until someone spots her floating down, parachutes unfurling. Later when the rocket cools they drive out to retrieve it wherever it fell, in whatever shape it lands. Some come back souvenirs, others live to fly another day. At dusk another atmosphere envelops the camp as worktables shut down -except for those about to do a night launch, of which there are fewer- and as the sun sets over a distant mountain range the fires are lit and the bravado kicks into high gear. For the faint of heart who don't mind a drive of 30 minutes over the dry lake, rudimentary hotel rooms can be booked at Bruno's Motel in nearby Gerlach at around US$60/night. The desert's splendid isolation and the 360 degrees of sky make this remarkable. But it's the cast of characters who contribute to the madness that makes this experience an extraordinary one. To view a souvenir booklet documenting the event go to For more information see