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05-15-03: Rocket hobby under scrutiny

Homeland Security Act targets rocket engines

The Daily Standard
    The worldwide fight against terrorism and the increasing focus on homeland security has rippled all the way into local hobby shops.
    Model rocket engines fueled by a small amount of a powerful explosive have fallen under the scrutiny of new homeland security regulations. As a result, hobby shop owners and other retailers who sell the engines will have to get a federal permit to sell the largest of the rocket engines. Most smaller engines could still be sold without a dealer permit.
    "I don't like to see us lose personal liberties, but I don't have a problem regulating the larger ones," said Larry Kramer, owner of St. Marys Hobby Center & Trading Co., 111 W. Spring St. "They're just trying to control it better. It does not affect the small hobbyist."
    But Kramer and his employees won't be going through the fingerprinting and background checks that would be required to deal in engines containing more than 62.5 grams of solid propellant. That is because Kramer stopped selling the larger engines years ago, for a couple of different reasons.
    Demand for large engines - capable of putting a rocket 5,000-10,000 feet in the air - is low, Kramer said. On top of that, shipping surcharges on the material coupled with buying small quantities of engines made it an easy financial decision to take the big engines off the shelves, Kramer said.
    "It just wasn't cost-effective," he said, noting that the store now sells engines no larger than "D" - the biggest the U.S. Postal Service will ship.
    The engines are cardboard, covered cylinders of solid propellant - usually the chemical ammonium perchlorate. They are about 1-inch in diameter and three or four inches long.
    Randy Myers, owner of Three R Hobby, 118 Fayette St., Celina, said he would like to develop a market for larger rocket engines and has a personal interest in them, too. But Myers said he is not sure if he would submit to the government's permitting process.
    "It depends on what all it entails," Myers said, adding that neither the government nor his regular engine supplier has contacted him about the new regulations.
    Getting the larger engines is not easy, Myers said. With shipping and production obstacles, their availability has all but dried up in a post-Sept. 11 world, he said. United Parcel Service and Burlington National Santa Fe Railway already have halted all shipments of the larger engines to protect their employees from possible federal background checks.
    Following the terrorist attacks, there were rumors that model rockets would be pulled from store shelves altogether, but that has not happened, Myers said.
    It is clear the government has taken aim at materials used within the hobby that could be used to foment terror. The regulations on the solid rocket propellant are part of the Homeland Security Act. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATFE) has been given charge of writing the permitting regulations and enforcing the program aimed at tracking rocket fuel and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
    Local hobby retailers agreed that a determined terrorist could turn a model rocket - or just about anything else - into a weapon.
    "Some of these larger rockets can carry a significant payload. I can see the threat," Kramer said.
    But Paul Yarnold, a Northwestern University professor and long-time amateur rocketeer, told the Chicago Tribune for a story last week that that threat of a rocket striking a target is slim.
    "To hit a a target like an airplane using a model rocket that is not guided is completely unrealistic," he said in that May 11 article.
    The bigger threat, Yarnold said, is someone stockpiling the engines to combine the fuel for one giant blast. Because of that possibility, the ATFE plans to limit sales, even to retail permit holders.


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The Standard Printing Company
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