rocket drop
Image: David Emmite

The LV2’s nose-cone prematurely detaches, just seconds after liftoff.

IN THE WAKE OF THE FAILED LAUNCH, PSAS members would analyze the few seconds of abortive flight, frame by frame. They would continue to work on all of LV2’s systems, and continue their research on liquid-fueled engines, avionics systems, and the rest of the intricate, volatile workings of their creation, all aimed at a goal of launching LV2 again in the spring.

“We’re looking for continuous improvement,” Greenberg said. “Sometimes, that means just an incremental change—one little thing we figure out.”

As the rocketry camp dissolved into the dust that day, the most vital aspect of the experience came into focus: not the failed launch, but the grander adventure to get the rocket on the tower in the first place.

At about 11 o’clock the night before, Bergey had led a small posse down the road, away from the camp, to where he had set up a couple of large telescopes. This far from civilization, the night sky exploded in a florid eruption of stars, constellations hanging like lanterns just out of reach. Bergey adjusted the dials on a telescope so that the view through the eyepiece showed a finely etched bubble of stars.

“That’s a globular cluster—a minigalaxy that’s actually outside the Milky Way,” Bergey said. “You’re looking at about 100,000 stars right now.”

The white-hot flare flashed at the rocket’s base, but something looked wrong right away.

A rocket needs to reach at least 62 miles above sea level to achieve suborbital space—much higher than the 18,000 feet PSAS has managed so far. But in the longer term, the technology PSAS is developing (and its price: almost free, if you’re willing to work hard) could serve science well. Implicit to the group’s open-source zeal is the vision of thousands of minirockets, built on university campuses around the world, revolutionizing research. At a recent national conference about suborbital science, Bergey sat in on a panel about planetary formation—the study of how a bunch of random molecules coalesce into planets in the first place.

“We don’t actually know how that works,” Bergey said. “We think grains of dust bump into each other and start to snowball. But to test that hypothesis, researchers need to send experiments up into zero-G. One of the scientists at the conference said she had designed an experiment that could be done for the cost of a bake sale.

“Now she just needs a rocket.”