Inside America’s Great Amateur Space Race


Launching rockets into space seems like one of the few niches out of reach for amateurs. Sure, a few private companies are competing with NASA, the European Space Agency, and Russia’s Roscosmos, but they’re multi-million dollar corporations backed by billionaires. Not a dude in a garage. But before SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, there was Ky Michaelson and a couple other self-funded mad scientists hoping to launch their own rockets into orbit. The new show Homemade Astronauts (now streaming on Discovery+) opens the lid on the little known world of amateur rocket makers and their crazy quest for space.

 

 

In a format that’ll feel familiar to fans of Deadliest Catch, the show follows three crews as they work toward a launch countdown, with all the drama and suspense that goes with the perils of hurtling a human miles into the air—with a film crew in tow. There’s Mad Mike Hughes and Waldo Stakes, who are using a series of steam-rocket test flights. Their ultimate goal is to build a hybrid rocket and hot air balloon to carry Hughes 62 miles up to the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. In Oregon, Cameron Smith wants to reach the Armstrong Line, a height of 60,000 feet, in a hot air balloon. His secret is a tinkerer’s creativity, including a cast iron pot. And finally there’s Michaelson, the old growth of Homemade Astronauts.

“It’s not as farfetched as it seems to build a rocket and put a guy up in space,” Michaelson says.

the Michaelson rocket crew
Gary explains to the team (David, Kurt ,Buddy, and Ky) his process on making the fuel for the rocket. courtesy Discovery+

Now 82, the Minnesotan always dreamed of space. He had stars on his bedroom ceiling growing up, and his father was an astronomer who ground his own telescope lenses. With a “mechanical, photographic mind” he was always building stuff. He put together his first rocket from a childhood black powder chemistry set.

“I was dyslexic,” Michaelson explains. “It was the best thing that could happen to me. It put a chip on my shoulder. I thought ‘I can do anything better than anyone.’ I always take on a challenge.” And he never backed down from risk. He raced cars and worked as a stuntman on more than 200 films and TV shows. But it was always a sideline for his passion.

“Rockets have been my life,” he says. “There aren’t too many things I haven’t put a rocket on.”

That list includes—but is not limited to—cars, snowmobiles, motorcycles, sleds, and even a toilet, the SS Flusher. His son’s legal name is Buddy Rocketman Michaelson. The elder Michaelson says he holds 72 different rocket-related records.

The most rewarding was reaching space. And the biggest obstacle to getting there wasn’t technical. It was bureaucratic.

Ky and Buddy Rocket Michaelson
Ky and Buddy at a Rocketboys meeting for an upcoming unmanned rocket launch. courtesy Discovery+

With a couple other backyard rocket makers, in 1997 Michaelson formed the Civilian Space eXploration Team, a private company aiming to go beyond Earth’s atmosphere. NASA had never issued a permit to launch a rocket into space—except to itself. It was in no rush to set the precedent, putting up hurdle after hurdle for Michaelson. It took more than two years of foot-dragging for NASA to issue the permit.

Over the next five yeas CSE launched a series of test flights, gradually increasing the size of the rocket and how high above the earth they reached. Much of the funding for the efforts came out of Michaelson’s pocket.

“I’ve made a lot of money in my life,” he says, then deadpans, “I’ve also spent a lot of money in my life.”

It paid off in 2004. His team launched the $200,000 GoFast Rocket from Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Powered by hydrogen peroxide fuel and screens of silver catalysts that turn it into super-heated steam, it reached 72 miles above the ground, becoming the first private rocket to breach Earth’s atmosphere.

“It was the biggest moment of my life,” Michaelson says. “I broke down and cried.”

A decade later, the team repeated the success. Now they want to do it with a man on board. That’s where Discovery+ picks up the story.

“My ultimate goal is to send a rocket 50 miles up and safely come down with a guy on board,” he says. “I’m going to keep going at it for as long as I’m able.”

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