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Federal homeland security law may affect model-rocket hobby

Saturday, March 8, 2003

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- New anti-terrorist laws may soon leave legions of model-rocket enthusiasts idling on their launch pads.

The Homeland Security Act could ground model-rocket enthusiasts across the United States. A provision in the act, which becomes effective May 24, amends the Safe Explosives act of 1970 in such a way that the government's definition of explosive includes the engines of model rockets.

The law doesn't affect the rockets themselves, and it's still legal to make them, own them and fly them. However, shippers like UPS and Federal Express may stop delivering the engines.

One local rocket enthusiast, Poplar Bluff physics teacher Bill Reeves, said he hadn't heard about the new law, but did say it could shut down the hobby if it becomes effective as written.

Reeves uses the rockets in his physics classes to teach the rudiments of rocket science and to illustrate some of the principles of physics.

In 28 years of teaching and using the rockets, Reeves has only had one student get into trouble with the devices.

"It wasn't life-threatening, it was just a kid being stupid," Reeves said, noting the student connected the battery and the rocket incorrectly and burned the tips of his fingers.

The rockets Reeves' students launch are simple cardboard tubes with balsa wood fins and a plastic top.

Under the new rules, shipping companies must have every employee who might even touch a package containing the rocket engines pass a certification exam, undergo a series of extensive background checks and get fingerprinted.

Need ATF permit

The new law will also, however, affect consumers. Starting May 24, consumers will need an ATF permit to purchase rocket motors and will need a permit to buy black powder, which many rocket enthusiasts use in ejection charges to deploy parachutes.

Reeves hopes Congress will make the changes.

"Yes, technically, it is an explosive, but let's get real," Reeves said of the law's expanded definition of explosive.

If he did find it impossible to buy the engines or to have them shipped to him, Reeves said, it would definitely affect how he teaches physics "big time."

Like most of the growing number of rocket enthusiasts lining up to oppose the new law, Reeves doesn't think Congress intended for the law to hurt model rocketeering or give the companies that make the engines an extra headache.

"They probably didn't even give model rockets a thought when they wrote the law," Reeves said.

The plight of rocket enthusiasts has already caught the attention of one U.S. senator.

Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., has a banner headline on his Web site proclaiming "Attention Rocketry Enthusiasts: Sen. Enzi is working to protect your hobby!"

"As an avid rocketeer myself, I can remember my first rocket launch -- standing in the middle of a field, hoping your creation would actually fly," Enzi wrote in a letter circulated among his colleagues in the U.S. Senate.

Enzi has circulated a letter to his fellow senators explaining the issue to them and has sent a similar letter to Bradley Buckles, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Enzi uses the letter to take issue with the ATF's inclusion of rocket engines as an explosive.

According to Enzi's office, the ATF has sent a letter acknowledging the senator's letter and is preparing a response. His office also said that Enzi is still preparing legislation designed to create an exemption for model rockets.


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