Brian Stofiel Stumbled Onto the Right Stuff For Orbit: a Plastic Rocket 

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Members of "Mac's Old Team" (from left, Dean Purdy, Lou Mavros and Earl Robb) keep St. Louis' space legacy alive. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Members of "Mac's Old Team" (from left, Dean Purdy, Lou Mavros and Earl Robb) keep St. Louis' space legacy alive.

At the entrance to the Grissom Center in Bonne Terre, visitors are greeted by a wall-sized quotation attributed to the engineers of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation: "We solved 100 unsolvable problems every day."

On a recent Saturday morning, three members of Mac's Old Team hold court around a circular table in the museum gift shop. They've already enjoyed a breakfast of cookies and coffee, and as a group of Girl Scouts noisily files into the museum, the three former engineers discuss Stofiel and his plastic rocket.

Earl Robb is just as enthusiastic as ever, but Dean Purdy, who worked as an electrical engineer on Mercury, had previously visited Stofiel's basement workshop and watched closely as Stofiel's plastic rockets caught light. He came away from the demonstration with interest, but also a familiar wariness.

"Compared to what we had, he's way ahead of the game," Purdy concedes. But he points out that some of the rocket tests in Stofiel's backyard had misfired, raising questions about what would happen to those same engines miles above the ground.

"It's the same thing we went through on Mercury," he says. "You go back to the drawing board, find out what happened, and do it over again."

Purdy is dressed in the museum's uniform, a blue polo shirt with his name stenciled on the left breast. The museum is a rather unusual one: Its home of Bonne Terre is a rural town of 6,000 known for its mining history and state prison. The town had no role in the twentieth century's race to space.

But the museum's founder, Earl Mullins, grew up in the 1960s. He'd watched the first Mercury launches on TV as a child. A lifetime later, in 2005, Mullins opened the museum as a passion project.

McDonnell Aircraft did no business in Bonne Terre. But four years ago, the company's former engineers began volunteering their presence, welcoming visitors and lending expertise to guided tours. When the museum expanded, Mac's Old Team assembled to assist with construction of the new exhibits.

Purdy ambles over to watch Mullins welcome the Girl Scouts to the museum. Mullins conducts the tour like a rural Bill Nye, and his voice booms unaided as he directs the group's attention to an original McDonnell drafting table, used by Purdy and other engineers tackling their daily allotment of unsolvable problems.

Though the quote is a fanciful piece of boasting, a photo on a nearby wall proves it wasn't entirely empty. The black-and-white image shows a group of 92 engineers clad in white lab coats and white caps. They're seated around the squat metal bullet of the 2,300-pound Freedom 7 capsule, a product of the Mercury program. After years of testing and failures, it became the first American craft to deliver a human to space.

Back at the gift shop, Purdy rejoins Robb and a third retired engineer, Lou Mavros.

Mavros' résumé could easily double as a comprehensive history of American space flight. If it had to do with space, Mavros probably worked on it, starting from the earliest rockets designed to lift Project Mercury to the massive machinery required to transport, fire and fuel the fleet of shuttles.

The process wasn't always straightforward, and no system was foolproof. In the beginning of his career, Mavros notes, the biggest challenge was the Atlas booster rocket, whose design amounted to a bomb with skin as thin as a dime. It contained enough pressurized liquid oxygen to produce 300,000 pounds of thrust, or just enough to break into low-earth orbit.

"That early Atlas was nothing more than a stainless-steel balloon," Mavros says. "If the pressure got too high, the whole thing would explode."

And indeed, during Atlas' development, the rockets exploded with a distressing regularity, often within sight of the astronauts in training. Even the Atlas' critical safety devices were prone to exploding.

"I was testing a valve," Mavros recalls. "The first time, the thing blew. We blew all the air-conditioning ducts off the ceiling."

Those are the sorts of accidents that become disasters, and while the Mercury and Gemini programs concluded with no fatalities, it wasn't always so. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe told the story of the fighter-jet pilots who preceded the first astronauts, racing past the speed of sound in rocket-powered aircraft. The peril they faced was real; an appalling number died in fiery accidents.

That danger persisted into the age of the space program. In 1966, two Project Gemini astronauts died in a catastrophic wreck when their training jet crashed at Lambert Field. A tragedy like the Challenger flight, in which the shuttle broke apart and killed seven people, may seem today like an anomaly, but the space race was built on blood, and every success stood on the shoulders of past failure. The museum is a good reminder of that: Its namesake, Gus Grissom, died on the ground in a cabin fire on Apollo 1.

No lives are at stake in Stofiel's experiments. But the odds are against him. Despite its apparent simplicity, the odds rarely favor attempts to launch something more than 60 miles above sea level, past the Karman Line and into space. Stofiel's backers may burst with enthusiasm for a non-metal rocket, but Purdy has seen this road before.

He advises prudence.

"The process he's going through now is to prove his launch system can actually launch," he says. "And that has yet to be proven."

And the launch is just the beginning. Purdy runs through a rapid list of possible problems: The plastic nozzle is impressive on small rockets, but will the full-size version melt before it hits orbit? Can the rocket nozzle withstand more than a minute of rocket burn? How accurate is the guidance system? How many satellites can it successfully deploy? Can its reentry vehicle protect fragile cargo from the force of slamming back into the atmosphere?

Brian Stofiel and an intern inspect the detritus of a backyard engine test. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Brian Stofiel and an intern inspect the detritus of a backyard engine test.

Two weeks later, Stofiel is working in his backyard. He's lying on his stomach, his face inches from the rear of a test rocket engine wedged in a hole in the lawn that's been braced by a layer of bricks. The ground is wet from recent rain and snow storms, and the air somehow feels both humid and freezing. These conditions are poor for rocketry. Stofiel brushes hair out his eyes, straightens up and steps back, evaluating the launch site.

Stofiel signals to an intern — a local high school sophomore — that it's safe to hit the ignition switch.

There is no flame. Instead, there is a pop, and then nothing. Not even a whiff of smoke.

Stofiel sighs. "I think we burned all the fuses," he says, and he crouches down to pick through the wiring with a fingernail.

The entrepreneur starts walking back to the house. He has more fuses and rockets in the basement.

"It happens, man!" Stofiel shouts back to the intern. "This is all normal. This is just how it goes."

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