SciTech

Aerospace career really took off for NC teen rocketeer of the ’50s

James Blackmon, principal research engineer for the University of Alabama at Huntsville Propulsion Research Center, right, opens a crate sealed in 1957 that contains a rocket he created as a teen. Robert Frederick, left, director of the Propulsion Research Center was present at the March 19 unveiling.
James Blackmon, principal research engineer for the University of Alabama at Huntsville Propulsion Research Center, right, opens a crate sealed in 1957 that contains a rocket he created as a teen. Robert Frederick, left, director of the Propulsion Research Center was present at the March 19 unveiling. The University of Alabama, Huntsville

In many ways, Jimmy Blackmon was a typical teenager growing up in Charlotte in the 1950s – except for the 6-foot rocket he built in his basement that impressed, confounded and worried missile authorities ranging from Army experts to Wernher von Braun.

The youth wasn’t allowed to launch the rocket due to concerns about the mixture of liquid nitrogen, liquid oxygen and gasoline that would have been used to propel it. So the the missile was stored in a thin wooden crate, where it sat in various attics during the next 59 years.

Curiosity ultimately won out in the Propulsion Research Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, where James Blackmon has been a research professor for 15 years. He and Robert Frederick, head of the department, were on hand as the crate containing the rocket was opened on March 19.

Memories, we have lift-off. “It took a long time” – three years, beginning at age 14 – to build the rocket, Blackmon said. “I had to mow lawns, whatever, to make enough money to buy stuff and start putting it together. It was just a form of having fun.”

Getting it together

Locating the information and parts was literally rocket science, but the teen was undaunted. Encouraged by his father, who worked for The Charlotte News, and his mother, a nurse, “I started reading everything I could get my hands on. There wasn’t a lot.”

Piece by piece, Blackmon’s invention took shape. “Most of the things you could buy at a hardware store, like the tubing, the tanks. There was a comic book that had ads on the last page and I remember seeing tanks and thinking, “That’ll work.” So I got high-pressure tanks that were the right size.

“The rest of it was buying the aluminum and getting somebody to roll it out so it would be the right diameter. Everything else was just putting it all together” – including getting help with welding. He installed a dry-ice cooling system that would keep the nose cone from melting under the intense heat in flight.

The piece de resistance? “I made the nose cone out of a $5 metal lampshade. Some prominent engineers wondered, ‘How could a kid get a nosecone made like that?’ But it just kind of hit me. I knew I would have a tough time getting the right shape.”

It wasn’t long before news of Blackmon’s project hit the newspapers. A Douglas Aircraft engineer, Jack Ritterskamp, showed up at the teen’s door and asked if he could help. “The kind of valves I was using didn’t work well. They would leak. They would be OK with kerosene but not so well with liquid oxygen. He recommended using burst diaphragms. That’s a very effective and cheap way of doing it.”

Burst diaphragms play a key role in building and releasing pressure. “There was only one valve in the system, and that was to close off the liquid nitrogen tank that was going to pressurize both the liquid oxygen and the kerosene,” Blackmon said. “When you closed that valve, the pressure would build up. Once you got to roughly 500 psi, it would burst the diaphragms, the propellant would flow into the engine and be ignited, and the rocket would hopefully take off.”

Out to launch

It would, were it not for the Civil Aeronautics Administration’s safety concerns. Although Blackmon’s invention yielded a $1,000 science youth award; instant notoriety; a job offer at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., after college; and discussions with noted rocket scientist von Braun (“He was nothing but supportive,” Blackmon recalled) – he yearned for a rocket he could launch legally.

So he built another, this time using a solid propellant. In 1957, Blackmon was among three carloads of people who headed to the Outer Banks for the launch. “It had an igniter that was hooked up to a battery, using gunpowder that ignited the solid propellant. I launched it. It went straight up,” about two miles, before landing in the Atlantic.

As for what to do with the original rocket, Blackmon wants to pay forward the expertise and support he received as a fledgling rocket scientist.

“What I would like to do is get a student to replicate the engine and check out the heat transfer mechanism,” he said. “It’s great working on things like this, great working with students. No one ever said to me, ‘You can’t do something like this.’”

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