Speed Demon Lost and Found: A Tale of a Fast Rocket and Extraordinary Circumstances

By Julian O’Connor, Correspondent

Photo Credit: Manuel Moreno

Many students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University choose to recreationally engage in model/hobby rocketry activities, which isn’t surprising given the interests of the student body. These rockets are often more powerful than many would think of when they first hear the words ‘model rocketry,’ and often reach thousands of feet into the air. Many times, these highly complex machines launch successfully to incredible heights and return successfully to the surface under parachute. Other times, things aren’t quite as simple. 

In one such case, a rocket known as the “Speed Demon,” built by Manuel Moreno, had a very interesting story with regards to its launch and subsequent recovery. While most model rockets are launched and recovered within the span of five minutes, Speed Demon’s recovery took five months instead. 

Moreno recalls, “I had built a rocket, called Speed Demon, that was designed around an Aerotech M1315 solid rocket motor. I had put a lot of time into making sure it was a very strong and rigid design, while making sure that it looked as best as it could.”  

He goes on to add that the vehicle was designed with two flight computers for redundancy, both with the purpose of making sure the recovery system deployment went smoothly. He also mentions that the rocket had a GPS tracking system to ensure that it would be found no matter where it landed. In other words, every precaution was in place.

“After lots of delayed/canceled launch dates, I was finally able to launch Speed Demon on November 21st, 2020,” says Moreno. “I had wired the pyrotechnic charges, ensured the wiring was correct, and made sure that the recovery system was properly packed and easily deployable by the flight computers. I put the rocket in the launch tower, armed the electronics, and turned on the onboard camera.” 

After taking these steps, the launch commenced, although not without difficulty. “The motor took longer than normal to pressurize, resulting in a loss of impulse on the pad. Finally, the motor pressurized, and the rocket screamed off the pad. The rocket tipped over after clearing the rail as the motor was not under full thrust yet. However, after the rocket gained more speed, Speed Demon straightened out and [flew] incredibly straight.”

It seemed that, although there were a few launch difficulties, “Speed Demon” had managed to overcome them and would be proceeding on to an uneventful flight. Unfortunately, this was not the case. After reaching 5,000 feet, the “tracking system stopped sending/receiving packets,” which meant that the observers and launch team on the ground had no way to track the rocket apart from old-fashioned visual confirmation. However, if the rocket came down as it was supposed to, under a drogue chute and then main parachutes, it should have been visible. Of course, that was not what happened. 

Moreno describes that “after a minute or so, no one saw the rocket coming down under drogue chute, meaning it came down ballistic, or its main chutes deployed at apogee.” The apogee is the highest point of a rocket’s flight, in this context. The ballistic option would not be good for any hope of recovering “Speed Demon,” which would have slowly floated down from its peak, traversing any amount of distance on the way.

Luckily, “A person attending the launch spotted the rocket with some binoculars, confirming that the rocket was under both drogue and main parachutes.” This meant that the worst-case scenario, the rocket essentially ‘lawn darting’ into the ground from high-altitude, which could easily result in destruction of the flight vehicle, was not happening. 

An important piece of information to note is that “Speed Demon” was a high-altitude rocket and design simulations predicted that it could reach up to 27,000 feet. At those altitudes, as Moreno notes, “We all knew the upper level winds would carry it very far.” This presented another problem: with both parachutes open and generating high amounts of drag, the high-level winds could carry the rocket many miles before it finally got set down.

The team was helpless to do anything but “try and spot the rocket again to get an idea of the general direction the rocket was heading,” according to Moreno. Sadly, “No one spotted it again.” However, the team did know that “the winds were blowing northeast,” which gave them a general indication of where it might have gone. “We drove around for the rest of the day looking for the rocket, coming up with nothing.” 

Although it appeared that the rocket was lost, Moreno would not give up the Search-And-Rescue effort so easily. “Over the next couple of weeks, Bram Hickey and I spent over 5 days, sunrise to sunset, in the Aguila desert looking for Speed Demon.” Unfortunately, by the end of that time period, it seemed that not even such dedication would bring back Speed Demon.

Five months later, Moreno says he had “come to terms [with the fact] that Speed Demon was lost forever.” Surprisingly, that was not the case. One day, he received “a picture of the upper section of Speed Demon laying in the desert that was accompanied by a text reading: ‘Is this your rocket?’” from a friend in Tuscon, Ariz. approximately 213 miles southwest of Prescott. 

Apparently, “A hiker had run into Speed Demon, who then reached out to a [Rocketry] group in Tucson… that my friend happened to be part of.” Moreno describes the experience of realizing that Speed Demon was found as “surreal”, saying that “I remember thinking “What are the odds? That someone not looking for Speed Demon, in the vast Aguila desert, ran into Speed Demon and knew to reach out to Tucson Rocketry?” After spending so much time with my friends out there, looking, and not finding Speed Demon, it was surreal to receive the GPS coordinates for the location of the rocket.”

Of course, with the rocket now found, it had to be recovered, not simply left to lay in the desert where it had been waiting for almost half a year. So, Moreno “drove out to Aguila to get Speed Demon.” When he recovered the rocket, he said that “Seeing the orange chute and the red carbon fiber fins was insane. Everything was fine, a little scratched, but everything still worked, even the camera and electronics.” 

After the unlikely recovery, Moreno set to work recovering the data from the rocket. “I got the flight video back and it was so cool to watch Speed Demon fly to 22K. The flight computers determined that Speed Demon [flew] to 22,123 feet AGL [Above-Ground Level], at a top speed of Mach 1.3.” 

The near-loss and recovery under incredible circumstances do not appear to have discouraged Moreno, who says that he has learned to “invest in a better tracking system.” He is also continuing to work on model rocketry, saying that he already has another project planned. “What’s next? Super Sonic II, a two-stage rocket that is projected to fly to 186,000 feet in November 2021.” Hopefully, this next rocket will go slightly more according to plan.