President George Bush
The White House
Dear President Bush:
I am writing to ask for your help in solving a problem that Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) and I have been working on since December 2002. The problem is the damage done to amateur rocketry in the United States by the Homeland Security Act. We wrote Senate bill S724 to repair the damage. While we discussed bringing the situation to you in December 2002, we decided against that option. We felt the problem could be solved easily via legislation. We were wrong.
The bill ran into a “fire storm” of opposition from the Department of Justice and ATFE. Senator Enzi and his staff have tried to come to a reasonable solution with the Department of Justice, but lower level officials simply “stone wall” the issue. The battle over S724 resulted in the Department of Justice spending at lot of money conducting tests at Hill Air Force base to determine if cardboard and plastic rockets could shoot down airplanes and destroy lightly armored vehicles. Of course, the results showed hobby rockets were ineffective against both targets. They did prove the law of gravity in that a rocket fired into the air will land downrange and that a rocket motor case will fail if over pressurized. Neither of these two facts will make hobby rockets a weapon for terrorists.
The problem created by the Homeland Security Act has its roots in the classification of the amateur rocket propellant, ammonium perchlorate composite propellant (APCP), as an explosive by the ATFE. The listing of APCP as an explosive was done in 1971 by three law students who were employed by the ATF to develop the first Explosives List. With no technical background or technical guidance, they listed APCP as an explosive since military APCP was classified as an explosive for shipping and storage. What the students did not know is that these military propellants contain high explosives such as nitroglycerin, which makes the propellants detonate or explode. Other APCP formulations did not contain these high explosives and do not detonate. This latter class of APCP is called 1.3 propellants and is used by amateurs.
As is typically the case, no Government agency is going to admit they made a mistake. The Department of Justice and the ATFE have not proven to be an exception to this rule. Prior to the Homeland Security Act, this was not a major problem as hobbyists could purchase APCP motors within their state and use them within their state without a permit. The Safe Explosives Act buried within the Homeland Security Act eliminated that option and now they must have an ATFE permit.
Since hobbyists are law-abiding, mainstream Americans, it is not a problem for them to pass an ATFE background check. For many, it is a problem to pay the high fees associated with the permit and it is impossible for most to provide an explosive storage facility as required by the permit. The result is that the hobby is dying. The businesses that have support the hobby have gone or are going out of business.
Perhaps you may wonder, “So what? It is just hobby.” This issue goes beyond a hobby, which is why I am writing to you.
First, the current situation is actually hurting the security of the United States. It is tying up ATFE field agents and office personnel on policing law-abiding citizens who simply want to enjoy a hobby. These agents could be better used to stop real and legitimate threats to Homeland Security. Every hour the ATFE spends on processing hobby rocket permits is another hour real terrorists are ignored by law enforcement.
Second, as my generation of aerospace engineers retires, we need to be replaced with first-rate aerospace engineers to design the military hardware that will keep the United States safe through this century. Most aerospace engineers come into the profession as result of their involvement in hobby rocketry. Unfortunately, the ATFE permit requirements are forcing adults out of the hobby and that is taking these young adults out as well. Most rocket clubs are run by adult members. Without the adults, the clubs fold up and America loses the aerospace engineers it will need to survive.
I've spent a good portion of my career as an engineer designing missiles during the “Cold War”. My signature is on almost every drawing for the MX ICBM second stage. As part of my job, I was briefed via spy satellite photographs and other US intelligence data on Soviet weapon capabilities. I know how close and how difficult it was for the US to win that war militarily. Many, mistakenly, believe that those technological challenges are over for the Department of Defense. They are not over as illustrated by the DARPA-Air Force Falcon program. The United States is going to need those new aerospace engineers we are throwing away today.
I am proposing a simple solution to the current problem created by the Homeland Security Act. The ATFE Explosives List could be amended so that instead of listing “ammonium perchlorate composite propellant”, it would list “Class 1.1 ammonium perchlorate composite propellant”. The ammonium perchlorate composite propellants used by the hobby would then be exempt from ATFE permit requirements. This could be done entirely within your administration and within a short period of time.
It makes no sense to require a citizen to have an ATFE permit to possess hobby rocket propellant that only burns when ignited, yet, no permit is required to possess 50 lbs of black powder in his basement that will take out his house and damage the surrounding neighborhood when it is ignited.
I hope you will ask the White House staff to look into this matter and work with us on solving this problem.
John H. Wickman