An event called “Large, Dangerous Rocket Ships” doesn’t bring to mind a day of peace and quiet. If nothing else, a field packed with amateur rocketeers blasting things toward the heavens is raucous to say the least.

Author: Laura Mallonee

But Sean Lemoine found it all very … zen. “It’s very serene out there, just watching the rockets,” he says.

Large, Dangerous Rocket Ships is among the world’s biggest amateur rocketry events. Some 250 rocketeers from as away as the UK and Argentina gathered on a cracked lakebed in the Mojave Desert, where the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the airspace for miles around. That’s essential, because these folks launch rockets capable of reaching 17,000 feet and making Elon Musk smile.

Lemoine‘s experience with rockets is, well, limited. When he was 10, he spent the summer building a rocket that disintegrated after liftoff. But he heard about the event in 2015 while looking for something quirky to shoot, and figured, “Why not?” Most of the people he met at June’s launch, organized by the Tripoli Rocketry Assocation and hosted by the Rocketry Organization of California were engineers or scientists who devote their free time to the hobby. “You think of a rocket as something a child would be interested in, but these people truly appreciate what the rocket is for,” he says.

Many camped on the lake bed, separated from the launch area by a line of festive bunting. By 7 am each morning they were lined up to have their rockets inspected. Some were small projectiles built in hours; others were taller than the people who spent months building them. Most looked like rockets, but more than a few models of the USS Enterprise and other iconic ships filled out the fleet.

Once a rocket passed inspection, rocketeers mounted their craft on one of 76 launchpads, awaited their countdown, and blasted off with a remote control. Most rockets floated gently back to earth beneath a parachute or streamer, but a few crashed and burned, including one prophetically named “Space Death X.”

Lemoine roamed the lake bed up to seven hours each day, snapping photos with his Nikon D810. He’d stop at mid-afternoon, when rising wind made flights impossible, and retreat to his air-conditioned hotel. “I remember looking at the temperature on my Apple watch and feeling relieved that it was 99 degrees,” he says.

You can almost feel the heat in his photos of a cracked, white desert punctuated by rockets and rocketeers gazing skyward, watching plumes arc toward the heavens. Totally zen.

Two fliers install the engines in their rockets.

A rocket blasts off above in the Mojave Desert.

An attendee shows off a large rocket.

Spectators watch as rockets arc through the sky.

A boy carries his rocket to the launch site.

This rocket, named Space Death X, lived up to its name. After launching. it's parachute never deployed and it crashed.

One family lined their rockets up outside their RV.

A rocket slowly drifts back to earth.

A flier uses a receiver to track the GPS location of a wayward rocket.

A rocket takes off at the Lucerne Dry Lakebed.

A flier stands beside his rocket. It failed on launch.

Bunting separates the launch area from the rest of the even site.