CSXT SpaceShot 2004 - First Amateur Launch to Space

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See also:
Mystery Solved: Stratofox Recovers CSXT Booster, Nov 2004
Re-entry boom analysis, Dec 2004
Locations of search and recovery for the CSXT Space Shot 2004, Feb 2009 (for 5th anniversary)
5th anniversary - CSXT Space Shot 2004, May 2009

Thanks to CSXT for giving Stratofox members permission to post our pictures (at the event, before we had a chance to ask.)


Stratofox was privileged to be invited as a part of the Civilian Space eXploration Team's efforts for the SpaceShot 2004. After many attempts in previous years by many groups, this was first successful launch of an amateur rocket to space. And it was also the first privately-funded launch to space in history. We in Stratofox organized the tracking and recovery of the rocket.

The launch site was at the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. Stratofox organized and led the search teams which found the rocket about 25 km / 18 miles from the launch site in rugged mountainous terrain.

Stratofox members arrived throughout the day on Sunday, May 16. The launch was scheduled to take place any weekday during the week from Monday, May 17 to Friday, May 21 when the weather would allow. The launch occurred on the first available day, Monday, May 17 at 11:12AM US Pacific Time.

The rocket's recovered avionics later showed that it had reached 72 miles (116km or 380,000 ft) in altitude. The scientific definition of space (as defined by FAI) begins as 62 miles (100km or 328,000 ft.) So this flight beat that by 10 miles.

This is significant in two ways. There had never before been a rocket launched to space by amateurs, people who are not getting a paycheck for their work. ("First amateur launch to space") There had also never been a launch to space without development or operational funding from any government. ("First private-funded launch to space") Both records were set by CSXT's GoFast rocket on May 17, 2004.

If this event helps open minds in members of the public to accepting and supporting space flights by non-government entities, history might possibly record that this event made the Black Rock Desert become the Kitty Hawk of the 21st Century. It happenned there first.

Once the flight was done, Stratofox's primary role in the event began. We had to go find it. The nose section with the avionics and payload were recovered in rough mountainous terrain about 24 hours after they landed. We were within 1/2 mile of it (but had no way to know that) on the first day and had to pull everyone off the mountain before dark.

Update: we only heard the beacons from the booster section on descent, but no more after that. It remained missing until November. See our article Mystery Solved: Stratofox Recovers CSXT Booster about the search for the booster and its recovery from the mountains in mud and snow on November 26, 2004.


These are the Stratofox team members who participated in the mission. Names are listed in alphabetical order by last name. Amateur Radio callsigns and links to personal web sites are listed if available. Participants marked with an asterisk (*) were on their first Stratofox mission. All of them qualified for membership in the Stratofox core team by demonstrating competence in this event.

Stratofox member Mark Whittington KA8I of Virginia (formerly from Santa Cruz, California) also participated as our "point of contact" whom we contacted every day so friends/family could leave messages for the team while in the desert.


Date Description Pictures Highlights
Sunday, May 16, 2004 Setting up the launch site 11
Setting up Camp Stratofox 12
Rocket assembly 37 (3 added 5/24)
Stratofox 2/3 and Merlin Systems arrival 19 (2 added 5/24)
Group photos 9
Moving the GoFast rocket to the launch pad 39
Stratofox 4 arrival, launch pad pictures 12 (1 added 5/26)
Monday, May 17, 2004 Pre-launch 6 (1 added 5/24)
Launch! 13
Monday afternoon search 19 (2 added 5/24)
Tuesday, May 18, 2004 Tuesday morning at camp 8
Tuesday morning search 9
Found it! 53
Back in Gerlach 15
See also:
Mystery Solved: Stratofox Recovers CSXT Booster, Nov 2004
Re-entry boom analysis, Dec 2004

Audio recordings

[launch audio 128Kbps - 166K MP3 download] Jeremy Cooper KE6JJJ made this audio recording with equipment he set up at the flight line (before he went to a downrange observer position.) A few notes about the recording:
  • A high-quality stereo microphone was used to record it.
  • The best listening is with headphones to catch the stereo effect and low-frequency components of the audio.
  • The initial static noise is from the public address system speakers.
  • You will hear that the countdown's 10-count was stopped and reset at T-7, back to T-10
  • Most of the pause between "fire" and sound of the rocket is the time the igniter took to start the large solid motor.
  • The recording was 1/4 mile from the launch pad, adding an additional second of delay in the sound of the launch.
  • After the launch, a CSXT team member can be heard nearby repeating "years of work", expressing joy at finally seeing that work fly successfully.
[launch audio 256Kbps - 333K MP3 download]

A vision fulfilled

As recently as the late 1990's, it used to be that after an amateur high-altitude balloon flight or rocket launch, the recovery effort was mainly an afterthought. Everyone who had previously been preoccupied with the launch and flight would then start thinking about the search once the rocket was on the ground or the balloon was out of view.

The vision of a team which gathers and promotes expertise in searching for high-altitude rockets and balloons originated with Tim Sargent KD5DTW. He wanted a team to be focused, prepared and well-practiced for the search and recovery mission before anyone left home for the launch. Even if they had other roles during the launch and flight, there would be people prepared for the many challenges that may occur during a search.

We wish that Tim had lived to see the day that his vision and the team he started were instrumental in recovering the world's first amateur rocket launched to space. He lost his battle with cancer on Feb 2, 2003 - which some may recognize as the day after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. Stratofox posted a web page in his memory the same day.

Tim was originally from Houston, TX. He resided with his wife in Sacramento, CA when he led the formation of the team that would later become known as Stratofox.

More links about this flight

Civilian Space eXploration Team (CSXT) home page

"Ham Radio-Carrying Rocket Exceeds Goal; Avionics Recovered Intact", ARRL
duplicate with discussion: "Amateur Rocket Reaches Space", Slashdot
duplicate with discussion: "Ham-Radio-Carrying Rocket Makes it to Margin of Space", eHam

CSXT Rocket Team Claims Success With Desert Launch, AP via Space.com
many media outlets carried the AP article - we won't even try to list them all

"Amateurs in space: NASA isn't the only agency that can launch a rocket into the blue beyond", Omaha World-Herald

"Space Frontier Foundation Congratulates First Amateur Team to Enter Space", Space Frontier Foundation

Google news search for "csxt rocket"

"Nearspacecraft hunting", Hobbyspace.com discovers Stratofox

Public Service, El Dorado County (California) Amateur Radio Emergency Services

"Norwalk, Conn., Firm Works on Film About Historic Amateur Rocket Launch", Red Nova

"CABLEready To Co-Produce Space Doc", Xentervision, Korea

RocketryForum.com discussions:

Personal pages and blogs:

Mail lists/newsgroups:

Questions and Answers

Who built the rocket?
The rocket was built by the Civilian Space eXploration Team (CSXT), which is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The CSXT avionics (flight electronics) team is mostly located in Connecticut.

Who paid for the launch?
CSXT lists numerous commercial sponsors for the rocket. The major ones are GoFast Sports and Fuscient.

What was Stratofox's role in the event?
Stratofox's primary role was to find the rocket after it lands. When in-flight telemetry is transmitted, that's the first choice since it can potentially tell you where it is. In this case, the external antennas were damaged by the Mach 5 heating. So we had to use traditional radio direction finding (RDF) techniques to locate non-directional non-data beacons on the spacecraft.

The secondary beacons which were used to find the rocket were provided by avionics sponsor Merlin Systems. Their falconry transmitters (made to be attached to birds) were attached to the parachute shroud lines.

Stratofox also performed various pre-launch communications support tasks as well as a rescue of two spectators who tried to go looking for the rocket alone and broke down in the mountains.

Was this an orbital or suborbital launch?
This was a suborbital launch. In order to reach orbit, it is necessary to achieve a speed of Mach 25. At any speed less than that, the object will fall back to Earth. The CSXT/GoFast rocket reached its intended maximum speed of Mach 5. (Even at that speed, all the paint and decals on the outside of the rocket were burned off by friction heating.)

Was the FAA aware of this?
Yes. When all the paperwork and reviews were satisfactorily completed, FAA AST (space launch regulators) allowed the launch to proceed. Two members of FAA AST staff from Washington DC were present to observe the launch.

Also, CSXT used a satellite phone to contact FAA Air Traffic Control to activate pre-arranged airspace closures before launch and cancel them after the flight.

Where does space begin?
Any definition of space is somewhat arbitrary because Earth's atmosphere slowly thins out to nothing as you go up in altitude. While people can't breathe much above 14,000 feet, there's still enough air to fly a weather balloon above 100,000 feet. The internationally-recognized scientific definition of a space flight is one which reaches an altitude of at least 100km, which is the same thing as 62 miles or 328,000 ft. Well before that point, the aerodynamic influences of the atmosphere are gone, and flight is only possible by something built to be a spacecraft. The 100km limit is called the Karman Line, named for the scientist who proposed it.

How high did the rocket go?
CSXT announced that the GoFast rocket reached an altitude of 72 miles. That's 10 miles above the minimum to be considered a space flight.

Stratofox members were present during extraction of the telemetry data but have not reviewed all of it.

Why is this considered an "amateur" space launch?
Amateur means unpaid, not necessarily unprofessional or low quality. All the members of CSXT who built and launched the rocket did so on a volunteer basis, working on their own spare time and were not paid for their time. Additionally, all the Stratofox members who performed the post-flight search for the rocket are also volunteers.

Some CSXT team members are employed in the aerospace industry. One of the Stratofox members who participated in this event is employed in the aerospace industry. But all participants have performed their tasks for CSXT as volunteers, and had to take time off from work to be at the launch.

What records did this flight set?
This was the world's first amateur launch to an altitude considered space. It was also the world's first non-government space launch, meaning that no funding for development or operations were received from any government.

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