CORVALLIS, Ore. – Bill Earls’ face lights up and his voice gets excited as he talks about his latest project. He’s putting the finishing touches on a 15-foot-long rocket made of carbon fiber.
“It’s been a blast,” Earls said. “I’m having so much fun doing this again. I can’t wait to see how it goes.”
The rocket, dubbed Cobra in honor of his high school alma mater, Central Linn, has taken a year to build and has cost him about $7,000. And when he launches it Sept. 16 in Black Rock, Nev., Earls said he expects it to travel at a top speed of Mach 3 (about 2,373 mph) and reach an altitude of 50,000 feet.
If the launch goes well, Earls, 40, likely will earn a Level 3 certification from the Tripoli Rocketry Association, an international high-powered rocketry governing body. He said the distinction is like earning “master” status among rocket enthusiasts.
“Level 3 would allow me to work on larger projects and build bigger projects,” Earls said. “I enjoy the research aspect the most, so I’d love to help high school students with their projects or work with Oregon State University.”
In 2006, Earls was forced to stop building rockets after becoming ill. He suffered a stroke in 2008. In January 2009, Earls was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder. One of the complications from the disorder is that he’s losing his sight and uses a cane.
Earls, who lives in Corvallis, decided to build rockets again last year to help keep his mind off the disorder, which is terminal. He quickly realized that working on rockets was therapeutic.
“After I suffered my stroke, I had to relearn a lot of things,” Earls said. “My memory was in bits and pieces. Working on the rockets has kept me from dwelling about my condition and helped me stay sharp.”
Earls said he’s built 21 rockets since taking up the hobby in 2001. He said his flight log lists 69 launches during that 11-year period.
And his latest rocket will feature several upgrades from his previous rockets.
Xi Labs, a Philomath, Ore.-based research and development company, is using Earls’ rocket to test communications software and hardware. As a result, Cobra is being outfitted with a global positioning system, computers and in-flight cameras to collect data.
“We heard about Bill and his rockets and were lucky that he let us hitchhike on his rocket,” said Xi Labs director Joseph Sullivan. “But this project really has been all about Bill. It’s really given him a zest for life.”
Earls, who is known around the area as “Rocket Man,” said he plans to build rockets as long as he can.