By Tom Dalton
SALEM — Robert DeHate will pay tribute today to a close friend who died of cancer, and he will do it in his own special way. He will launch him into space.
Well, technically, the rocket carrying Paul Robinson's ashes will not reach outer space, but it is scheduled to soar more than 7,000 feet above the California desert.
It should be quite a show.
DeHate's mile-high memorial has attracted the attention of The Discovery Channel, which is sending a crew to Lucerne Dry Lake in California to film the launch, one of many blastoffs it will shoot during LDRS 29, a weeklong event staged by the Tripoli Rocketry Association, a national amateur rocket organization.
LDRS, by the way, is the group's tongue-in-cheek title for the annual extravaganza: Large and Dangerous Rocket Ships.
DeHate, 40, an amateur model rocketeer and Salem resident, has done something special this year. He built a 17-foot-tall replica of a U.S. government Patriot missile in the basement of his Jefferson Avenue home and assembled it in his backyard. It was packed in a crate that weighed 550 pounds and shipped out last week by truck.
He did all that without a neighbor or police officer, not to mention Homeland Security, banging on his door and asking what the heck he was doing building a model rocket that looks like the real thing.
"I've had people stop and ask me about them," said DeHate, who works for a Peabody company that makes scanning electron microscopes. "But they say, 'Wow, that's interesting.' Nobody's ever been concerned. ... If you're going to do something clandestine, you're not going to do it in your own backyard."
The replica Patriot is the biggest rocket DeHate has ever made.
"He was larger than life, so the rocket had to be larger than life," DeHate said of Robinson, a New Hampshire resident who owned a company that made rocket motors. DeHate called Robinson his "motor mentor," or the person who taught him all about rocket motor technology.
The idea for this celestial tribute was born last year when DeHate went to Florida to visit his terminally ill friend, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last summer and died in October.
"He asked me before he passed away to fly him at this launch," DeHate said. "He said he wanted it to be a big party to celebrate his life."
The Discovery Channel contacted the Tripoli Rocketry Association looking for interesting rockets, but also rockets with stories. They liked DeHate's story so much they sent him a camera and asked him to film himself assembling the rocket at home, which he did about two weeks ago.
Although this weekend is special, it is nothing out of the ordinary.
DeHate has been sending rockets skyward since 1997, when he picked up a footlong rocket at Dave's Hobby Shop in Beverly and set it off at Peabody High School. DeHate calls himself a "born-again rocketeer," or someone who launched rockets as a kid and picked the hobby up again as an adult.
"I was looking for something that me and my wife could do together," he said. "We picked out two kits to make together. I thought it was something we could start together and see how that went. She never really finished the first one."
Over the years, the rockets got more technical and more powerful. The highest he has ever shot a rocket is 85,000 feet — or more than 16 miles up. To put that in perspective, that's more than twice the altitude of the average commercial jet flight.
The rocket he will launch today is a "full-scale Patriot" made from materials purchased at local boat stores and The Home Depot. It consists of fiberglass, epoxy glue, carbon fiber, pink foam insulation, plywood, stainless-steel bolts and steel strapping.
DeHate will use a solid-fuel propellant, like the space shuttle boosters, but a lot less of it.
"Instead of going mach five (i.e., five times the speed of sound), it's only going to go 500 miles per hour," he said.
Robinson's ashes will be sealed inside a metal case that DeHate machined out of solid aluminum. After the rocket reaches its highest point, the box will be carried down by a parachute released by electronics the Salem man designed.
As of midweek, DeHate had worked out every detail for the launch — except one.
"I'm not certain if it's legal to scatter the ashes," he said.