Thursday, April 16, 2009

Friday 10 April - Isaan Rocket Program

Last Friday, April 10, the day after Songpoo Day here in Isaan while the world was preoccupied with indignation regarding North Korea's ballistic missile test over Japan, Isaan, or more accurately Tahsang Village, commenced a new season of rocket launches.

Last year upon arrival in Isaan from Vietnam, we attended Songpoo Day celebrations in Tahsang Village. As part of the celebration last year, the village launched several rockets from the Wat grounds. It was my understanding that these launches like the launches associated with Bang Fei Festival in another Isaan town were associated with wishes for the return of the rainy season. From May through September, you can often see contrails from the ground reaching high into late afternoon sky. Last year we also attended a local competition where rockets from several villages competed against each other for bragging rights.

On Friday the launching of the rockets was staged outside of the Wat walls. Whereas the cover story for these launches was offerings for the return of the rainy season similar to North Korea's claim to be launching a satellite it appeared the main reason for the launches was to demonstrate the prowess of the various rocketeers. Rockets were set up on the launch pad and unlike the North Korea's rocket setting out and being visible to American reconnaissance satellites for weeks, the Isaan rockets were only visible until all negotiations were completed. These were not negotiations related to any United Nation's resolutions or Party of 5 or 6 or any other number of nations participating or even independent international inspection agencies. The negotiations involved the rocketeer and the witnesses to the launches. Until the rocketeer had acceptable commitments from the launch witnesses. Several people walked around apparently as intermediaries with handfuls of cash.

Back in California I would have been convinced that there was wagering and gambling going on. Here in Thailand as I have mentioned in several blogs, gambling other than the National Daily Lottery is illegal. It appears that some of the Monks may have provided escrow services in that many people gave money or perhaps offerings to the Monks.

One of the launches was delayed and only after a prolonged as well as loud discussion did the rocketeer agree to launch his vehicle. During his ranting and raving he had approached me -apparently seeking my involvement in the financing of his research into aerodynamics. I feigned ignorance and he eventually came to an acceptable arrangements with others.

Rockets were transported to the launch site in the back of local pickup trucks. Technicians loaded the empty rocket casings with black gunpowder and apparently some other secret ingredients next to their pickup trucks. Since at this point in the development of the Isaan rockets are solid fuel vehicles, the alcohol that was available in the area was consumed by the rocketeers and associated launch crews.

Booths at the launch site sold soft drinks as well as beer and Lao moonshine. The booths did a very good business. Other booths sold small bottle rockets. One woman set up a BBQ grill and was cooking chickens to feed the spectators. For people who are not fond of chicken there were trays of cooked (sauteed and fried) insects and dried frogs available to purchase for consumption.

There was a temporary awning set up close to the launch pad. Launch, but apparently not government, officials sat underneath the awning along with the PA system. An electrical cord ran from this area approximately 100 meters out to where the launch observers where located. From this point the officials announced the launch and tracked each rocket's progress. Most importantly of all there were two men who determined the total elapsed time from launch to return to Earth for each rocket. The results were announced and the results recorded by a young woman underneath the awning.

The launch pad director sat in a chair between the awning and the launch pad. He had a board upon which he wrote information in chalk for each rocket. Close to him was the launch pad safety officer. The safety officer carried a long bamboo pole with a flag on each end. Just prior to a launch, he flipped the pole around so that the green flag was elevated otherwise the red flag was elevated. It was surprising how long it took for a rocket to return to the ground. The results were announced and some of the spectators were very happy and could later be seen with wads of money clasped tightly in the hand. I am not sure that the launch results are not classified so I will not divulge them.

We left as the sun was getting low in the sky. It was another interesting day here in Isaan. Interesting to observe and fun to write about.

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