Thursday, May 15, 2014

Isaan Rocket Launches

Today, my wife and I drove out to Ban That for the third time this week in conjunction with the Bun Bang Fai Festival.  The purpose of our visit today was to witness some of the 200 rocket launches today.

We arrived at 11:00 A.M. to find the rocket launches going on fully.  As we drove towards the village, the contrails of the rockets roaring skyward served as a beacon.

Just as during our previous trips to Ban That this week, it was hot - 38C (100F).  Fortunately we have witnessed rocket launches in Ban That two other times thus relieving any pressures to stay the entire day due to concerns of missing out on something.  Today there was quite a bit of sun as well as the heat to soak up the moisture and strength out of your body.

The launching area alongside of a body of water just outside of the village does not offer very much shelter from the sun.  There are a few trees scattered about the launch area and they were surrounded by spectators seeking some relief from the sun.  Some food and beverage vendors had set up some awnings along with plastic tables an chairs for their customers.  I spent most of my time wandering about in the sun taking photographs but Duang was able to buy lunch and sit in the shade of one of the food stalls.  Her location was also a good place for me to change lenses and to drink cool beverages.

Unlike previous years, there is a big anti-drinking campaign at the rocket festival.  Plastic signs are very prominent designating areas as "Non-Alcohol"  The campaign while not 100% effective has greatly reduced the consumption of alcohol at the event which makes it much more pleasurable.

Perhaps next year or some time in the near future, the people could designate the area as "Non Plaa Daek" (Non-Fermented Fish Sauce) Areas.  The odor of Plaa Daek, at least 6 month old  fermented fish sauce is often sufficient to cause me to vomit - much to the amusement of my ethnic Lao in-laws.  It is even worse in 38C (100F) weather and in piles of garbage from the night before.  Fortunately there was not very much wind so I could easily get away from the smell today.  I was able to take my photographs uninterrupted today.

Typically when I go off to take photographs, especially to a location or event that I have been to previously, I arrive with a preconceived notion of what I want to shoot.  Today was no different.  Of course I wanted some shots of rockets taking off but I really wanted more shots of the rocketeers.  Taking photos of people here in Southeast Asia is seldom an issue.  In reality, people will often call me over to take their photograph so I fully expected to get the shots that I was hoping for.

The Launch Crew Transporting One of the Larger Rockets
Launching of the rockets is a cultural as well as religious activity.  It is also a competition - rocketeers compete to see whose rocket goes up the highest.  Although gambling is illegal in Thailand - oops here I go again with the "the way things are supposed to be and the way they actually are" spiel - rocket competitions present opportunities for people to make some additional money.

Exchanges of cash, sometimes wads of cash, are often very observable at the smaller venues for rocket launches.  At Ban That today, the transfer of funds was very discrete although there was not a large Police presence at the event.

Crews Prepare Rockets As One Is Launched Next to Them

Rockets were erected on launch ramps and launched continually.  Crews would be erecting a rocket on a ramp and another rocket would be launch from the ramp next to them without any regard for the crew's safety.

The launch crews hand rigged the rockets into place.  For the smaller rockets this was not much of an effort - the ground crew members lifting the rocket by hand to members of the crew who had climbed up the launch ramp.  Except for one man who wore a motorcycle helmet, no one wore safety hats.  Just about everyone wore rubber flip flops rather than any type of work boot or safety shoes.

None of the crew that climbed the launch ramps wore safety harnesses or any other form of fall protection.  This was quite a contrast to my experiences in the construction industry during my working career.  As Duang so often reminds me "Thailand not like America"  She is definitely right on that.  However I share these observations to point out the differences and not to make judgments.  Here, people are responsible for taking care of themselves.  There are much fewer regulations and even fewer enforcement or compliance personnel.  It is a different way of living and doing things.

Hand Rigging A Large Rocket Into Position

For the heavier and larger rockets, a pulley at the top of the launch ramp was used in conjunction with two sets of people manning the ground lines to hoist the rocket into position.

Not all of the rocket launches were successful.  In the two hours that we were there, one rocket blew up on the launch ramp - I wasn't in position to photograph it, Duang, based upon my experience at a previous festival, was keeping me on a short leash.  The explosion on the launch ramp reminded me of the photos of a big launch failure of a secret satellite at Vandenberg AFB several years ago - star burst streamers of smoke, debris, and burning objects.  Another rocket failed shortly after launch.

One of the two large rockets that we watched being launched failed to ignite.  This was apparently not a big deal.  The crew disconnected the wires from the car battery located just off to the side of the rocket.  One of the crew gingerly climbed up the ramp carrying a new igniter on the tip of a slender bamboo rod to the base of the rocket.  He unwrapped several turns of packaging tape from the base of the rocket, removed the malfunctioning igniter, installed the new igniter, and replaced the tape wrapping.  Shortly afterwards the wires were attached to the battery and the rocket ignited.  The rocket remained on the ramp emitting a loud roar and large orange flame until it developed sufficient thrust to break the vines restraining it.  The rocket tore into the sky much to the delight of the crowd.

Spent Rocket Returning to Earth, more accurately - the launch area!
One of the smaller rockets created quite a stir.  It launched without a problem but due to a combination of factors returned to the launch area upon completion of its flight.  Fortunately observers keeps track of each rocket and we had plenty of warning.  People started getting excited and started moving out of the area.  The spent casing ended up hitting the ground about 30 meters from where I was located - in an area where people would be dancing later in the day.

Prior to starting our return home, I took a tour of the rocket preparation area - a series of pavilions where rockets were finished for launch.  Preparation activities were mostly finishing off the construction of the combustion chamber inside the rocket and installing the igniters.  The finishing off of the combustion chambers involved swabbing the rocket interior with water and large homemade Q-Tips.  The combination of gunpowder and water stained the ground as well as the clothing as well as the skin of the rocketeers.

Finishing Off the Combustion Chamber

Working On Another Rocker Combustion Chamber

At some of the work stations, igniters were being fabricated.  Igniters are long insulated wires that have their bare tips twisted together.  When connected to a 12 volt car battery, the wires at the tip short out creating a flame that ignites the gunpowder inside of the PVC tube.

Preparing Rocket Igniters

Rocketeers include people of all ages and sexes.  It is actually a family event with everyone contributing or learning from the process.  Launching rockets also attracts many Monks.  Some Monks a sought after for their technical knowledge as well a spiritual prowess related to launching rockets.

A Monk Provides Some Advice

Isaan Rocketeers - The Next Generation

Sometimes A Hammer Is Necessary For Fine Tuning

It turned out to be quite an enjoyable excursion today.  Duang and I were both ready and happy to leave after two hours - the sun, heat, noise and for me - the odors had taken their toll.

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