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Poker Flat summer tours

Image: 
Dave Hill and Bob Valdez (in the red checkered shirt and blue
polo shirt, respectively) explain the directional markers inside
the Payload Assembly building (notice the “N”?) to a tour group.
Tiffany Thomas

The world’s largest land-based rocket research range has once again opened its gates to the public this summer.

Although Poker Flat Research Range supports a variety of scientific work, the guided walking tour led by Assistant Range Manager Bob Valdez and Dave Hill focuses on what draws the crowds: rockets.

Valdez and Hill take visitors through a presentation in the Range Administration Center, into the Payload Assembly building and launch-control Blockhouse, past the “booster graveyard” and onto one of five launch pads. Visitors may have the chance to speak with a NASA technician performing launch pad maintenance and, if touring before the pad is cleaned up, take home a Styrofoam souvenir.

Styrofoam from the range makes for an odd but uniquely Alaskan collectible. Poker Flat’s data-collecting sounding rockets are brought north from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and launched during interior Alaska’s subzero winter when aurora conditions are at their most active. To keep a launch-ready rocket and its fuel warm, a foam box is constructed around it with a series of hoses providing heat. Once lift-off occurs, the heater hoses fall away and the rocket bursts out of its foam box into the arctic atmosphere.

The range takes care to be mindful of the environment and cleans up the confetti-like foam bits, but summer visitors can provide some help by picking up a piece for themselves.

Those interested in PFRR outside of tour season can keep up to date with the range during launch season through audio and video livestreams online and the all-sky auroral camera, or aid the range in their rocket retrieval program by keeping an eye out for debris in the launch zones.

Tours of PFRR begin at 2 p.m. every first and third Thursday starting in May and ending August 17. The range is located at Mile 30 on the Steese Highway.

Photo 2: The tour group stops in the Blockhouse where Dave Hill and Bob Valdez explain the process of ensuring a rocket is ready for launch.
Photo 3: Dave Hill (left) leads the last members of the tour group back to the Administration Center where the tour began. In the foreground is a retired Nike-Tomahawk rocket that is used as a display piece for presentations and events. Its fins are blue and gold – UAF’s colors, as Poker Flat is the only university-owned rocket range in the world.