Written by: Kris Palmer
If you want to talk about humanity’s
limitations—about what we can’t imagine, can’t
create, can’t solve—don’t call Ky Michaelson.
He won’t understand what you’re saying. Michaelson
doesn’t trade in impossibility. If that word has any
meaning at all to the Minnesota-born inventor and rocketeer,
it simply indicates something that hasn’t been done
yet. And doing what hasn’t been done is a Michaelson
specialty. How else could a man set dozens of national and
international speed records, create mind-blowing stunts
that changed the look of Hollywood films, and lead the first
private team of rocketeers to send a rocket into space?
Dar Robinson, one of the most revered stuntmen of the 20th
Century, called Michaelson an “imagineer.” Rather
than start with physical rules and limits and what others
have done before, Michaelson begins with the goal, then
builds in his mind the machine required to achieve it. Sure,
he relies on science. It’s been his passion since
grade school. But while most scientists will delve into
the literature, Michaelson came to school at a disadvantage.
He has dyslexia, so he learned to build things with his
imagination rather than from written instructions. Instead
of an insurmountable hurdle, the condition freed his mind,
and set the foundation for challenging established boundaries—like
how fast and how high people and objects can move.
Speed, flight and related machines are in his family’s
blood. One of his earliest family photos shows his great
uncle riding a bicycle off a ski jump. Pedaling on flatter
surfaces wasn’t much of a thrill, so his ancestors
added an engine and launched the Michaelson motorcycle company—even
then the family had a penchant for asking, “can’t
this thing go any faster?” A few generations later,
Ky would be fitting rockets to bicycles and motorcycles,
answering the question, resoundingly, “yes.”
Inventing came to Michaelson at a young age. His father
was an engineer and taught him a few things about electronics.
Ky took that knowledge and built himself a small transistor
radio, which he hid in a cut-out schoolbook. Reading was
a struggle, but listening to local radio was a pleasant
way to pass the day. When the teacher finally discovered
the hidden device, he was not angry. But he wanted to know
where the child had gotten it. When Ky said he made it,
the teachers—his own quickly informed the others—were
floored. This small and quiet boy was not dumb. He was bored.
They encouraged him to bring in other inventions, and he
As most children are, Michaelson was drawn to pictures.
One he still remembers well was in a book his father gave
him. It was from the 1920s and showed a man in a leather
helmet sitting on a chair mounted to a rocket. The next
picture showed the same man lying on the ground, smoldering.
The caption said, “and he lived to tell about it.”
The image of a rocket found a welcome home in Ky’s
mind. Over the decades it would grow into visions of many
When Michaelson was 12, his parents gave him a Gilbert chemistry
set for Christmas. Ky figured out how to make black powder,
which he then used to make his first rocket motor. Another
discovery important to his future came once he got his first
car—a 1933 Ford 3-window coupe he bought for $15.
He took it racing and learned, as his great-grandfather
had, that going fast was a sensation he couldn’t do
without. So a guy who loves rockets learns he has a need
for speed.... ’Doesn’t take a Michaelson to
imagine where that led.
Ky built a motorcycle powered by two Turbonique
T-16A rocket motors in 1964. He took this creation to a
local racetrack, where the announcer said, “here comes
the Rocketman!” The nickname struck a resonant chord
and he’s used it ever since. Ky formed Rocketman Enterprises,
Inc., in 1969, and built a rocket-powered snowmobile (remember,
this is Minnesota) that got into the Guinness Book of World
Records. The rush he felt in setting a record prompted what
many would consider a rash decision: he decided to go after
every acceleration record in the world. Over the next 12
years, vehicles driven by Michaelson rockets set 72 state,
national and international speed records. He has the time
cards for the first 5-second, first 4-second, and first
300-mph quarter-mile runs.
His hydrogen-peroxide powered rocket cars hit those speeds
decades before piston-powered machines could. While the
big-name mechanical engine stars didn’t necessarily
appreciate his making their passes seem like grocery runs,
Michaelson is not one to shrink from peer pressure or buy
into narrow views of what’s possible. It’s hard
to name a vehicle he hasn’t put a rocket on—they
include cars, motorcycles, go-karts, snowmobiles, boats,
a wheelchair, oversize runner snow sled, and a bicycle.
He’s built a rocket pack to fly like Buck Rogers,
and an earthbound jetpack that propelled his son Curt down
drag strips at over fifty miles per hour—on roller-skates!
He even put a rocket on a port-a-potty for a TV show, and
the darn thing flew. Ky and Rocketman continue to build
rockets and rocket-powered vehicles and to serve others
in this field.
The Rocketman’s records and inventions caught another
exceptional man’s attention. Dar Robinson was Hollywood’s
premier stuntman and he saw in Michaelson a man with transformative
powers. He called Michaelson out of the blue and asked him
to come to California to design innovative stunts and stunt
equipment. The resulting partnership changed the look of
Hollywood action movies, adding to gunplay and car chases
spectacular aerial falls. In “Stick,” Burt Reynolds’
adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel, Robinson leapt off
a balcony 20 stories up and dropped in freefall while emptying
a pistol upwards at Reynolds. Instead of a blue-screen trick,
the plummet was real. Only Michaelson’s “decelerator,”
featuring a thin cable attached to Robinson’s ankle,
stopped the stuntman from hitting the pavement and permitted
one of the most harrowing stunts that had ever been filmed.
Dar and Ky worked on several Reynolds pictures. They also
combined talents for 17 episodes of the ’80s TV hit,
“That’s Incredible.” Ky has contributed
to over 200 films, television programs and commercials.
He also built the rockets for the movie, October Sky.
Inevitably, the man with a love for rockets pointed one
upward. In 2004, Michaelson’s Civilian Space eXploration
Team became the first amateur group to design, build and
launch a rocket into space. They accomplished this feat
from Black Rock Desert, Nevada, on May 17 of that year as
recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration’s
Office of Space Transportation. The rocket reached an altitude
of 72 miles and 3,420 miles per hour in a launch effort
that involved coordination with three major airports, rail
lines, and federal authorities.
Although he’s lived on the coast and
worked with many movie stars, Michaelson prefers Minnesota,
where, like the big box-office draws, he can relax and enjoy
being one of the guys. What he’s accomplished has
hardly been forgotten and his shop is busy still—his
current project is a life-size robot to help with presentations
he makes at schools.
When the remake of The Italian Job was coming out in theaters,
there was a stunt driver demonstration in the Twin Cities
to showcase some of the hot moves the film’s MINIs
made onscreen. Michaelson turned out to see it. When a stuntman
went up to the microphone to say a few things to the press,
he stopped mid-sentence, his eyes on the Bloomington inventor.
“Are you Ky Michaelson?” he asked. The Rocketman
said he was. The driver went on to introduce Michaelson
as one of his heroes for his amazing stunt work. He later
gave him a ride in one of the stunt cars—and not a
“family ride” either.
When it comes to speed and the limits of man and machine,
Ky Michaelson is a hard man to impress—one who welcomes
the challenge of higher, faster, more exciting than ever
before.... Ky’s creations are the subject of a book
currently in the publication process Motorbooks International.
He is also developing a screenplay focused on his life and
Here For Ky's Media Credits