Buddy Michaelson and his father Ky have been in the business of manufacturing life-saving devices for years. The Michaelsons run Rocketman Enterprises in Bloomington, where they make parachutes for worldwide customers to use during skydiving or to safely exit a rocket. Since the pandemic began, a different life-saving product has become their focus: high quality face masks.
In March, 20-year-old Buddy received a large roll of polypropylene—the same material used for filtration in N95 masks—from a friend at 3M. The material, which quickly became in high-demand, was enough to make 2,500 three-layer masks.
“My initial goal wasn’t business at all, it was trying to mask up the community,” Buddy says.
When word began to circulate that the Michaelsons were making masks in those early months, the community flocked to him. Thousands of people came to his door, he says, “at all hours of the day… from 6 a.m. to midnight.”
So far, they have produced over 50,000 masks. Buddy learned how to sew at “age 3 or 4” by connecting pieces of extra parachute cloth, he says. But nothing could have prepared him for the community response to the Rocketman mask-making endeavor. The operation has grown so large that they began hosting pop-up mask stands around Bloomington and more recently opened a brick-and-mortar location, Rocketman Face Masks, on the corner of Old Shakopee Road and France Avenue. The store is open Friday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Also find them on Loc8NearMe.)
For Buddy and his father, this has meant long days, and some very long nights since the spring. A few times, Buddy has had to drive through the night to Green Bay, Wisc. to replenish his stock of polypropylene. And when demand for elastic made it impossible to find, he creatively opted to use parachute chords for a while.
Working for 15- to 20-hour stretches, they can produce 200 to 250 masks per day. The masks, made from two layers of 100% cotton and a layer of polypropylene in between, come in more than 400 styles. In addition to selling masks to the community, Rocketman has donated thousands of masks to hospitals, homeless shelters, schools, and senior centers.
“I can use my talent for something really good, meet the community, work with local companies, and hopefully save a life or two,” Buddy says. “If this saves one life, then all of these thousands of hours of work are worth it.”
The Bloomington community has shown an outpouring of support for the Rocketman clan. Buddy recalls one emotional interaction with the family of an autistic child who needed to fly on a plane for a procedure out of state. The family only felt comfortable flying because they had their Rocketman masks on. Or the teachers he’s spoken to, who only feel safe in the classroom wearing a Rocketman mask.
“I’ve seen so many people come to my store and just cry, saying, ‘I haven’t been able to wear a mask because I can’t afford one,’” he says. “It’s not about the money at all. It’s about keeping yourself and others safe. That’s the only way we are able to make it through this.”
His ultimate goal? To be able to get back to making parachutes. “I’ll know I’m doing my job correctly when my [mask] business closes down, because that means the virus has gone away.”