As a kid growing up in Hutchinson, Kan., Braden Lusk saved his money each year to buy as many firecrackers at Fourth of July as possible. Then he used them to blow up small toys, apples — whatever he could get his hands on in his back yard.
His love of demolition and explosives hasn't waned.
Now the University of Kentucky mining engineering professor is co-host of a new Discovery Channel series called The Detonators.
In the show, which began airing on Jan. 28, Lusk travels the globe to premier demolition sites and helps explain the explosives science behind making a 20-story, 7,000-ton building vanish into its own footprint in the blink of an eye.
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"Probably the biggest reason I decided to take part in the show is that I really care about the explosives and blasting industry, and I think it's important for us as an industry to communicate with the public and say, 'Hey, this is what we do,'" said Lusk, who joined UK's engineering faculty 2½ years ago. "I think in the past it's been a really secretive thing. And the public has thought of it as a scary thing. But it's not. It's something that's necessary in a lot of cases. And it's something that we take a lot of pride in, and that we're very good at."
He hopes the show will encourage youngsters to consider the field as a possible career.
During the series' premiere episode, Lusk witnessed as demolition crews brought down two vertical supports of an 1800-ton abandoned steel bridge in Corpus Christi, Texas. The challenge was making the supports fall away from one another, toward land, so that they didn't fall into the waterway and block shipping travel.
When the bridge supports fell exactly as planned, Lusk's smile was as broad as any of the members of the detonating team in charge of the project.
"Awesome! There's a rush that you get from doing this that you can't get anywhere else," Lusk exclaimed on tape.
The series pairs Lusk with co-host Paul Worsey, a good friend and his former professor and mentor at the University of Missouri-Rolla — now the Missouri University of Science and Technology — where Lusk received his doctorate in mining engineering with a minor in explosives engineering.
During each episode, in addition to visiting demolition sites first-hand, Lusk and Worsey also conduct their own small-scale explosives experiments at a research quarry in Rolla to explain the precise science behind the large-scale implosions.
The chance to work together again with Worsey on the TV series has been a thrill, Lusk said. In fact, the entire experience has seemed almost too good to be true.
When Lusk first got an e-mail from one of the show's producers asking him to audition to host the new series, he thought it was a friend pulling his leg. Eventually convinced that the e-mail was legit, he had his wife, Shannon, record a demo tape with their camcorder.
Lusk was shocked when, eight months later, the producers invited him to host the show after hearing him present at a blaster's forum during a conference of the International Society of Explosives Engineers.
Now, suddenly, the UK professor finds himself on national TV — a fact that's made all the more surreal when his 18-month-old daughter, Kendrick, sees the regular commercials for the show and points to the TV screen shouting, "Dada!"
"We chose Braden because he is one of the leading experts of explosives in the country, and also he is passionate about spreading the word on the important role that explosive engineers play in America's economy," said Charles Tremayne, executive producer of The Detonators. "He explains the explosive process in words that everybody can understand."
Lusk's affiliation with the University of Kentucky is prominently displayed each time his name flashes on the screen. It's the one thing he insisted on with the production staff, he said.
"My time at UK has been phenomenal," he said. "I've absolutely loved it here."
Lusk has taped at roughly 10 locations — including Glasgow, Scotland; Coral Gables, Florida; and Liverpool, England — since filming for the show began last May. He has another trip to a demo site in the Bahamas lined up soon.
The filming hasn't diverted his primary attention from his research and teaching responsibilities at UK, though, where Lusk is highly respected by his students.
"He's very enthusiastic. He's very passionate, and he knows how to teach to make any subject interesting," said Nate Waters, a senior mining engineering major at UK who has taken Lusk's introductory and advanced blasting classes. "Plus he's had experience out in the field, which adds a lot of credibility to what he's teaching in the classroom."
Before joining UK's faculty, Lusk worked on several mine blasting projects and some commercial demolition projects, including being part of the team that brought down the 21-story Hollander Ridge building in Baltimore.
His research at UK centers on mine blasting vibration research — how vibrations from surface blasting affect nearby residents — and blast mitigation research — how to make buildings and glass windows resistant to explosives that might be used by terrorists.
Waters credits Lusk with helping energize the mining engineering program at UK, where he's helped students take part and place well in intercollegiate mining and mine design competitions against some of the top mining schools in the country.
Lusk said working as a host on the show has all the perks of leading a demolition project, with none of the drawbacks. Every time the detonator gets pushed, he gets a rush and holds his breath.
"It's always the best of both worlds on these trips. When you're in charge of these projects, it's stressful. It's really taxing on your body. So with the show, I get to have some involvement in the demolition and take part in all the aspects I love about it, but it doesn't come along with all that stress."
Lusk's family has been particularly supportive of his venture into TV, he said.
His parents and his older brother, sister-in-law, and their two children drove from Kansas to Kentucky during the recent ice storm to surprise him and watch the premiere episode of The Detonators with him. And his brother-in-law, Kyle Perry, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in mining engineering at UK, has helped film some of the high-speed video during Lusk's and Worsey's experiments for the show at Rolla.
Lusk's wife, Shannon, who also has a Ph.D. in mining engineering from the former University of Missouri-Rolla, said watching her husband on cable TV is still a little "bizarre. But how he talks on TV is exactly the same as how he talks standing in the middle of our kitchen. He's so passionate about his field. He loves explosives."