In Thrust We Trust
To Tim Pickens, rockets are the only way to go.
- By Peter Garrison
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
(Page 3 of 5)
It wasn’t long, though, before Pickens had another project to work on, for even higher stakes.
In 1999, Burt Rutan, who had launched his aeronautical engineering career 25 years earlier with an arresting series of canard designs for amateur airplane builders, came to Huntsville to speak to a chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association. The visit had an ulterior motive; Rutan was scouting companies involved in rocket propulsion because he wanted to compete for the X Prize, a $10 million award awaiting anyone who could launch a reusable passenger vehicle into space twice within two weeks.
“You know, I’m getting bored with flying,” Pickens recalls Rutan announcing to the homebuilders (which must have been like Jesus saying to the apostles, “I’m getting tired of religion”).
“I’m really thinking about rocketships,” Rutan said. “I’ve looked at solid [fuel]s, I’ve looked at liquids, I’m looking at all options. If there are any rocket people out there who can steer me….” Rutan had been talking to the big players in industry—Aerojet and Thiokol—and both had offered existing engines. They even offered to send out guys in spacesuits to fuel it. “Spacesuits?” Rutan said. “We’re not even going to have spacesuits inside the ship!”
After the meeting, Pickens introduced himself. “I’m really concerned,” he said. “If you go to the big guys, you’re gonna lose your shirt. And you ain’t never gonna come out of the woods.”
They talked at length, and Rutan, himself a maverick engineering prodigy, discerned in Pickens the same capability that had struck Greg Allison. Pickens convinced Rutan that he could make the X Prize motor happen. Returning to his company, Scaled Composites, in Mojave, California, Rutan gathered his team in a conference room for a working lunch and announced, “I’ve found the guy who’s going to put us in space.” He then played a video of the rocket bike and the rocket canoe. One Scaled engineer remembers the incredulous reaction. “ ‘Burt,’ everybody says, ‘you have lost your mind!’ ”
At that point it was still not a foregone conclusion that the engine for Rutan’s spaceship would be a hybrid. For a year the e-mails flew back and forth between him and Pickens, who was still only an unpaid advisor. In 2001 Rutan, having pared an initial list of 21 possible rocket engine suppliers down to six or seven, visited Space America, a now-defunct Huntsville-based company for which Pickens was then working. Space America intended to build a launch system for putting small payloads into orbit and had built a 12,000-pound-thrust regeneratively cooled liquid-fuel engine. But something unexpected happened during the presentation for Rutan. The wrong video somehow found its way into the VCR, and rather than a successful test firing Rutan was treated to the dramatic spectacle of the liquid engine blowing itself to smithereens. “Whoa!” Rutan exclaimed. “There went my crew.”
“That hosed it for liquid [fuel]s,” says Pickens, laughing.