Instead of Rutan’s plan to drop his vehicle from another airplane, “I was banking on a traditional rocketry approach,” says Pickens. “Ocean landing. I’d done ocean launches with the NASA barge program and also the HALO program. We definitely were in the right town with the right talent pool. In my opinion we were certainly one of the two or three most technically competent teams.”
The showstopper turned out to be not technology but money. “Boy,” laughs Pickens, “did I learn a lot about reality. Somebody might want to give you $10,000, but if he’s only got $100,000 to start with he’s gonna annoy you just as much as somebody who had 10 million dollars and gives you a million.”
Liberator didn’t have time to turn into a full-fledged debacle, because Scaled won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. “In the last months they pulled a lot of rabbits out of their hats,” says Pickens. But Rutan’s former employee had learned a precious lesson. “I realized my business is not gonna be based on selling rides. I’m gonna sell shovels to the miners.”
Selling shovels to the miners means doing what he’s always done best: putting together practical rockets and related hardware such as test stands, using existing, robust, proven technologies. He set up a new company, Orion Propulsion, borrowing the name from his father, who had started a telecommunications test equipment business called Orion in 1982. Orion Propulsion has already become a small but steady player in a field where startups come and go at a dizzying rate. In its second year of business, the company had 11 employees and revenues of more than $2 million, and had landed several NASA contracts and subcontracts. If another big contract comes through this year, the company will add about 30 employees; Orion is on a Boeing-led team bidding to build the upper stage for NASA’s new Ares 1 crew launcher. The company’s most ambitious current project is Responder, a multi-stage rocket designed to put up small satellites—five kilograms or so—at low cost and on short notice. The project will be funded by Orion and a consortium of government partners.
Responder’s engine is not a hybrid. “Orbital [space travel] is an order of magnitude harder than suborbital,” Pickens observes, and that’s where the difference in propulsion systems comes into play. Fuel efficiency is not critical for suborbital tourist vehicles like Rutan’s; instead, reliability and safety are paramount. For the much more difficult task of lofting payloads to low Earth orbit, hybrid engines are significantly less efficient than the time-honored pairing of kerosene and liquid oxygen.
The project demands all of Pickens’ ingenuity and everything he’s learned in his dozen meteoric years in the rocket business. “You ask yourself: What can I do to support the industry without sticking my neck way out? And that’s how we’ve come back to ‘Well, we can do propulsion, do testing, and we can do ground support,’ ” he says. “Right now the company doesn’t have any debts. We made a profit last year and this year. It’s working. And I think it’s really gonna work once NASA’s budget is turned on. Because at the end of the day, somebody’s gotta build ’em.” And somehow, you know Tim Pickens will be right there among the somebodies.