In Thrust We Trust

To Tim Pickens, rockets are the only way to go.

Rocket motor in hand (inside a vacuum chamber), Tim Pickens wants to sell power to a new breed of space company. (Chad Slattery)
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It probably never occurred to Wernher von Braun that salami could be a rocket fuel. But it occurred to Tim Pickens. “We used a drill bit to bore a hole in the center, and lit it with a Fourth of July sparkler,” he recalls. The aroma reminded Pickens of being at the state fair, and he fed what was left of the fuel to his cat.

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For a guy who plays a leading role in the push toward commercial access to space, Tim Pickens has garnered a lot of publicity for goofy stunts. There was the rocket canoe, actually a Pickens-assisted project of Tim’s friend Glen May, who produced 70 pounds of thrust using two small engines and rolled-up notebook paper for fuel. The canoe would hiss along at 20 knots or so, trailing a plume of dirty purple smoke, for as long as the fuel held up—not long enough to get May into trouble, or even to the middle of a small lake.

More fraught with peril was the rocket backpack Pickens built, then sold to an adventurous airline pilot before getting to fly it himself. During one tethered test the throttle got stuck and the contraption tossed the poor pilot around like a rodeo rider. Miraculously, he was not hurt. Pickens is still tinkering with that design.

There’s the rocket pickup truck, a cobalt-blue Chevy SS with a rocket engine bolted to the bed and “In Thrust We Trust” emblazoned on the bumper.

Then of course there’s the rocket bicycle. Popular Mechanics magazine awarded it a Breakthrough Award in 2005, triggering a flurry of copycat press coverage. Pickens and his daughter Sarah, for whom he had originally built a “cold” carbon-dioxide-powered rocket bike when she was 10, found their way onto Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” It was hard to tell from the interview, during which Jason Jones suggested that a rocket bicycle would be a great way to get around on Mars, whether the deadpan Pickens was in on the joke or the butt of it.

To Pickens himself, the silly stunts have a serious purpose. “It’s not about trying to break the land speed record,” he says. “It’s just going 20 or 30 mph down the road and feeling that acceleration and saying ‘Wow, this is cool!’ If you can’t do something real once in a while, you’re just running tests and looking at data, and it’s way over there and it’s 500 feet away. You could be an expert and never fly, and say, ‘I’ll tell you how to do it.’ I want to do stuff, make it happen.”

Pickens’ gift as an engineer is, in fact, exactly that: making it happen, often in ingeniously simple and primitive ways. People already know how to get to space. “We’ve got all this data, we’ve got all this knowledge, but we still don’t have a commercially viable, affordable launch system,” he laments. “Right now it could cost from 15 to 20 thousand dollars a pound to get something into orbit. Affordable would be a quarter of that.” His goal is to bridge that gap.

Pickens was born in the rocket town of Huntsville, Alabama, in 1964, the last of six children. His father was, like him, a talented technician who had naturally drifted into engineering. While working on a degree in physics he taught ground support and electronics at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. Later he worked for NASA on the inertial navigation system for the Saturn V moon rocket. Except for what he calls four “dark years” during which the family moved to his mother’s hometown, Jackson, Tennessee—compared to Huntsville, a technological wasteland—Tim grew up in the shadow of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, among the engineers and scientists who were sending larger and larger payloads farther and farther into space. But he was by inclination a hobbyist, not a professional engineer. When he earned a college degree, it was not in physics but in business.

His secret love was rockets, however, and he read about themcompulsively, sucking in knowledge from far and wide, whether it was Rocket Propulsion Elements by Sutton and Biblarz or articles in popular magazines. Personal passion sometimes enables a spellbound amateur to surpass a bored professional. Pickens was mixing black powder before he was 10, and had designed and built a rocket motor at 12. By the time he was 16 he already counted a hang glider, a hovercraft, and an airboat among his engineering accomplishments.

In 1994 Pickens became involved in the efforts of HAL5—the Huntsville chapter of the grassroots National Space Society—to build the first privately funded rocket to reach an altitude of 50 miles. He learned about the project at a chapter meeting. “They were talking about putting a roach, or whatever they could, in space, and they had a little money. They had like $10,000,” Pickens recalls. “I thought, ‘This is really cool!’ ” He approached the program’s director, Greg Allison, an engineer who had worked for several NASA contractors. Allison quickly recognized “innate capability” in the shy, 30-year-old Pickens, who at the time worked for an equipment rental company. He was a master machinist and a resourceful scrounger who “could look in a garbage can and come up with a rocket,” says Allison. The practical-minded Pickens was a breath of fresh air in a field where, Allison says, “there are a lot of people who are really good at flying viewgraphs and PowerPoint presentations.”

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