Few rocket industry executives get as much media exposure as Tim Pickens. The rocket-powered bicycles and jet packs he assembles in the workshop he calls a “man cave” have been featured on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and National Geographic Channel’s “Mad Scientists.” Pickens also is scheduled to appear this fall on National Geographic’s “Rocket City Rednecks.”
Since growing up in Huntsville, Ala., where Apollo engine testing rattled the windows of his home, Pickens has been fascinated by rockets. Instead of focusing exclusively on becoming a propulsion engineer, however, Pickens earned a business degree at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., where he also studied engineering, astronomy, physics and machine tool technology. That wide-ranging curriculum was designed to help Pickens achieve his life’s goal: to reduce the cost and complexity of space propulsion systems enough to make them easy to manufacture and profitable to sell.
He continued that quest as lead propulsion engineer for Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, the vehicle that flew three people to an altitude of 100 kilometers twice within two weeks in 2004 to capture the $10 million Ansari X Prize. In 2004, Pickens left Scaled Composites to found Orion Propulsion, which he sold in 2009 to Huntsville-based Dynetics Inc. In July, Pickens resigned from his job as Dynetics’ chief propulsion engineer and commercial space adviser to establish Pickens Innovations, a consulting firm based in Madison, Ala. He continues to lead the Rocket City Space Pioneers, a team spearheaded by Dynetics that is competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, a race to send the first commercial robotic vehicle to the Moon by 2015.
For a few hours a week, Pickens also oversees the development of new medical devices, including a compact, portable version of the machine used to control sleep apnea. The idea is to produce an improved version of the machine that pumps air into a patient’s lungs, which Pickens uses to ward off migraines caused by his own sleep apnea. If Pickens succeeds in developing popular products for the health care market, he plans to plow those profits into his ongoing propulsion work.
Pickens spoke recently with Space News correspondent Debra Werner.
Have you left Dynetics?
I’ve transitioned out of being a full-time employee. I installed Orion Propulsion in the company. Now I’m moving on to other things.
What other things?
I have a concept for a unique launch system that I want to push forward. I believe in it enough to spend my own money to develop the pieces that I think are risky.
What can you say about the new launch system?
I have been working primarily at designing an aerospike engine that would be regeneratively cooled. It is a reusable vehicle. It would be very simple to design and manufacture in comparison to most all the rocket engines I’ve ever worked on. Most aerospike engines end up having as many as 20 rocket engines around the base depending on the size of the system. I’m working on a way to get rid of all those engines and have one simple combustion chamber.
I’d like to build it on my own dime to prove the combustion stability and the performance.
Why not seek outside financing?
It’s a lot more fun if you get to control your own destiny. Oftentimes, when things are not working right and you have investors, they want to bring other experts in to give you the solution. Then it’s not your solution.
If you are spending your own money, you can make the changes needed and you don’t necessarily have to compromise your end goals. Those end goals — cost, reliability and reusability — are really important to me.
How will you raise money for the engine work?
I am applying some marketing and business philosophy to help engineers in this town get financing and get their products to market. Lately it’s been medical-related stuff. They are products people need that could be very profitable. We develop the product and invest the money. Once it is proven, we hand that off to someone else who may have a distribution chain. We will take the profits and invest in things that would be very disruptive for space transportation.
Does Pickens Innovations have employees?
A lot of people in the propulsion community are just bored to death. They don’t have a lot of fun at work. So I call them up and say, “Hey, do you want to work on something cool?” You’d be amazed at how much people will do for free because they’re bored, plus they want to be onboard when I put some money into a project. They really want to be part of something cool.
In July, NASA selected six proposals to improve the side-mounted boosters for the planned heavy-lift Space Launch System. Dynetics submitted three of the winning proposals. How did it achieve that?
When Dynetics bought Orion [Propulsion], they brought over about 40 people. I had some very hard-core people, people I paid a lot of money to come to Orion. So when they bought us, they really bought a well-seasoned team. Then they built a beautiful, premier propulsion facility in Huntsville.
What’s the plan for the Rocket City Space Pioneers?
I have been talking to some of the more serious teams to see if we could bring something to the table that is meaningful. This team wanted to build hardware that went to the Moon. If we can’t build all the hardware, how do we build some of the hardware?
One of the things we are best at is propulsion. Orion and Dynetics built every bit of the propulsion for the Mighty Eagle robotic prototype lander being tested at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and we’ve done all the flight support. We are good at storable rocket propellant. Dynetics also built NASA’s Fast Affordable Science and Technology Satellite, a microsatellite launched in 2010 from Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Do you think any team will reach the Moon?
I think you will see at least one team launch and make an attempt, probably in 2015. I don’t know what ultimately will happen with the mission. I hope it goes well.
Do you think that success would heighten public interest in space?
Yes, if the X Prize Foundation does a good job of marketing and advertising. If they don’t, it may be a bust.
I was in Las Vegas when NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars. There was a huge screen on the Strip. There might have been six or eight of us watching. It was sad.
We definitely are not doing a great job of marketing. That comes back to why Tim is not a pure engineer. Somebody has to represent the products and the programs in a lot of different ways. Unfortunately, most technical people want nothing to do with marketing and communications.
When will you appear on “Rocket City Rednecks”?
I will be making a special appearance on one episode this fall. I won’t tell you the details but it does involve a large hybrid rocket motor that I designed with some friends. It happens to be in a pickup truck that happens to be controlled by an Xbox controller that happens to be in my hands. I can’t tell you how it all comes out.