HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Like the city where he lives, Tim Pickens has rockets in his DNA. Over the years, Pickens has earned a reputation for masterminding an unconventional propulsion system that took a private spacecraft to the edge of space and for quirky inventions that include a rocket-propelled bike.
Pickens grew up in Huntsville at a time when the Apollo project was blasting to life in the 1960s. His father was a brilliant tinkerer with a background in rocketry and electronics. Pickens built a gasoline and air rocket engine at age 12. In his 20s, he was sketching rocket designs on his lunch hour and leading garage rocket science projects with aerospace engineers from companies around the city.
Pickens later linked up with celebrated aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and led development of a hybrid propulsion system for SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X prize in 2004 as the first non-government manned craft to touch the boundary of space. The spaceplane is considered one of history’s most amazing flying machines.
He went on to build his own company, Orion Propulsion, with commercial and government-funded efforts. Orion performed work for Robert Bigelow, the space habitat pioneer, before being acquired. Pickens then led a Huntsville team in the quest for the Google Lunar X Prize. Today, he serves as chief propulsion engineer for Moon Express, a California-based firm that’s still competing to be the first private organization to land a robotic craft on the moon.
Still based in The Rocket City, Pickens has formed his own consulting firm and is supporting propulsion projects such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism initiative as well as an unorthodox launch system for miniaturized satellites.
Pickens is well known for his off-the-wall inventions. Working in his Man Cave, he attached a rocket engine to a bike, enabling it to go from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds. He also developed a hydro-powered jet pack that was tested on National Geographic’s “Mad Scientists” TV program. And who could forget when he installed a rocket engine on a pickup for “The Rocket City Rednecks” episode? (See video below.)
Made in Alabama spoke with Pickens, seated just outside his Man Cave workshop, about his career, the rocket scene in Huntsville, and his next steps in the field he loves so much.
How did you become interested in rockets in the first place?
Dad was teaching rocket systems at Redstone, but he was very much an inventor. He always had projects going on. He was going to UAH, majoring in physics. He had six kids, trying to get a degree. He had been in the Navy, and electronics was his specialty. He would talk us about rocket testing going on with Apollo. The testing would literally shake the windows – we had a large window at our house, and it would be like a large speaker when it vibrated. It was like a tremor, like an earthquake. Dad would tell us what that was about, and I thought it was pretty cool.
What was your first accomplishment with rockets?
By 1990, I was building a large steam rocket, because I couldn’t afford anything else. I wanted to throw a video camera on a rocket and fly it to 2,000 feet. I learned everything I could about steam propulsion. Then I had to do data acquisition, then computers. Next thing, I am doing full-blown instrumentation. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about electronics.
In 1994, I ended up leading a local space club aiming to design and build the world’s first amateur rocket to hit space. In 1996, we launched it and achieved the highest altitude of any amateur group to date. It was featured in the “Guinness Book of Records 2000.”
How did you connect with Burt Rutan and end up on the SpaceShipOne project?
Burt came to Huntsville in 1999 to speak at an amateur home-builders meeting. He stood up there and said: ‘I’m bored with airplanes. I want to go to space. I’m trying to figure out how to do it. You rocket guys here in town, I might need your help.’ I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘I’m really into rockets.’ I never thought I would end up working for him. I wasn’t looking for that. I just wanted to help him. He didn’t have much of a budget, and I knew I could steer to affordable rocket engine solutions.
Burt and I started emailing, and he came to see me in 2000. I showed him my home projects and the rocket bike. He said, ‘Wow, you really ride that?’ I said, yeah. It told him it uses nitrous oxide and asphalt, and that it would be a good combination for him. He went back to Scaled Composites and told people: ‘I’ve found my rocket guy who is going to get us to space.’
Then in 2004, they won the Ansari X Prize. I was there for the flight. It was just amazing – and scary, because there’s just not a lot of history with the nitrous oxide rocket engine.
You went on to start Orion. What did you want to do with that company?
My dream was to develop, build and test propulsion hardware here in Huntsville. I wanted to see hardware being built here. There were so many traditional engineering services companies in town. I just wanted to see stuff getting built. I had done the Rutan thing, so I thought this was a good springboard to go into business. We ended growing that company to 44 people and $6.4 million in sales in five years. We were one of the first companies in Huntsville to get commercial work. We built an engine for (Robert) Bigelow.
You sold Orion to Dynetics, where you set up a Google Lunar X Prize team, the Rocket City Space Pioneers. That merged with Moon Express. What has been your role in that initiative?
They pulled me in, and I have been doing that about half-time for the last year. But basically, we merged those teams. Moon Express had raised $5 million. They wanted me to work with Marshall to try get three or four upper-stage Peacekeeper missile engines they were getting from the U.S. Air Force. It got held up in politics and lawyer talk. So I said we better develop our own engine or we’re going to be out of business. We ended up doing peroxide engines, and private investment began to flow. Intellectual property helps provide investors intangibles.
Where are we in terms of the company? They’ve pretty much moved all the operations to Cape Canaveral in an attempt to centralize all development under one roof.
Will there be a launch by any Google X Prize team this year?
No, it will be late 2017, 2018. It’s running way behind.
What sets Huntsville apart from other areas in rocketry?
It takes a lot of intelligent people to develop very complex systems. As it relates to missile defense, most of those programs are led out of Huntsville. There have been so many rocket and missile development programs here – Saturn I, Saturn V, Redstone, Pershing, Nike, Hawk, TOW. It goes on and on. You’ve got to have those intelligent people for development and for the lead-up to production. Then there is the NASA, which is all things propulsion out at Marshall.
What cool projects are you working on now?
I have been working on propulsion systems for the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle – that’s the Richard Branson space tourism thing. There’s a company that has asked me to possibly set up an office and work on my R&D. It’s basically a CubeSat launcher – a small rocket that puts small CubeSats into orbit. But it’s not a conventional rocket. In fact, it’s a ram/hypersonic second stage, air-breathing. We’ve been doing some flight testing up in Maine of the first- and second-stages. This air-breathing system allows you to build a launch vehicle that has about one fourth of the mass of what it would take to do the job conventionally. That technology excites me. These will make for some really small but awesome suborbital and orbital systems.
I have also been working on a few medical devices as well to solve fundamental issues for sleep apnea patients. I have built a very robust CPAP mask with an integrated fan. I am also working on an autonomous device to enable surf fisherman to optimize their fishing experience for little money.
I have been asked to support other engineering projects as well, but the criteria for my involvement is that it has to be fun!