Propulsion with Kids

I had an opportunity to spend Saturday afternoon with my nephew, DJ Turnure. It was a special day for DJ and me because we got to assemble an Estes Rocket and go fly it in a very special place in Huntsville. You might say, “Big deal, Pickens. What is so earth-shattering about flying a model rocket with a kid?” Well, this was not just any kid, and it was not just any place we flew.

DJ is only 6 years old and he loves science and math! In fact, in the Seattle school he attends, he is top of his class in math. What was really cool also is that DJ has never gotten to see a model rocket fly, and he has certainly never gotten to help assemble one or press the button followed by the loud swoosh! Well, Saturday was his lucky day. I decided to take him and his dad, Doug, to the local hobby shop to pick the perfect rocket project. My requirement was that it had to be one that could fly no higher than 500 feet. It was so windy, and the field I wanted to fly in was fairly small.

DJ picked out a really cool rocket, and we ran by my mancave to pick up things like a launcher, a control box. etc. I then carried us all to the old Huntsville Airport. This place was really special to my heart because back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was just starting to fly model rockets with friends. I had a dream to someday make a living possibly with rockets, but no one could have ever believed my journey would have been so cool. I remember when many friends and family members would oblige my request to join me for launches at this site. The rockets were cardboard and rarely did anything cool, but my sister, mother, friends, and other family members would still come out on a Saturday just to see me send one skyward, just to see me run to retrieve it just like all the other folks who caught the rocket bug.

“The Rocket Bug” is what I hope DJ gets out of launching rockets this weekend with his Uncle Tim. Maybe he will grow up someday to be a mathmatician and solve some problem like gravity reduction, warp drive, or safe fusion. I do know one thing: he and I both had a blast and he did a lot of hard running to chase rockets that were launched on a windy day! Sometimes it really feels good to revisit your past and share some experiences and remind yourself of where you have been!

A Tribute to Neil Armstrong

America lost our greatest hero last month! Neil Armstrong will go down in the history books as our first cosmic explorer. He was the first to leave our comfortable planet in the name of exploration so that he would be the first human being and American to place a footprint onto the surface of Earth’s only Moon. This was America’s and the world’s greatest technical achievement of that 1969 era, and some argue that it still leads all technical accomplishments today.

Neither President Kennedy nor any of us had any precedent or technical reason to believe that America was ready to leave Earth’s orbit with precious human cargo, let alone take a person to the Moon and land him softly onto the lunar surface and then within three days, send him back to Earth where he would come racing towards Earth in an engulfing fireball at 25,000 miles per hour followed by a successful parachute  deployment and ocean landing and capsule/astronaut retrieval. Keep in mind that no precursor unmanned missions had occurred, and we did not know how the rocket and complex systems would work. It is an amazingly complex machine.

A friend of mine best described it: “It is not that complicated if you break it down, it is just millions of uncomplicated things that have to work perfectly as a whole!” Anyway, that is what three amazing American heroes decided to sit on top of with over 6 million pounds of highly explosive rocket fuel. As it would turn out, things did not work perfectly for all six Apollo Moon landings, but they worked well enough to allow 12 Americans to walk, run, drive, and even hit a golf ball on the Moon. That journey turned out to be an incredible moving experience for Neil, and he would not come back to Earth the same.

It was expected that all Apollo astronauts would serve their country by going to the Moon, come home for a hero’s welcome, and then continue to serve and inspire those who would follow. Being the first man to ever walk on the Moon was as big as it gets in the 20th century, and the aftermath would have fed the egos of most men. This was not the case with Neil; he became the silent hero and was humble and honored to have been serving our nation. I had the opportunity to meet Neil and actually talk to him for a brief period. He was definitely a humble man, and I was blown away considering whose hand I was shaking and the contribution he made to our country and so many of us!

Godspeed, Neil Armstrong! You will be missed!

Space in Vegas

I was in Las Vegas recently visiting an amazing Space visionary, Robert Bigelow, when Curiousty landed on Mars. I was actually walking down the strip trying to find a place where my iPhone could capture enough bandwidth to stream down the landing of that spectacular and scary event.

As I walked the strip, I saw a huge series of large screens that proudly displayed the live event! How cool was that! NASA in 10 foot-tall letters stretched across the sky in Vegas. It was so cool to stand there with all the vacationers from all over the world and watch history unfolding. I would have not put my money on that mission. Sky cranes, hovering rocket platforms, and hundreds of events happening perfectly. As it would turn out, NASA and JPL definitely still have the right stuff and it really felt good to be an American while in Vegas! Definitely not a typical money-spending Vegas trip, but it was an out-of-this-world experience that inspires so many of us to continue our quest to explore space, or maybe win a Google Lunar X PRIZE!