Hanging Out with Paul Allen

I had the privilege of attending the National Space Club annual Von Braun Awards dinner Wednesday night at the U.S. Space & Rocket’s Center’s Davidson Center for Space Exploration. The special guest was Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist. He was on stage with Dynetics’ executive vice president, Dave King, to discuss some of his past and current projects and future endeavors. Some of these activities are featured in Paul’s latest book, “Idea Man.” Paul is definitely an idea man.

Apparently, Paul had been to Huntsville once before many years ago working with NASA on doing an integrated computer based on one of his products. He said computers would be used for guidance and control.

He obviously is best known for working with Bill Gates and spooling up Microsoft. He is also a significant funder for SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). He is a huge space fan. He was the sole funder of the world’s first commercial spaceship to ever send a man into outer space, return him safely, and do it again within two weeks, winning his team Scaled Composites a $10M Ansari XPRIZE.

I got to meet Paul my first month working for Scaled Composites on SpaceShipOne. I was the propulsion developer/engineer, and Burt Rutan (my boss) asked me to put together a short overview of hybrid rocket motors for Paul and his team. I put together about 10 charts, but thought it would be even cooler to fire a hybrid rocket motor. I just happened to have a portable suitcase hybrid I designed and built, and decided to fire it for Paul as part of his baptism by fire into his new endeavor known as hybrid rockets.

Everything worked as planned, and Paul yielded a grin after the firing inside my office (which, by the way, was also a lab area). I would later see Paul at the XPRIZE winning flight of SS1.

He did a great service to our nation by putting his money to work. He talked about the SS1 investment and how a band of only 30 people did that entire program under Burt Rutan’s leadership. My short stint working at Scaled was amazing and helped me to bootstrap the start-up, Orion Propulsion, which is now owned by Dynetics.

Now Huntsville is leading a Paul Allen space project called Stratolaunch. Many of the former Orion (now Dynetics) guys are having a bunch of fun working on a very cool project. Dynetics is responsible for the technical integration of the air launch system and the mating and integration system. Paul Allen has done things that have incubated small businesses to grow and ultimately help accomplish some great feats.

It was cool to hear all of Paul’s stories and I hope to hear more of how many rockets got launched to places we can only dream of, maybe even to some mysterious beacon in the universe picked up by SETI, another Paul Allen funded project!

Stay tuned!

Rover Talk in Huntsville

Huntsville is a really cool place to live, as I have said many times. I am reminded why I like it when cool talks are being given like the one I heard last week at the Huntsville/Madison County Public Library. I have been a member of the Huntsville chapter of the National Space Society since 1994. HAL5 has been doing some great outreach in our community to raise the visibility of space exploration and things relating to it. For the club’s October meeting, the guest speaker was Planetary Scientist Dr. Barbara Cohen speaking on Mars rovers. This is obviously a very hot topic right now due to the latest successful landing of Curiosity.

She covered the highlights of successful rover programs to include Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and then Curiosity. Let’s face it: The idea that there is a full-size car/rover at this very moment driving around on Mars looking for evidence of life in a very cool region of the planet is just amazing. The general public is eating it up. Dr. Cohen talked about Curiosity and the huge crater near three-mile-tall Mount Sharp which rises from the center of Gale Crater. This region is rich with interesting geography/topography. They already see major evidence of past water being a land mass mover. Curiosity has some cool tools with which to explore rocks and soil, too. Dr. Cohen mentioned the 30 mj laser used to cook rocks and look at them optically and the related spectrum to decide its makeup that could include carbon which is critical for life!

I really enjoyed this talk and the IHOP experience after it. These talks are held monthly and they are a great way to interface with the science community and just have some fun. Space Exploration is also very cool! I am looking forward to what Curiosity might dig up and discover. Let’s stay tuned and keep looking up!