Prize Competitions Launch Innovation


SpaceShipOne was winner of the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for suborbital spaceflight.         Credit:  Scaled Composites

For the first time, Huntsville is hosting the NASA Space Apps Challenge, “a global prize competition that will bring together aerospace, creative and software communities to design, code, manufacture and assemble innovative space solutions in a 32-hour competition.” This event, organized by New Leaf Digital and AIAA, is taking place this weekend at Huntsville Steamworks. I’m excited to support it and can’t wait to see what innovative ideas and solutions are launched at this competition.

Prizes spur innovation and stimulate creative solutions from a wide cross section of individuals across the planet, and Huntsville has its share of smart, creative individuals and teams. Kudos to New Leaf Digital and AIAA for putting this event together to enable local creative minds to showcase their disruptive innovations!

Innovation is changing the world more rapidly than we can keep up with. We are seeing science fiction turn into reality overnight. Innovation-based competitions are a great catalyst for making things happen quickly because they have hard deadlines and often offer amazing rewards.

Prize competitions aren’t new for me, so I’ve seen the benefits of them firsthand! I participated in some amateur challenges when “amateur” meant “doing something for the love of it,” and I’ve been a part of competitions that offered high-dollar prizes.

My first experience in prize competitions was with HARC, a company I co-founded in the 1990s. We had an entry in the CATS (Cheap Access to Space) prize. My goal has always been to help facilitate/enable affordable access to Space, so this was a fun project.

This competition offered a $250,000 prize for the first private team to launch a two kilogram payload into space, 200 km or higher, by November 8, 2000, using a privately developed launcher as specified within the rules. (The competition was announced in 1997.) The Space Frontier Foundation and the Foundation for the International Non-governmental Development of Space (FINDS) organized this competition to show that space is not purely a government domain. This prize excited us, our community and even a local angel investor who financed us.

We designed, built and launched a hybrid rocket from a balloon from 27 kilometers. Laughing gas was our only propellant. Our attempt to attain an altitude of 200 kilometers fell short at an altitude of 15 miles when the launch vehicle failed upon engine ignition. We did fly the tank’s payload a few more hundred feet high. No competitor was able to achieve the objective within the allotted time. In fact, our team was the only one to have an “Official Launch Attempt.” But the competition helped advance private space enterprise.

This was a great learning experience for me, as I spent numerous evenings in my home garage with a great team of innovators, some who would later work with me and for me in my aerospace endeavors.

Before the CATS Prize, I, along with some of these same rocket enthusiasts, participated in breaking a world record as the first amateur team to build and fly the world’s highest rocket to space in an informal Space Shot Challenge. HAL5, the local chapter of the National Space Society, worked after hours to make this project happen. We worked at my home “man cave” two nights a week. I was honored to be the team lead on this historic low-budget rocket project. I signed up in 1994, and we poured concrete soon after at my dad’s farm. We tested all our motors there. It was so exciting and loud fun. We tested hybrid propulsion systems from 5-lb thrust to 1,200-lb thrust. Our first attempt to launch was in 1996. In 1997, our rocket reached 36 miles, breaking previous altitude records.

This feat was recorded in the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records. Although this prize was not monetary, it came with bragging rights to be able to say, “We were the first amateurs to get close to space (technically 50 miles, by the U.S. definition)!”

I supported this effort from 1994 to 2000, when my contributions to aerospace led me to Mojave, Calif., for another prize, the Ansari XPRIZE. I served as lead propulsion engineer for SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million prize as the world’s first non-government Space program.

That experience was a precursor to the founding of my first company, Orion Propulsion, which grew to a $6.4 million company in five years before I sold it to Huntsville-based Dynetics.

I had the opportunity to be team leader for the Rocket City Space Pioneers, a formidable team formed by Dynetics in the Google Lunar XPRIZE Competition. To win this prize, a privately funded team must be the first to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon’s surface, travel 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth. (By the way, raising money is more difficult than Rocket Science!)

The Rocket City Space Pioneers ultimately merged with Moon Express, and I worked with that company as chief propulsion engineer before operations were moved to Florida. Moon Express today is one of the top teams in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, and one of only two to have a launch contract. We hope to see the “Spirit of Alabama” land by 2018.

Recently, I founded Pickens Innovations, Inc., to deliver responsive, value-added aerospace and other technical solutions to commercial and government customers. These competitions provided hands-on opportunities and forged relationships that became the foundation for my latest business to provide affordable and innovative solutions.

I expect to see great things from some of the participants in this weekend’s competition. Best of luck to all!

Why Kids to Love’s KTech Program Resonates with Me (Part 2: My Story)

I am a product of the public education system that included attending a local trade school. This was half of my curriculum for my junior and senior years while I was at Lee High School in Huntsville Ala. I wasn’t a great academic student because I had focus issues that stemmed from my home addictions aka I always wanted to build something fast, test a homemade rocket motor/rocket system, or just blow something up.

Not everyone will be at the same place in career planning just because of their age. I was a very late bloomer. My dad was the same way! He was a late bloomer, but a brilliant designer and builder. He dropped out of high school and used his creativity to join the Navy as an underage youth! He excelled in electronics and radar. His love of electronics stemmed from his tinkering at a very young age in his home garage. After leaving the Navy, Dad took a few college courses, got married, and over time had six kids. He decided to attend the University of Alabama in Huntsville at night and weekends working towards a physics degree. He eventually finished it. He then launched himself into industry for a bit, but was too free spirited to fit the mold! He would later go on to create many great products in telecommunications as well as aerospace! He also received many patents along the way.

As for me, I went to college for a year after high school, but was not yet ready to get serious. I returned to Huntsville and fell back on my electronics training as well as my go-fast gasoline engine experience to plug into companies using my trade skills. I hired into Chrysler at age 19 and was making $30k a year in 1983. That was big money then. The job was good, but after a few years I felt I had more potential. I decided to take a few classes in math and science and even machine shop at a local vocational school to learn both manual and CNC training.

I finally received a bachelor’s degree in business. I then left Chrysler via an employee buy-out program. After a few months of tinkering, I later went  to work as a BMW mechanic making less money, but having fun! They claimed my electronics troubleshoot training was a unique skillset they desperately needed. Later I went from being an instrumentation technician at Wyle Laboratories to being promoted to an engineer, all within three months of being hired. Miracles can and do happen! I was blessed and did not feel worthy, but I tried my best to not fail. I was now an engineer, but not the typical engineer with an engineering degree. I have to be honest and tell you the learning curve was steep, and this was the beginning of naps for me when I came home from a crazy day of engineering. I have since outgrown the daily power-nap routine. I guess I finally acclimated.

My tech school experience helped ground my garage tinkering – taught me how to build hardware and test things. With every failure, I reached deeper into the math and science so I would not repeat my past hardware failure history. The science and the fun dragged me deeper into the textbook learning, and it was an iterative process that is still going on today! My dad is 83, and he is still developing products that people are buying! Everyone is not excited or disciplined to do equations and analysis. At the end of the day, someone has to take the formula that another smart person has come up with and make it into something real.

Creativity and passion are innate – these characteristics cannot be taught, but people can be great when they choose to be so!

Kids to Love KTech provides an advanced and accelerated industrial robotics program (15 weeks to graduation post certification testing). The program that was set up by industry partners to generate quality graduates with the training to accept good-paying jobs where they can make a difference, and ultimately help fill a need in industry.

For more information about this program, see my previous post.

Making a Difference through Skilled Trades Program

Alabama, a Treasure . . . February Adventures

Alabama is not typically thought of as a tourist destination, but we would do well to check out what people from all over the world come to experience. I have been honored in February to participate in two very memorable events, both in Birmingham. As a result, I discovered some jewels in the state that Alabamians should take advantage of.

The first event was an emeritus ceremony honoring Earl Pearce. I, along with two other former AIAA Earl Pearce award winners, presented this great man with a section coin for his achievements.

The second event was an opportunity to race the new Porsche 911 and be interviewed on Bloomberg Radio.

I was born and raised in Huntsville, so I’ve been an Alabamian all my life. I’ve visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the number one tourist attraction in Alabama, dozens of times, as well as other attractions here, but Alabama has much to offer.

The Earl Pearce event was held at the Southern Museum of Flight, a very cool museum featuring all types of flying machines with a special tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen.

Did you know you can attend driving school in Leeds, Alabama, just outside Birmingham, and drive a fast car like a professional race car driver? I raced a Porsche on the speedway at the Barber Motorsports Park. The Porsche Sport Driving School is based at the park and draws students from across the country and around the world. The new Barber Proving Grounds allows companies like Mercedes-Benz to bring in their representatives from all over the world to test their cars to their limits. I was fortunate to experience a condensed version of the Porsche driving school in one day as I competed with a former fighter pilot and a car designer for the best time. It was an exhilarating experience.
And right there on the property is an amazing museum that has the world’s largest collection of motorcycles, in addition to bicycles, sports cars, and race cars. An expansion is underway that will add 84,650 square feet to the 144,000-square-foot facility. Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum was named one of 16 intriguing places to see in 2016 by CNN.
On the way back to Huntsville from Birmingham, I did a stop-off at the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman to see 125 famous historic buildings and shrines of the world. These were built by a monk with great craftsmanship and patience.
I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of 2016 has to offer. Don’t forget to check out what’s in your own backyard!

Will the Rocket Truck Fly for the Rocket City Rednecks? Find out Thursday!

I am excited about being invited on the Rocket City Rednecks (RCRN) episode that will air this Thursday night at 9 pm EST on the National Geographic Channel. Travis Taylor called me back in the summer and asked me if I wanted to help them on a very special project related to moving a HUMVEE out of a dangerous situation by using a hybrid rocket engine. This sounded very interesting. If anyone knows much about me, they know that I love to push anything with a rocket engine/motor. The cool thing about doing ground vehicles is that you are not constrained by low safety margins and high performance criteria like is the case for vertical launch systems. The other cool thing that I find appealing is that man- or woman-driven rocket-powered vehicles allow people/friends to see how cool rockets can be up close and personal. This experience does not require them to go to a launch at the Cape in Florida and does not require that I get an FAA waiver.

I was inspired to build my first rocket bike by Glen May, who loved the idea of experiencing rocket-powered anything. He wanted to see barnstorming as a way to get people excited again about space travel and rocketry at a very grass roots level. Glen’s passion would drive him to help Hal5 with our amateur space shot on SL2. That was a balloon launched rocket. Glen gave much work vacation to be part of our team in Huntsville. He later would follow me to Mojave to do critical technician work on SpaceShipOne. He and I were roommates and had a blast while I served as Lead Propulsion Engineer.  He knew what it was like for me to manage two propulsion companies for the fuel and injector for SS1. He likened it to me “herding cats”! That was a great analogy. We lost Glen during a cold flow nitrous test at Scaled in 2007. This was a sad passing. Glen was a great guy with a great passion for space.

I want to dedicate this “Hybrid Rocket Truck Build” to Glen May and all the guys from Orion who helped make it happen. There were those behind the scenes, too! Many volunteers. Nothing complex and dynamic can happen on a large scale without a great team! I want to thank the team! You know who you are. Thanks to Don Miller and the Miltec Team for providing the seed money to build this rocket motor back in 2006 when Orion was just getting started.

I hope you enjoy the show!

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!

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!

Experiencing Commercial Space Up Close and Personal

I’ve had a chance recently to make some cool trips. I found myself in Mojave, California, earlier this month at a Mojave Makers workshop. I was asked to be a guest speaker and share my Mojave, Huntsville, past and future experiences. It was a lot of fun! It had been a long time since I have been to Mojave. It has changed a lot! I worked there for Scaled Composites back in the 2000-2001 timeframe.

Back to the Maker talk: If you are not familiar with the “Maker” movement, you should be. The idea is that people who like to innovate, design, and build cool projects often cannot afford a full-fledged workshop by themselves. What usually happens is a “Makers” group is established in a region with the intent of providing a central hub for people to pursue cool projects. People can join the Makers group and have 24-hour access for a fixed monthly fee. That fee will gain each member full access to pursue projects at the shop and use any available equipment with which to construct their project. People are building robots, rovers, rocket engines, etc. I saw lots of folks there that I knew from Scaled, Masten, The SpaceShip Company, Xcor, etc. I even got to speak with Dick Rutan. He is a hero and legend in the world of experimental successes. He is best known for flying Voyager around the world without stopping! He is a great guy. He teaches flying to students in Mojave.

The day after the Maker event, I had an opportunity to return to Scaled Composites and visit a few friends. I was working as lead propulsion engineer many years ago, and it was interesting to return and see old friends. They happened to be having their 30th Anniversary Lunch at Scaled. They had many of the Scaled aircraft out on the flightline. I saw an old friend named White Knight One, which was used to drop SpaceShipOne. I also talked to Pete Siebold who was pilot of SS1. He told me that Saturday morning he would be flying White Knight Two for a Virgin Galactic glide test. Well, that test happened, and it went great. It was great to see Scaled still pushing the envelope. It did not seem the same though without Burt Rutan’s antics and energy. I miss Burt.

I also got to visit Masten Aerospace and see David Masten. He gave me a great tour of the shop. I got to meet the crew. They are doing amazing stuff with landers. They made a successful flight last week before my visit. I got to touch two landers that have both flown. I felt like I was touching some cool history.

As I drove around the Mojave airport, I saw a lot of new construction. Many huge windmills were everywhere and were being installed on the west side of town. I saw the new Stratolaunch building being constructed, and not far from it was the Space Ship Company, which is where Richard Branson will build the production version of SS2 that Scaled is under contract to develop.

There is so much I could say about how cool Mojave is and how much fun I had.

I may have to save my Bigelow visit for another blog, but that was amazing too!

Anyway, commercial space is alive and well! Keep looking up!

Practicing Innovation

Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different (Lat. innovare: “to change”) rather than doing the same thing better. (Definition from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

As an inventor, an engineer, an entrepreneur, a speaker/motivator, and even a hobbyist, I’ve always believed in thinking “outside the box” to come up with creative solutions.  Often that involves taking risks. When we continue to do things the way they have always been done, we get left behind. It takes doing things differently to move ahead. I’ve seen this happen over and over.

Pickens Innovations is based on this philosophy. I recently left Dynetics as Chief Propulsion Engineer and Commercial Space Advisor to offer consulting services to space and technology companies in various areas, as well as technical product development and marketing.

My unconventional thinking started in my garage with projects I dreamed up and built. It led me to Mojave, Calif., where I served as the Lead Propulsion Designer on SpaceShipOne. It eventually inspired me to start a business. Other Space companies wanted to launch rockets and most failed; I wanted to sell shovels to coal miners. And I did. And it worked.

I sold Orion Propulsion to Dynetics in December 2009 after growing it to a $6.4 million, 40-person company, thanks to my dedicated team’s focus, hard work, and willingness to innovate. Running a small start-up Space company gave me valuable insight into developing and marketing products and working with government and commercial customers and meeting their schedules, quality demands, and cost needs.

Although the bulk of my experience has been in the Space industry, I am branching out into other technical areas. I have been developing devices to support various needs in the medical field. I have formed companies with some colleagues to develop multiple medical devices that could be very instrumental in saving lives. I have several ideas in the medical arena that I am excited about pursuing.

I love to solve complex problems with simple and affordable solutions. I see many needs in the science, medical, and aerospace arenas. I am always hand sketching concepts and designs that are attempting to solve problems that really bother me. Lately, I have been thinking about altitude compensating nozzles and all the great benefits they could offer a first stage launch system if they could be made simple and affordable. I think I am getting close to building some hardware to prove to myself that my approach is not far-fetched.

I will be speaking at lunch on Monday, August 13, at the Technology Symposium of the Space & Missile Defense Conference at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville. I’ll be talking about disruptive technologies and innovation. I hope to see you there. This is the first year the conference has dedicated an entire day to technology.

My website and LinkedIn profile reflect my new direction and the services I am offering. See my YouTube-based video resume.

Please use the Contact Form on my website to get in touch with me.

What do I read

I often get asked by friends and folks via email and other discussions what websites I like to read? What are some good rocket sites? What are cool technology sites? Where do you get your news of the industry, or how do you keep up with everything going on in the business? I am updating my website with new links to my favorite websites finally. These are in no particular order.
Continue reading

Going Back to My Roots

Fri, 02/25/2011 – 15:36 — Tim Pickens RCS…
I’ve been honored to have had multiple opportunities to speak lately about the Rocket City Space Pioneers’ Google Lunar X PRIZE Mission. I spoke to both Huntsville Rotary Clubs this month and am scheduled to speak at the NASA Software and Systems Engineering Forum in May. One event I am really looking forward to is next Thursday, March 3, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Huntsville Public Library. I will be giving a presentation to the Huntsville, Alabama L5 Society (HAL5), the Huntsville chapter of the National Space Society (NSS).
HAL5 was formed in 1983 by a good friend of mine, Gregory H. Allison, former executive vice president of the NSS and chair of the 1993 International Space Development Conference (ISDC). Greg worked hard to get a local NSS chapter going with encouragement from several of Dr. Wernher von Braun’s team members, particularly Konrad Dannenberg.
HAL5 is a grassroots, space education, and advocacy organization whose members share the enthusiasm that space development can stimulate our world with immeasurable benefits in the areas of education, energy, environment, industry, resources, and ultimately room to grow for our society.
Over the past 25 years, HAL5 has sponsored numerous educational projects and activities in Huntsville and hosted a continuing series of public lectures, forums and events on topics related to space at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and the Huntsville Public Library. Topics have included the International Space Station, space science, launch vehicles, planetary defense, and public and private efforts to achieve affordable space access.
I first joined HAL5 after attending a meeting at the Huntsville Public Library in late 1993. It was then that I learned this local chapter had some really cool ideas and people as members that I resonated with. The group had just finished up the most successful ISDC in NSS history, and it had happened in Huntsville. Now they are doing it again in 2011.
Profits from their hard work running ISDC was what allowed some really cool history to begin in Huntsville with an Amateur Space Shot attempt that would reach 36 miles in 2006. I was honored to be the Team Lead on this historic low-budget rocket project. I signed up in 1994, and we poured concrete soon after at my dad’s farm. We tested all our engines there. It was so cool. We tested hybrids from 5-lb thrust to 1,200-lb thrust. We worked at my home “man cave” two nights a week. That was a magical time. It was also a precursor run for what would become my full-time career and later the founding of a company I called “Orion Propulsion.” That is another story.
Anyway, we built a few rockets, and on May 11, 1997, HAL5 made history for amateur rocketry altitude and the world’s first high-altitude ignition of a hybrid rocket. This feat was later recorded in the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records.
Here we are 16 years later, and we are looking at another ISDC. We have some great guys running the show like Yohon Lo and Bart Leahy and many more folks making it all come together. Greg is sort of a “gray beard” advisor these days.
The theme for this year’s ISDC is “From the Ground Up . . . How Do we Get There?” I’m looking forward to that conference being in the Rocket City this year! The theme pays tribute to Huntsville’s journey from humble beginnings as a cotton town all the way to its current “Rocket City” status.
I am looking forward to seeing a successful ISDC 2011 in Huntsville. I am also looking forward to seeing what cool ideas and projects could be offshoots from such an energetic event.
Godspeed, HAL5!

Tim Pickens displays some of the team’s earlier work in his garage “man cave.”

HAL5 Team Members at Project HALO Test Site in 2003.

The Past Meets the Future at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Sat, 02/05/2011 – 19:45 — Tim Pickens RCSP team leader
I had an awesome night at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) here in the Rocket City Thursday night. It was an incredible experience to be having dinner underneath this behemoth moon rocket known as the Saturn V. Incredible!
We were at a special awards ceremony honoring Dr. Georg von Tiesenhausen, 96, an original German rocket scientist, NASA engineer on the Saturn V and lifelong educator. He received the Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Education from Neil Armstrong! How cool is that? This was a very rare and cool experience for all of us here in Huntsville and Alabama.
We had several team members and students in the audience. We had students from the University of Alabama Huntsville and the Huntsville Center for Technology. I had the honor of meeting Neil Armstrong and dining next to Owen Garriott. They are both great guys. I got to ask Owen what it was like riding on top of the Giant. I also got to meet “Dr von T.”
Dynetics and the Rocket City Space Pioneers sponsored the event and had a great opportunity to share our Google Prize entry with the local space community. Governor Robert Bentley, just recently sworn into office, was there, celebrating his birthday on this momentous occasion. He had great things to say about the USSRC and was looking forward to continuing to support the facility. I have to agree that the Center is amazing, and it is one of the centerpieces of Huntsville and the state.
The evening was inspirational. We are truly grateful to these space heroes who paved the way for what we are doing today!

Engineering Meets Education Kick-off Meeting

Wed, 01/26/2011 – 19:53 — Tim Pickens RCSP team leader
We had a great time at our Engineering Meets Education (EME) meeting at the Huntsville Center of Technology (HCT) a couple of weeks ago. We had a great turn-out of engineers, scientists, students, HCT faculty, and other interested folks. We were fortunate to have the culinary department prepare us chili, sandwiches, and a wide assortment of goodies to eat.
I would like to welcome our new partner, Siemens, who has provided 100 seats of Solid Edge to our RCSP team to help us design our Google X PRIZE entry. Bill McClure of Siemens was at the meeting to introduce Siemens’ cool suite of design software. Other representatives from the company were also in attendance.
We spent the evening introducing the teammates, sponsors, prize details, and talked about technical challenges. We also brainstormed about how EME could best serve our team’s overall technical direction, but also provide a great learning and educational experience for our students and other participants.
Mike Evans, an HCT CAD instructor, gave examples of how he had been working a design project for us with students and team member engineers. Mike Sutullo is one of our team engineers who is with Teledyne Brown. Teledyne is leading structures for our team. Mike Sutullo is volunteering his time to walk the students through a design project to help us figure out how to package and erect an antenna system on top of the lander. He described the student, instructor, and mentor engineer relationship, and how a concept became a design, and ultimately a working prototype the students built using their stereo lithography machine.
Mike Graves, RCSP technical lead, described the technical challenges before us, and how the HCT would be instrumental to our building and learning. He brought along Charles Tullock, an engineer from Dynetics, to discuss the many areas we could pursue as a team.
At the end of the evening, we had a healthy group discussion from the audience. We actually had experts at our meeting who worked on the original moon rovers that our astronauts drove in the early 70s.
It was an awesome and productive evening. I want to thank the staff of HCT, the RCSP, and the good folks of North Alabama for supporting us. We have a lot of fun experiences ahead of us.