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Dreams put Orion on track for stars

Published by Robin on Fri Aug 12, 2005 5:10 pm
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“HARC and Orion Propulsion have been invited to participate in the X Prize Cup Oct. 4-9″

By DONNA FORK, The Huntsville Times, Friday, August 12, 2005

Rocket designer launches own firm after stint with X Prize winner Burt Rutan

Huntsville native Tim Pickens’ passion for rockets – and a little help from space entrepreneur Burt Rutan – helped him launch Orion Propulsion a little more than a year ago.

Business is good for the Madison-based startup, its president said recently. “We’ve done more than $1 million (worth of business) in the last nine months.”

The company designs and builds test stands, rocket motors and propulsion systems for aerospace companies.

When he was growing up, Pickens used to hear the sounds of rocket engines being test-fired at Marshall Space Flight Center. The vibrations would rattle the windows of his house.

He’d read everything he could find about rockets and tried to build them, even constructing “a big wooden rocket” in the second or third grade.

Pickens’ love for rockets never died. Today he’s living his dream.

“A hard-core enthusiast can do this stuff, if you have enough passion,” he said.

continued at The Huntsville Times

In the 1980s Pickens started buying machine shop parts, government surplus, bargain equipment. He built a huge garage “to accommodate my fun.”

He met other enthusiasts. There are lots of them in the Rocket City. Many are active in the Huntsville, Alabama L5, or HAL5 Society, the local chapter of the National Space Society.

The HAL5 Society “was my passion for years. I became a project engineer as a hobby.”

Pickens led the development of a hybrid rocket vehicle that was a project of HAL5. It became one the world’s highest-flying amateur rockets, achieving an altitude of 36 miles, and was featured in the Guinness Book of Records in 2000, he said.

Through his efforts with HAL5, word got around that Pickens was good at building rocket motor test stands. He built one for the University of Alabama, another for Lockheed Martin.

The test stands also helped Pickens get day jobs with such companies as Wyle Laboratories, where he worked as an electronics technician. Wyle gave him his first big break professionally, promoting him to project engineer even though he doesn’t have an academic piece of paper that says he’s an engineer. (He has a business degree from Faulkner University.)

Pickens went to work for Space America, a company started by Huntsville investors with the idea of breaking into the iridium satellite market (a provider of global satellite voice and data solutions). Pickens co-designed, constructed and tested various rocket motors for the company.

He also started his own company, High Altitude Research Corp., or HARC.

But his big opportunity came a few years back when Rutan came to Huntsville for a talk and changed Pickens’ life.

Rutan is the founder of Scaled Composites, an aerospace and specialty composites company based in the Mojave Desert in California. Last year the company won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for its SpaceShipOne.

The prize was awarded to the first team to privately finance, build and launch a spaceship able to carry three people to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles), return safely to Earth and repeat the launch with the same ship within two weeks.

Several years ago, Rutan told a Huntsville audience, including Pickens, that he wanted to go to space. Pickens liked what he heard.

“I had no intention of working for him. I just wanted to help him along. It’s almost a religious quest.”

They began an e-mail correspondence, and Pickens provided free assistance with design work. Eventually Rutan told Pickens he had funding and asked Pickens to work for him.

Pickens became the lead propulsion developer for Scaled Composites on the SpaceShipOne project. He worked in the Mojave Desert for about nine months.

After working on SpaceShipOne propulsion system design effort, Pickens returned to Huntsville and became a consultant to Scaled Composites.

But he’d been bitten by the X Prize bug, deciding to go for the $10 million prize himself. HARC acquired Space America’s equipment.

Meanwhile, Rutan had a head start and was well financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

On Oct. 4, SpaceShipOne became the first private manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within 14 days, claiming the X Prize.

Pickens was there to watch the historic flight. He said the main reason his team didn’t win was insufficient funding.

But he noted that HARC and Orion Propulsion have been invited to participate in the X Prize Cup Oct. 4-9. The event is sponsored by the X Prize Foundation.

The connection with Rutan and SpaceShipOne has been a big boost to Orion. The firm is providing equipment and engineering services to AirLaunch LLC, under a DARPA FALCON Phase II contract.

Orion is performing engineering studies for a propellant feed system with Rocketplane Ltd. Inc., which is involved with the Oklahoma Spaceport project.

The company has partnered with Transformational Space Corp. to produce ground support equipment and engineering support for NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle program.

Orion now has seven full-time employees and 14 consultants.

Pickens is optimistic about the success of the company. “I can’t imagine not doing well in Huntsville in this business.”

He is looking to build partnerships with local companies.

“We’re just getting started,” he said, as he pointed to the equipment around him. Only a short time ago, “this stuff was in my garage.”

© 2005 The Huntsville Times© 2005 al.com All Rights Reserved.

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