Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Revolution Might Not Be Televised

One of the cool things about living in Huntsville, Alabama, especially if you're a space geek like me, is that you've got relatively easy access to very smart people who know a lot about building things that go into space. One of those very smart people is a member of the Huntsville Alabama L5 Society (HAL5), former member of Project HALO, and now president of a private space company, Orion Propulsion: Tim Pickens.

Pickens was the guest speaker at this month's HAL5 meeting, and as usual he drew a crowd. Part of that might have come from the title of his talk: "Greening the Aerospace Community," in which he talked about developing green(er) propellants for getting rockets into space. He talked about aerospace companies looking for the "Holy Grail" of rocket propellants--they want the maximum energy for the minimum mass (what rocket scientists would call "high specific impulse"). Orion Propulsion is testing a methane-oxygen engine, using a cadre of college students from University of Alabama-Huntsville.

Marketing Orion Propulsion
Pickens spent a great deal of his time promoting his company, perhaps rightly so. For a company with fewer than 40 employees, Orion has a lot of unique capabilities, including designing, building, and testing new rocket designs. They have contracts with commercial (Bigelow), defense, and NASA (Ares) customers, and are executing them. These include attitude control systems for Bigelow's "Sundancer" inflatable space station, roll control thruster systems for the Ares I crew launch vehicle built on a contract through Boeing, and a small-sat launcher for the Department of Defense. What's fun about Orion is Pickens' willingness to experiment on new hardware and designs, often on what would be a shoestring budget for a government project.

Origins of Orion: SpaceShipOne and Beyond
Project HALO's work on hybrid rockets (solid/HTPB rubber fuel, nitrous oxide oxidizer) caught the attention of Burt Rutan earlier this decade, when he was looking for a rocket engine that a pilot could turn on and off, like a jet engine. Hybrids allow that ability by shutting down the flow of oxidizer, killing combustion. Pickens and a couple of Project HALO team members headed out to Mojave California to supervise propulsion development for SpaceShipOne, the first privately built vehicle to reach space three times. On the strength of that success, Pickens was able to come back home to Huntsville and start, with the help of his wife, Orion Propulsion.

And Pickens is not satisfied with the remarkable progress he's made with his woman (wife)-owned business so far. He's excited by the challenges involved in designing fuel tanks that allow for long-term storage of cryogenic (super-cold) propellants, which are needed for NASA's Altair lunar lander. "Some folks say they're redoing Apollo. That's a lot of bull." He also believes in the usefulness of building completely reusable fly-back first stage boosters, which were considered for the Space Shuttle. But again, he thinks small-scale prototypes are the way to go: "If you can't build a small-sized model fly, you might as well not fantasize about building a big one."

A Vision for Space Hardware Development
As I noted in my blog on young people and the space business, it's this willingness to experiment that gives smaller, "New Space" companies like Orion a leg up on the big aerospace companies or NASA when it comes to recruiting a new generation of graduates coming out of the nation's engineering schools. One typical example came from Pickens' building of a high-voltage exciter, which he wanted to use for an engine igniter. The item he wanted to purchase from an established aerospace company cost $15,000 and weighed 3 pounds. There were features on the "legacy" hardware he needed, but the electronics were 30 years old and "clunky." So what Pickens' team did was take what he wanted from the other company's hardware "and put my stuff on 'em." Pickens' new unit cost $3,000 and weighs half a pound. "Multiply that out by eight or ten thrusters, and you're saving somebody a lot of weight."

Young people don't want to spend ten years of their life designing one tiny part of a very large and complex system; they want to get their hands dirty and have a hand in building the whole thing. Small-scale engines and experiments like Orion's liquid oxygen-methane engine are exactly what fresh-out-of-school engineers are looking for when they come to NASA, and don't always find. While following traditional paths to aerospace legitimacy such as joining a "mentor-protegee" relationship with Boeing and getting Orion AS9100 certified, Pickens has fought to maintain a "Skunk Works" type of environment at his company.

In the end, this was the message Tim Pickens had for his audience, more than talking about the values of environmentally friendlier propellants ("If you're going to fine me for my CO2 emissions, you better have a machine you can turn on to undo the emissions I made"). "I know why Elon [Musk, CEO of SpaceX] is trying to do everything in-house...You need to do some of things I've been a proponent of." And the way to do that, according to Pickens, is to start small, get your hands dirty, and be willing to fail. “We are not allowed to fail. No one wants to pay for that on their watch. Tax payers especially. Maybe this is an artifact of some programs gone bad! Private industry is allowed to try new things that might be different and risky, but the payoff could be huge.” No doubt we will hear more from Pickens and Orion Propulsion in the years ahead. I'm looking forward to seeing what revolutions they produce, even if no one outside the space community ever hears about them.

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