Sometime in the spring of 2002, a man who has somehow become known to the world as “Rocket Guy” plans to launch himself 30 miles (48 kilometres) straight up in a rocket of his own making.
Unlike NASA, Walker, a Bend, Oregon toy inventor, can’t afford to build and launch test rockets. The first one he builds is the one he’ll fly in. He will be his own monkey — just as he will be his own mission control, co-pilot, draftsman, flight engineer, pressurized-fuel-tank maker and sectional-fin engineer and builder, not to mention publicist. Brian Walker likes to do things his way.
For the past hour and a half, Walker has been sitting in a leather chair in his living room, drinking micro-waved coffee and talking about his plans. He is 44, with resilient brown curls, live-wire blue eyes and the well-projected voice of a man who spends a lot of time talking over loud machinery. (In addition to building rocket parts and toy prototypes, Walker once built an entire two-man recreational submarine.)
Though possessed of a certain amount of huff and bluster, Walker is fairly humble when it comes to his present undertaking. He insists that what he is planning to do is not particularly difficult — is not, in fact, “rocket science.”
“What is a rocket?” he says. “A rocket is a device with more thrust than weight.” We do the math: Walker and his rocket and fuel will weigh 10,000 pounds (4,535 kilograms); the rocket will produce 12,000 pounds of thrust. “If I have 2,000 pounds of thrust,” he says, one forearm blasting off from the arm of his chair, “I’m gonna go up. Since I’m losing 90 pounds (40 kilograms) of fuel a second, I’m going to just accelerate the whole time.” Assuming he’s done his calculations correctly, he’ll run out of fuel and coast to a stop at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, just beyond the perpetual gloaming that precedes the cold black vacuum of space. At this point, he’ll activate a small thruster in the nose of his capsule (the empty fuel tank having dropped off) to turn himself head-down and into position for the unfolding of a giant airbag. This will act as an airbrake to slow his fall, thereby reducing friction and surface heating of the capsule during re-entry. Once back in Earth’s atmosphere, a jumbo custom-made parasail will unfurl and Walker will drift softly back to Earth, somewhere in the middle of an extinct lake bed in south-eastern Oregon.
Much like Alan Shepard’s first sub-orbital flight, Walker’s trip will last about 15 minutes. Here the similarity ends. Shepard splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean and was greeted by a couple of Marine helicopter pilots who hoisted him up and over to probing doctors and a phone call from President Kennedy on the waiting aircraft carrier Lake Champlain. When Walker approaches touchdown, a flatbed truck will have driven up underneath him to shuttle him over to a ring of bleachers, where he’ll step out of the capsule and wave to the cheering crowd while “12 Hooters girls run up and pour champagne” all over him.
The reverie is interrupted by a cuckoo clock on the wall behind us. It occurs to me that sometime during every media interview ever held in this room, the clock has interrupted Walker, saying, “Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!”
“You should really turn that off when the press is here.”
Walker suggests a tour of his workshop and his backyard, a.k.a. the Rocket Garden, where a full-scale mock-up of the rocket stands. Here is where you begin to wonder just how simple or successful Walker’s flight will actually be. The easy part of building a rocket is building the rocket. Somewhat trickier is building the machinery required to build the rocket. Walker shows me a site on the grounds where he plans to build a distillery to purify the hydrogen peroxide that will fuel his flight.
“You know,” I offer. “You can buy that stuff at the drugstore pretty cheap.” Walker carefully explains that the drugstore variety is about 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. He needs 90-percent purity.
Walker opted for a monopropellant — rather than a mixture of, say, liquid oxygen and kerosene — because he feels it’s safer and simpler to deal with. Here’s how it’ll work: Upon blastoff, the hydrogen peroxide will be forced from a pressurized fuel tank into a catalyst chamber containing a stack of silver screens; the contact with the silver will create a chemical reaction that will cause the hydrogen peroxide to suddenly expand by 600 percent, creating a burst of steam that provides the needed thrust. Since there’ll be no flames shooting out from the rocket, Walker feels there’s less chance of explosion. “The worst that could go wrong is that I’ll come back a blonde.”
Walker shows me the fuel tank that will eventually be pressurized with nitrogen gas to force the hydrogen peroxide into the catalyst chamber. The tank-pressurizing people wanted $50,000 per tank. Walker rolls his eyes. “Military contractors. So I’m going to do my own tanks.” This will entail building — from parts — a machine to wind Kevlar or carbon fibre around the lightweight tanks to allow them to withstand the pressure exerted by the nitrogen propellant.
Walker has no working background in this sort of thing. He dropped out of engineering school after a couple semesters. He seems to be running on piss and vinegar and the instincts of a born tinkerer.
This earlier part of Walker’s day was spent at his desk in the office attached to his workshop. He’s making a compilation of his television appearances — 14 to date, including one with Bryant Gumbel and a half-hour segment on Fox — to send to Hasbro, with whom he hopes to work on a line of Rocket Guy action figures. Though Walker is a toy designer, he won’t be designing this one. Not surprisingly, most of Walker’s toys are space-related: laser gizmos, a hand-held Pop It Rocket, a gyroscope in the guise of a glow-in-the-dark alien spaceship. Apparently, you can live pretty well on toy royalties. Walker made enough in a short span of years to buy a house and a BMW, travel to Russia and China, as well as cover the expenses on a $300,000 rocket. He sorts through a stack of videos and slides one into the VCR.
“Look at all the grey in my beard there.” I look at the TV and back over at Walker. The grey is gone. “I’m using Just for Men,” he confides merrily. “It’s not sissy, cuzz it’s… just for men.” While he works, his printer is busy issuing the reasons behind the sudden burst of vanity. One after another, one-page Internet profiles of single Russian women, their measurements and their hobbies, materialize in his printer tray. It is a secondary obsession, picked up while undergoing cosmonaut training in Moscow. (You too can “train” to be a cosmonaut. Your $15,000 will buy you a trip on the “vomit comet” weightless flight simulator and a ride on a centrifuge, as well as a dip in the neutral buoyancy tank. “There’s definitely,” allows Walker, “an emphasis on fun.”)
The next project on the agenda is to finish his backyard centrifuge, a spinning chair that will allow him to acclimatize himself to the force of 6 Gs. Twenty-nine feet (8.8 meters) long, with a seat on one end, it resembles a one-man Scrambler from the county fairs of my youth.
Apparently, it’s no Scrambler. “This thing is more scary to me than the rocket,” admits Walker. “If it comes apart while I’m on it, going 70 miles (112 kilometers) an hour, it could take out that building over there.” We stand in silence, looking at Walker’s workshop, imagining the wreckage. I ask him whether it might be a good idea to look into a mail-order centrifuge. Perhaps the Russians would let one go for a reasonable sum.
He says no. With the exception of things like the CD player (which, if he decides to turn it on, will be playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”), the digital camcorders that will record the flight from eight different perspectives and the custom-built Ricarro race car seat, Walker would rather work from scratch. “I want to build as many things as I can build myself, myself.” He adjusts his sunglasses. “Did that make sense?”
Yes. And no.
Finally, lunch. Sometime after one, Walker realizes that since he woke up, all he has eaten is coffee and a handful of spice drops. He suggests lunch at a microbrewery in downtown Bend.
Over hamburgers and ale, Walker attempts to explain the obsession that has overtaken his life. “I have an internal motivation to do this,” he says, “which sometimes has me a little perplexed.” It began at the age of eight or nine, watching the Apollo flights on his parents black-and-white TV. Walker knew he wanted to go into space; he also knew he didn’t have the “right stuff.” No one with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder gets picked to be an astronaut.
But what propels him now is more than a simple desire to visit space, or to see his home planet from space (Walker’s capsule will have two large viewports). If a rocket existed that could take Walker safely into space and back for a sum comparable to that which he’ll be spending, he’d still prefer to build his own. “I want to put myself there,” he says. “My whole mission is to show what a person can do if they’re left to do it on their own. I get lots of e-mails from people, saying that when they talk about their dreams and plans, people always squelch them. And then they read my story and it’s like: can be done.” Walker claims, at this point, to be doing it for them. “There are people that are counting on me. The person who cures cancer may be out there. He may be five years old today, but he might see my flight, and this might be the thing that encourages him, one day, to keep at it.”
“You’re an inspiration,” I tell Walker, and I mean that. “You’re an American hero.” This I’m less solid on. Walker too. “I’m not a hero,” he says. “I’m a flawed human being. I don’t even want to be called a role model. The whole concept of the role model isn’t good, because when you begin basing your life and actions and sense of self on someone else, then when that person fails, you lose your confidence. Self-esteem has to come from within. It has to be the result of your own actions.”
Walker’s self-sufficient, can-do mania is an offshoot of his ultra-capitalist politics. He’s a fan of Bill Gates. He’s a self-made millionaire who doesn’t believe in government handouts. He is proud of the fact that he hasn’t received a penny in funding for his project, nor does he plan to seek any. (Though he hopes to attract some corporate sponsors somewhere down the line.)
If all goes as planned, Walker will recoup his costs in future aerospace ventures. At the moment, he’s working on plans for a catapult-launched plane to cover short distances — a light craft that could take him from his home to Portland, 100 miles (160 kilometres) west, in 15 minutes. He envisions a system similar to the big-rubber-band type of set-up that launches fighter planes from the decks of aircraft carriers. A couple of hydrogen peroxide rocket engines will take over once the plane leaves the catapult rail and a GPS-directed autopilot would keep it on course. He plans to have the prototype done by the time he launches his rocket, next September.
Walker is big on catapult launches. He thinks NASA ought to launch the space shuttle that way. “The shuttle uses up half its fuel by the time it’s this high,” he says, forefinger and thumb delineating a half-inch space. “If they were to accelerate the shuttle on a 200-foot- (60-meter-) tall catapult tower to just below the speed of sound, they’d be able to put it in orbit with 60 percent less fuel.” Walker is deeply unimpressed with NASA. “I look at some of the things they do and I just shake my head.” Shelving the Moon missions, for instance.
“We should have an operational, fully staffed Moon base, if we are even going to think about going to places like Mars.” Walker gladly volunteers himself for the task, though this time he’s not planning to build the equipment alone. “For this, I’ll get more realistic — form a company, hire engineers.” Walker believes there’s money to be made on the Moon. “We could set up massive solar fields and beam the energy via satellite down to Earth. There’d be enough power to generate all of Earth’s energy needs.” When he says “we,” he doesn’t mean NASA. As far as Walker’s concerned, NASA should be “disbanded and sold to the highest bidder.” He wipes ketchup from his beard. “I’m a clean-sheet-of-paper type of guy.”
Back in the car, Walker offers to drive me to nearby Pilot Butte, to take in the view. En route, the conversation turns to fuel tank explosions and malfunctioning para-sails: the unsettling and very real possibility that space will turn out to be Brian Walker’s final frontier. “If I die, I die,” Walker shouts breezily. “I’d rather die trying this than spend the next 40 years bitter that I never made the attempt.” Walker plans to make a farewell video before he leaves, with instructions to air it right after the explosion and crash. “It’s going to be me saying, ‘Well, hey, everybody, it didn’t work, and I’m dead. But no one should cry about me, because since the moment I launched that rocket, probably thousands of people all over the world have died from malnutrition and disease, and my death is no more of a tragic loss than any one of those people’s.’”
Walker gives himself good odds. “If something’s going to go wrong, it’ll be in the first 10 seconds. Something will go haywire and I’ll go spiralling off and smash into the ground. After that, nothing’s going to kill me.” Walker will be wearing a pressurized Russian spacesuit in case the capsule loses pressure and he’ll have an ejector seat and a parachute on his back.
Can he really pull it off? What do the folks at NASA think? Is he all thrust and no weight? Walker claims to get e-mail from “ex-NASA people,” saying, as he paraphrases it: “You go, boyfriend!” The NASA media-relations people I called claimed to be unable to find any rocket experts who’d heard of Walker. The FAA says they’ll ask to see both Walker’s flight plan — to make sure no other craft are heading into the same airspace — and his plans for the rocket before issuing a permit. Walker doesn’t care if they say no. “I’ll just haul it down to Mexico.”
At the top of the butte, Walker gets out of the car and commences naming geographic features in his characteristic shout-speak. A couple in their 50s, thinking he’s some sort of tour guide, come over to listen in. I point to Walker’s T-shirt, which shows him standing beside the mock-up of his spacecraft, beneath the legend Rocket Guy. “Do you know who this guy is?” I ask them.
The man lowers his face close to Walker’s chest. “Hey, look at that. He’s the one we saw on TV.”
“Neat!” says the man’s wife.
They talk for a while and Walker turns to leave, wishing them a nice time on the remainder of their trip. The woman smiles and waves good-bye. “You go have a nice trip, too, next year.”
If I had to put money on it, I’d say he will.