With an industrial drill, a cement mixer, and a galvanized steel tub as basic implements, John Wickman could be mistaken for any backyard handyman attending to his weekend chores.
But Mr. Wickman isn't mixing concrete for a new patio, he's brewing a new low-tech batch of rocket fuel in his Casper, Wyo., laboratory. And by the end of October, he and NASA scientists will stand a few miles north of the town dump and send a homemade rocket into the heavens.
Using off-the-shelf items like Durham's Water Putty instead of expensive, high-tech heat panels, Wickman is trying to engineer the next generation of rockets and space vehicles at hardware-store prices. Along with other lesser-known entrepreneurs sprinkled throughout the West, this "space cowboy" is not only giving former cow towns a foothold in 21st- century space exploration, he's also bringing NASA a notch closer to a key goal: cutting the high cost of blasting into orbit and beyond.
While NASA's missions to Mars are an outgrowth of the "better, faster, cheaper" mantra, the fledgling work on new rockets being carried out by small companies is based on the "build a little, fly a little" model, says Paul Kolodziej, a NASA engineer who is in Casper helping Wickman with prelaunch testing.
Wickman's office, which sits in a converted World War II training facility, functions as a rocket nursery, where NASA hopes space-industry underdogs like him can move cost-effective space travel from concept to reality.
"You could say this is where the rubber meets the road," says Wickman, a gentle, introspective man.
There's nothing amateurish about Wickman's intentions, though his methods have been described by admirers as a combination of Buck Rogers and the nutty professor.
Through his launches, Wickman and NASA plan to test both a prototype rocket and a new vehicle that could someday replace the aging fleet of space shuttles. The tiny experimental spacecraft, a 17-by-40-inch doodad shaped like a wedge, will be carried 52 miles into the atmosphere in Wickman's rocket. There, the nose cone will release the Slender Hypervelocity Aerothermodynamic Research Probe (SHARP), which will glide to earth.
By 2003, following a series of launches, Wickman and NASA engineers hope to be able to maneuver the SHARP and land it safely on an airport runway.
The program is supported by NASA's Ames complex in northern California. Such joint endeavors come at a time when NASA is under intense scrutiny in the wake of the recent failures of two Mars projects and huge cost overruns on building the International Space Station.
In July, the space agency acknowledged that proposed budgets for new space missions grew as much as 40 percent to ensure mistakes don't happen again. And last week, the high cost of space exploration was cited as a primary reasons for scrapping a mission to Pluto.
Aerospace observers say the US has reached a crucial moment as its shuttle fleet becomes old, limited in its capabilities, and costly to keep in service.
At present, the cost for sending materials into orbit via the shuttle is $10,000 a pound, but the expense must be reduced greatly - perhaps to a few hundred dollars a pound - before new markets such as space tourism and microgravity product research can be considered.
"We're searching for solutions to the problems we've had with space transportation, particularly with getting things into orbit," says Dan Rasky, a NASA senior scientist and principle investigator of the SHARP project. He compares small-shop operations like Wickman's with Apple Computer in its early years, when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started a revolution in a garage.
"If Apple hadn't come along in the late 1970s, taking cheap components that could be bought off the shelf and integrating them into the first generation of desktop computers, we might not have desktops today," says Mr. Rasky. "John Wickman has the same kind of vision that the founders of Apple had."
For example, Wickman first stumbled upon a new recipe for rocket fuel when he was searching for a safer fuel that could be used by rocket hobbyists. Also, the nozzles on his rocket are made up of Durham's Water Putty, which is normally used to fix holes in dry wall. The substance is extremely heat resistant as well as inexpensive, Wickman discovered.
"He's demonstrated a rare talent for being incredibly inventive," says Kolodziej. "John has found analogs for the usual materials used in rocket building everywhere from local home improvement stores to the Farm Bureau."
A key player in connecting NASA with pioneers like Wickman has been Will Swearingen, who oversees the TechLink Center at Montana State University.
"Wickman Spacecraft is typical of many small companies that are springing up in remote pockets of the West," Mr. Swearingen says. "Some of the most innovative technology is coming out of start-up companies in small Western towns that frankly were cowboy towns a few years ago."
Individually, Swearingen notes, none of the entities involved with the Wickman- SHARP tests could afford to build a new class of rockets on their own, but together, they possess formidable skill and resources. Wickman, a native of the Chicago area and a veteran of the aerospace industry, says he is launching his first rocket for less than $100,000 - one-tenth the cost of comparable missions.
From the date when all of parties signed the contract - May 23 of this year - it will take just five months until the final countdown begins.
Reminiscent of the early 1960s, when the Mercury and Gemini programs similarly were fast-tracked, these kinds of experiments are creating renewed enthusiasm at NASA, both among those who came of age during the Apollo program which was mothballed, and young college students who hadn't been born yet.
At the very earliest, Wickman says a potential manned launch using the knowledge gleaned from the SHARP flights is still five to 10 years away.
But Wickman preaches patience. "Wyoming's not known as a rocket-launching site but give it a few years," he says. "I'd like to think our work is only beginning."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society