From the back of a bike to the moon

American space research returns to its original launching pad in Huntsville, Ala.

Patrik Jonsson
Building on history: A worker rests a moment during a break at the new Davidson Center for Space Exploration, part of the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Patrik Jonsson
Rocket man: Propulsion engineer Tim Pickens worked with Burt Rutan to make history with SpaceShipOne. The once-amateur rocketeer is now helping to build NASA's new Ares rocket.

One of Tim Pickens's biggest breakthroughs in his lifetime quest to fling stuff into space came on the back of a regular old bicycle.

The Huntsville-born propulsion engineer, who speaks with a tangy drawl, had come up with a unique homemade rocket engine built using empty fire extinguishers and fueled by a mixture of asphalt and laughing gas.

"I was talking to my friend, and he said, 'You know, we ought to put that on a bike,' " Mr. Pickens says. "Next thing you know we're rolling a bike out. At the end of the day, we were riding down the road with that rocket bike, and the neighbors were all coming out looking and grinning, wondering what in the heck's going on out here."

In many ways, Pickens, who is helping the National Aeronautics and Space Administration develop the throwback Ares rocket that will replace the space shuttle, embodies both the past and future of Huntsville. This unassuming town changed irrevocably in 1958 when 118 German rocket engineers – members of Operation Paper Clip – quietly moved in to help launch the Americans into space.

As the city celebrates the 50th anniversary of the US space program on Thursday, Huntsville is counting down to its next apogee, now bearing the bulk of the responsibility for shortening what could be a five-year gap in the ability of US astronauts to access space once the space shuttle program shuts down for good in 2010.

In the process, this Watercress Capital-turned-Rocket City is again tapping into the garage ethics, vivid imagination, and can-do attitude of the Germans, who over time became even more beloved by locals than the hush puppies at the Greenbrier Restaurant.

"We're essentially starting over with some of the same concepts that spawned the Saturn V success," says Jan Smith, an Alabama-born software engineer who worked for Boeing on the Apollo program. "These are interesting times for Huntsville."

It's hard to imagine a less likely place from which to launch a space odyssey. That's one reason why Huntsville has always sat in the shadows of Cape Canaveral and Houston in the American imagination. With more antebellum homes than any other American city, Huntsville had only 12,000 people when it was picked to host the German space team, in part because of lobbying by Alabama politicians, but also because the rolling topography reminded the Germans of their homeland.

Wernher von Braun, the lead German engineer, first found resistance and sometimes scorn from locals until they saw him on TV, espousing Huntsville's destiny to build the engines that would power America into space. They would eventually carry Mr. von Braun on their shoulders like a winning football coach when man landed on the moon. Space travel, von Braun told Time magazine in 1958, "will free man from his remaining chains ... [and] open him to the gates of heaven."

The original German engineers were essentially dreamers with drafting boards and welding equipment. Their arrival in Huntsville coincided with the first graduating class of the GI Bill coming out of places such as Auburn University and Georgia Tech. The men and women they hired were unlikely partners, essentially sharecroppers' sons and daughters.

"It's an unlikely combination of German rocketeers, former enemies, teaming up with primarily country boys who grew up on farms, who combined to pull off the 20th century's greatest event, the moon landing," says Ralph Petroff, a Huntsville entrepreneur and member of the Saturn V executive committee planning this week's celebration. "They used to joke that this is a rocket made by hillbillies."

As the 1950s program geared up and the earth rumbled during test firings out at the Redstone Arsenal, the space program became anything but theoretical for Huntsville residents.

"At that time the Russians had launched Sputnik and we were in a war, we thought, for the health and welfare of the United States, and all of Huntsville got behind the program and welcomed it," says Ms. Smith. "They supported it by repeatedly replacing windows" that were blown out by rocket tests, sometimes as far away as 20 miles.

But as the Apollo program was shut down in the late 1970s and rocket-engine testing moved to Mississippi, Huntsville's focus slowly changed.

To be sure, today it's a city of 100 languages, an entrepreneurial boomtown that epitomizes the rising economic stature of the New South. But the Ares project and the 2005 Base Realignment Act, which will move a major military command and thousands of military personnel to the city, promises to launch the city into a new era, says John Southerland, a chamber of commerce spokesman.

Yet the city's challenge is probably greater than what NASA and others are making public, says David Christensen, an aerospace consultant who worked with von Braun on the Saturn project. When the space shuttle is retired in 2010, the American space program will be at the mercy of the Russians, who alone will have the capability of sending human payloads skyward. NASA engineers are now scrounging the Saturn V archives for clues and direction, he says.

"We're trying to struggle around and get momentum going and get parts together," says Mr. Christensen. "It's difficult and very expensive and time consuming ... and it's going to be even worse than what we're expecting, that [five-year] gap."

Enter Tim Pickens.

His fledgling rocket company, Orion Propulsion, was born from Pickens's work on Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne – where the ideals of alternative, fast, and inexpensive solutions to rocket problems are embodied in a garage-mechanic ethos.

Pickens's tumultuous workshop in Huntsville looks more like a farm implement shop than a rocket lab. It's packed with piles of valves and spigots, greasy lathes, and even a surplus vacuum chamber used to burst, or explode, rocket canisters. In one corner is a truck-rocket that's fired using a modified Xbox controller.

His ability to turn around commonsense solutions quickly is why NASA and Boeing have turned to Pickens, and others with a similar mind-set, for help with the Ares. "That's been my passion, to try to dig into the hardware, especially propulsion, to say, 'Man, why is this stuff so expensive? Why is this so hard to do? Is this real or have we just gone down a path of, 'that's just the way we've always done it'?" Pickens asks.

Despite this week's celebrations and the opening of a new Center for Space Exploration, the vision for America's future in space may not ultimately come from Huntsville. But the actual mechanics of space travel, just as in 1958, will most likely be sketched on a napkin and conceived in a garage here in the Rocket City.

"One of the German scientists, Ernst Stuhlinger, tells the story of Explorer 1, where he was tasked with making this device called the 'apex predictor' that would figure out exactly the right moment to boost the engines," says Mr. Petroff. "When asked, 'Well, this device of such precision, Dr. Stuhlinger, where was this manufactured?' He says, [in a German accent] 'In my garage.' "

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