Brian Walker, better known as Rocket Guy to his devotees, isn't your average bachelor. He's a successful inventor, sea & skydiver, an accomplished toy designer for Mattel & Hasbro, and he's all rocket jockey.
By next summer, Walker plans to be the first civilian in the world to launch and pilot a manned spacecraft without government support or intervention.
Rocket Garden Bears Strange Fruit
On the red-dirt outskirts of Bend, Oregon, where volcanic peaks, tumbleweeds and Ponderosa Pines rule the landscape, Walker has built a proving ground for his hot-rod rockets and unconventional ideas.
On the north side of his Bend property, the entrepreneurial eccentric shows me around his Rocket Garden. Unlike a traditional garden, the Rocket Garden is an outdoor blacktop and lava-rock sequence of catwalks and platforms, blooming with brilliant yellow warning stripes and "runway" lights. It's a compact training center that includes a launch platform and rocket, an airplane-engine-propelled centrifuge that kicks up to 6 Gs, and a succession of buildings which accommodate the tools and labors of his imagination.
The Rocket Garden launch compound holds a half-dozen buildings of varying size, some of which are open, revealing a rocket fuel module here, a prototype space catapult there. Good enough for now, but Walker plans to buy "10,000 acres" somewhere in Lake County to expand his future operations.
After touring the grounds and checking out a number of nifty items, including a stunning purple and chrome strap-on jet pack, and a craft called the One Man Guided Missile (see photo, right), we enter the main hangar. It's filled with rocket parts, space helmets and eye-popping inventions in rattle-can colors--all parked on the walls like a gigantic, vertical, otherworldly parking garage.
Undoubtedly, the most striking contraption contained in the hanger is Walker's showpiece spacecraft, Earthstar I--a gleaming, gunmetal-blue and buff-silver space capsule that's a tad smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle. It contains a computer keyboard, joystick-style throttle, and some basic instrumentation. The cell itself is lined in silver plush, and seats one. It looks comfortable and safe, until you realize the implications of it being launched into space with a human being inside.
The most advanced model to date, Earthstar I is being replaced. On the day of my visit, Walker and two assistants are at work on a newer version of the craft, which he plans to have ready for launch by spring or summer of 2002. Until recently, Walker has designed and fabricated most all of his devices by himself, by hand. Lately, though, personal appearances and media interviews have cost him valuable time, and he has taken on an assistant.
Rocket Jockeys Unite
Throughout the world, there are a small number of private rocket jockeys who, like Walker, have devoted their lives to designing and building rocket driven vehicles. From amateur rocket buffs to legitimate rocket scientists, many of them hold various land, sea and air speed records. Their devices run the gamut from personal jet-packs to rocket-powered mountain bikes that reach speeds of 200 mph.
These "experts" have provided Walker with invaluable insight, by posting theories, technical expertise, and even concerns about potential design flaws at the Rocket Guy Web Page, and have had an effect in the evolution of his designs.
When Walker first announced his plans last year for the first Earthstar launch, he was shooting for summer 2001. However, at the recommendation of his rocket scientist consultants, he has redesigned the craft.
Aiming for perfection, Walker says he needs to build a more advanced model to ensure his safety. "I don't have to kill myself getting into this thing too quickly," he tells me.
One of Walker's associates is Juan Manuel Lozano Gallegos, a self-taught rocket jockey from Mexico, who flew up (commercial airline, I presume) to assist Walker with the building of his rocket fuel still. A high school dropout, Gallegos designed Walker's complex fuel distillation unit, and came to Oregon in early January to help set up and troubleshoot the system.
Gallegos, who has built and raced numerous rocket-powered vehicles, including his latest invention, the Jet Belt, takes his rockets seriously. At least two of his rocket jockey mentors have died operating their contraptions. After falling unconscious during speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour, they were reduced to molecules in the resulting explosions. It's serious business.
Rocket Guy's Inner Sanctum
After a quick demonstration of several commercial toys he's invented (the sales of which finance his entire operation), we exit through the shop and enter the sanctity of his private office.
Facing Brian Walker, with his full beard, tousled black hair, round face and an impending paunch, it's difficult to imagine him donning his $70,000 Russian-made space suit and crawling into the compact pod. If I didn't know better, he'd seem like he'd be more at home driving a monster truck instead of a spacecraft. His office is spacious, though, and he moves quickly to clear a path.
Walker's desk is a veritable captain's bridge, gussied up with stainless-steel rocket models, computer hardware, stacks of documents and a small truckload of boxes. Photos of him skydiving, framed newspaper articles and personal artifacts hang on the dark wooden walls, as well as his certificate of graduation from Russian Cosmonaut Training. Yep. Cosmonaut Training. After clearing away a few errant turbine engines, Walker offers me a couch, maneuvers around to the ergonomic throne of his empire, takes the helm and immediately starts pushing buttons.
Oddly enough, Walker chooses to utilize our hourlong interview by shopping for a mail-order Russian bride. Throughout the interview, he swivels constantly in his chair.
To my surprise, as we speak of his plans to penetrate outer space, Walker views the images and sexual resumes of thousands of young women (at an online dating service), and often, without warning, reveals his interest in penetrating other pursuits as well. Only occasionally does he break from his visual female feast, and roll his chair toward me to demonstrate a scientific principle with a pen or stapler. As we talk, he comments on the women's statistics, prints out their full-color dossiers, and shows me his favorites.
When I mention that I prefer meeting potential mates the old-fashioned way, instead of shopping online, Walker turns from his monitor and scoffs facetiously toward me, "In person?"
Civilian Space Travel
Brian Walker's goal is to be the first private citizen to build his own rocket, climb in, launch it himself, shoot 30 miles into the upper atmosphere, and return safely to earth via parachute.
"What makes it exciting is that the average person thinks it can't be done."
To do this, he needs to burn 90% pure liquid hydrogen peroxide (a crowd favorite among rocket-builders worldwide), which will propel him over 400 miles an hour towards space, and perhaps his doom. Since the rocket is shooting straight up in the middle of a desert, there is no need for "precise guidance," Walker remarks. "All I need is a throttle."
Walker thinks the government holds an unfair monopoly on space travel, and with a little entrepreneurial encouragement, the average citizen should be able to enjoy regular trips into outer space in just a few years. After his 2002 flight takes place, Walker's plans for subsequent launches include "flying twice as high, then orbiting the earth for a couple days." The next step is bringing along paying passengers. "Five years from now," he smiles, "flights around the earth. It's doable."
According to Walker, Earthstar will head into the upper atmosphere at Mach 4.5, and will need to slow to Mach 2.5 on the descent in order for his parachutes to deploy. If the system fails, he'll have a strap-on parachute as a last resort.
He's already received a letter from the Bureau of Land Management listing restrictions, should he try to launch from BLM property, and expects his request to the FAA to be scrutinized as well. The biggest threat to getting the FAA okay, Walker says, is the slightest possibility that his launch may somehow endanger human lives. However, he expects to get approval. For now, it appears that all he needs to do is reserve a small column of airspace for about an hour, blast off, then head back home to celebrate. He's looking for that extra 10,000 acres to buy in Lake County, and launch from private property, to avoid BLM intervention.
Walker tells me that if he isn't granted permission to launch because of public safety issues, he'll sue the government to "keep all cars off the roads" while he's driving on them, other airplanes "out of the air" when he's flying, and all hunters "out of the woods" when he's hunting.
"Every time I'm on the highway, I want the roads, for 500 miles, clear. Period. I'm going to demand it. If I'm in an airplane, I want every [other] airplane out of the sky.
"Lake County will be the second county in the country that has ever launched a man into space. It will be the third place on the planet that ever launched a man into space."
Death Wish 2002?
There's something about a guy who's doing something for the first time in history, telling you everything will be perfectly safe. There seem to be too many variables. I ask if he's got a death wish.
Walker maintains he is prepared. Last year he took a course in Russian Cosmonaut training (a Discovery Channel reporter who also took the training says he puked). He's taken skydiving lessons, too.
The Russian space suit completes his safety protocols. Designed to allow the body to withstand the pressure of massive G-forces, the suit connects to a nitrogen regulator and inflates in order to maintain proper blood pressure. Without the suit, travelling at 4 Gs, blood is forced from the brain and the pilot loses consciousness, resulting in an early retirement from the space program.
"Hey," Walker blasts, "I think people who go rock climbing are nuts, because, if you climb a technical climb, you're spending 3 hours climbing. If you screw up at any given second during that 3 hours, you could die. Skydiving is much safer. There is only one exact moment that you actually have a risk, and that's opening your chute."
"I'm not doing this rocket thing because I'm a thrillseeker--seeking the ultimate thrill. No, not at all. That doesn't even enter into it. This has nothing to do with thrillseeking. Although, if I had to choose a way to die, I'd rather die in a rocket than from an aneurysm or something."
NASA is Stupid-- Space Shuttle Doesn't Fly
Walker thinks the future of space travel will benefit from private enterprise. He thinks NASA has an overblown budget, has outlived its usefulness, and wastes too much money on "useless" projects, including the space shuttle.
"As far as I'm concerned, NASA should be sold to the highest bidder. It's a waste of money. NASA served its purpose well in the 1960s and 1970s, and once we got to the moon, NASA just died. It's a totally wasteful bureaucratic crap pile. The space shuttle should be put in mothballs. You listen to the [shuttle] proponents, 'Oh, man, it's the most incredible flying machine ever designed, conceived and built by modern man.' That's their little diatribe, their little programmed response.
"Well, excuse me, but any aircraft that has one chance of landing is not an incredible flying machine. The space shuttle does not fly. It cannot fly. All it does is control its descent. If they have to make a second pass, they're all dead. Space shuttle--space schmuttle.
"Every time you launch something into space, you should be launching things that stay up there and have potential use for future purposes. The space shuttle goes up, and they drop that external fuel tank and it burns up in the atmosphere. For a fraction more of the budget that it costs to launch a shuttle, they can boost those tanks into a higher orbit and park them there.
"Then they'd have modules, that at some future point, could be soft-landed on the moon, used for habitation, put together to build a space station...We've had a hundred space shuttle missions. We could have a hundred of these tanks up there.
"Those tanks cost millions to build. So what do they do? They let those beautiful tanks burn up and they recover the boosters. That's stupid! Those tanks should be left in space for a future use.
"There are a whole lot of things about NASA that make me shake my head. Mostly the fact that they've kept this mystique going, that it takes NASA to put rockets in space.
"This idea of space travel as being a dangerous thing to do! I disagree with them. What if that had been the way airline travel had occurred?"
American Women--All Fucked Up
As Walker's attention turns away from me and back to his seemingly endless search for a Russian bride, I ask him what he has against American women.
"I've given up on American women. I've lost so much respect and interest for them... I don't find them to be very appreciative, either of decent men, or of life in general.
"I think a 26-year-old Russian woman... is a pretty good catch, because they're a whole lot more mature than a 26-year-old American. American women, they're all fucked up. I say that half tongue in cheek, but at the same time..."
Walker shows me a stack of over 30 large envelopes, stamped and addressed to Russia, which contain his mugshot, a resume and most likely a press release. "The last time I was in Russia, I had dates set up with a bunch of these gals--exactly the way they portray themselves on the Internet. Lovely. Very nice. Some of these women are just drop-dead gorgeous.
"There are tons of them. It's unbelievable. They're all educated, much more mature for their age than American women, because they didn't grow up with Beverly Hills, 90210 and the whole shopping-mall mentality. Their values have mostly been about survival. It makes you grow up quicker...This one's from the Ukraine--oh, yeah! Nice!"
He points to his glowing monitor and sighs slightly: "Ukrainian women, the most gorgeous women on the planet. LOOK! 37-26-37..."
One-Man Guided Missile to Boring
As ambitious as the Earthstar missions seem, Brian Walker has bigger fish to fry. He's already designed and built life-size models of his latest invention, the One-Man Guided Missile, in which he would rocket from Bend to a sister site in Boring, Oregon, in under 20 minutes.
His deluxe model would whisk a party of four to Hawaii in the time it takes to play a game of spades. The missile would take off from a rocket catapult, fly unpiloted directly to its destination ("while I read a book"), until a parafoil would emerge and land the craft safely.
"I hate airports," Rocket Guy says, staring at a shapely potential bride. "I want point-to-point transportation on my terms."
To me, this ideal sums up Brian Walker better than any other. Entitlement. No matter what he decides he wants, whether it's freeing himself from the bonds of gravity, or obtaining the endless affection of a 26-year-old Ukrainian bride, he's determined to get it and on his own terms. NASA and single ladies of the world? Look out.