How Huntsville Breeds Rocket Scientists

Rocket scientist Tim Pickens on his city's culture of scientific discovery.

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Reuters

Tim Pickens is the kind of guy that gives Huntsville its nickname: Rocket City.

The name was there before he was, derived from the city’s high concentration of NASA and military space projects. But Pickens’ decades of involvement in the city’s space industry and engineering community embodies the relationship between the city and the rockets that helped put people on the moon.

He’s a rocket scientist son of a rocket scientists who’s a commercial space advisor and chief propulsion engineer at Dynetics Inc., and team leader of the Rocket City Space Pioneers, a team competing in the Google Lunar X Prize competition to land a robot on the moon. He’s also a garage tinkerer who’s famously attached rockets to bicycles.

He spoke to The Atlantic Cities about how his love for rockets grew in Huntsville, how the city’s education system bolsters the industry, and why it’s still the Rocket City.

You’re a professional rocket scientist, but also quite the accomplished garage rocket scientist. How do you think living in Huntsville has engendered both the professional and amateur side of your interest in rockets?

I’ve been doing this stuff for years. I’ve fired hundreds of rockets that I’ve designed. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to live in a town where we have so many great engineers and talented people that migrate to my garage and want to help build stuff.

Years ago, back in 1994, I started buying a lot of tools and machine shop equipment because I wanted to do the first amateur spaceshot. And I hooked up with some guys at the National Space Society and we built a rocket. We built a motor that could put out 350 pounds of thrust and burned for 15 seconds. We flew that to 36 miles in 1996. We did that working in my garage two nights a week.

And all I had to do was get cookies made and feed them cookies and milk. Sometimes we’d have 15 or 20 engineers in my garage, and those engineers, all they wanted to do is build stuff. A lot of them didn’t get to do as much of that at work, so they wanted to build stuff. They wanted to make a difference. There’s a real sense of community here in Huntsville that I’ve seen nowhere else.

Why do you think the city has been able to create this community?

It all started with the decision to bring the [Wernher] Von Braun team here [the group that focused on getting astronauts to the moon]. Von Braun knew early on that we had to have a strong education system so he made sure that setting the [University of Alabama in Huntsville] organization up there and having a strong engineering school had to be the centerpiece of creating the talent – to feed his organization.

And with the Army here, they knew early on that that would be an important element. I believe that has never left Huntsville.

Why do you think it’s been so successful at sustaining that economy?

I think being a Southern town, there’s a lot of cultural cohesion, a sense of community. I think there’s a lot of respect for each other and people are very personal and I think networking is important. Creating a team environment to pursue things. I think Huntsville, in general, has a very proven track record of having a real sense of community. This is not something that you could say is orchestrated by design. I think it’s just the nature of having Southern culture coupled with good education.

It seems that the industry is changing a lot. The Lunar X Prize competition between private groups to land a robot on the moon is a concept that 40 years ago probably would have been a shock to a lot of people working in the industry in Huntsville. In what other ways do you think the industry is different now?

We’re diversifying, doing more commercial things. We’re taking risks. Dynetics, for instance, put considerable money in a project to build their own satellite. They used shareholders’ money to do that. Why? Because they believe there’s a market out there.

The traditional model was ‘if you’ve got a problem, we’ll solve it, but you’ve got to pay us to solve it.’ But as companies, I don’t know that we can rely on the business models of the past where the same customers are going to be doing the same thing forever. So we have to diversify our portfolios.

Could you see yourself leaving Huntsville?

Huntsville’s my home and it always will be. I’m surrounded by people who are thinkers, who make you think. It’s hard to be intellectually lazy in most circles in Huntsville. That challenges me to be better. And I have lots of people volunteering to help do rocket stuff. It happens all the time. We fire rockets out in the community. We get so many emails and letters from people that are inspired or excited about what we’re doing.

And the Rocket City Space Pioneers project is so grassroots. We have got a lot of community support. We’ve had guys that helped design the original moon buggy and who put us on the moon, and they’ve helped our team to design the wheels on our lunar rover. We’ve got guys that are in their seventies who are saying ‘I worked that program. You need me. I want to be part of it.’ The fact is that it does take very smart guys to design new rocket engines and all the exotic machinery needed to leave the planet. I mean, it is not trivial.

And Huntsville is the hub for that. Nowhere else.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.