Space powers man’s dream

By Amalie Young

Associated Press

BEND, Ore. — Next summer, Brian Walker will strap himself into the 24-foot rocket he’s building in his backyard, ignite 9,000 pounds of fuel and hurl himself toward the edge of space.

At least, that’s the plan.

If he’s calculated correctly, Earthstar 1 will run out of fuel six minutes out, about 35 miles from the Earth’s surface. The spent fuel tank will drop off and the control capsule, with Walker tucked inside, will coast to a stop.

He’ll float in space for a moment, then activate a thruster in the nose of the capsule and prepare for descent.

As he glides back toward Earth, a dozen Hooters girls will be waiting, ready to shower him with champagne. That part is in his dreams.

Walker, a bearded 44-year-old who never finished college, gets a gleam in his eye when talking about his idea of the perfect end to the space flight he’s fantasized about since watching the Apollo flights on black-and-white TV when he was 8.

He isn’t trying to break any records. Even if his homemade rocket hits its peak trajectory, it won’t make it all the way to space, which most scientists define as beginning 65 miles above the Earth.

"My No. 1 goal is that I survive," he said. "My No. 2 goal is that I actually go 35 miles."

Walker has always had a knack for inventing things, but many of his gadgets were failures, such as a two-person recreational submarine that he built in Fiji and a hard hat with a built-in ventilation system. Until about six years ago, he was broke and living with his parents.

Finally, his tinkering began to produce something profitable — toys. Royalties have been rolling in for gizmos that, not surprisingly, are space-related: lasers, a hand-held Pop It Rocket, a gyroscope in the guise of a glow-in-the-dark alien spaceship.

He made enough to buy a BMW Roadster and a nice house outside Bend.

But something was still missing.

So he set to work, putting his rocket dreams onto paper. When experts told him his plans wouldn’t work, time and time again, Walker took an eraser to the penciled blueprints. Fins on the outer skin of the rocket were removed, making it more aerodynamic. Boosters were added to the rocket’s nose to stabilize it as it makes its ascent.

"I’m not supposed to admit that I can make mistakes," Walker said. "But I do. And then I move on."

David Engeman, a 24-year-old community college student in Bend, tracked Walker down after reading about the rocket on the Internet.

Walker decided Engeman’s background with wood and metal composite work would come in handy and pays him generously to come in several days a week to help out on the "Rocket Ranch."

"Nothing is too outlandish," Engeman said of Walker’s rocket design. "Some of this technology has been around since the ’60s and ’70s."

The rocket design is simple enough that some experts say it might just work.

In Walker’s backyard "Rocket Garden" — a bed of black lava rock — sits a full scale, black-and-white mock-up of the rocket.

With a bulbous command capsule sitting atop a long fuel tank, the rocket looks like it could have come from an old Buck Rogers movie.

There’s still plenty of work to be done.

Walker is assembling by hand plastic molds that will be used to make the rocket’s capsule and the fuel tank.

He’s building a distillery behind his warehouse-like shop to refine enough hydrogen peroxide to fuel his flight.

He’s also constructing a centrifuge, which will spin him to 70 mph to acclimate him to the force of 6 Gs.

Work will soon begin on a 30-foot-long launch trailer Walker plans to tow into southeastern Oregon’s Alvord Desert — his planned blast-off site — next year.

In his office, Walker shows off video from his recent 30-minute, $11,000-ride aboard a Russian MiG.

"Not the slightest tinge of anxiety," he said of the ride. "Not a moment where I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’ "

Last year, Walker went to Russia to attend a cosmonaut training course where he experienced zero gravity in a program also attended by millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito.

"We all ended up puking," Walker said.

So far, Walker said he’s spent at least $250,000 preparing to blast himself into space.

"Corporate sponsorship would be nice," he said with a laugh.

Media attention, on the other hand, has grown tiresome. Already, Walker has made more than 240 radio appearances. Dozens of newspaper and magazine articles have been written about him.

Walker said the interviews have thrown him off schedule and forced him to postpone his launch date by a year.

And more often than not, the media has portrayed him as a lunatic with a death wish.

"I don’t care if people think I’m nuts," he said. "If I hadn’t lived this life, I’d think I was nuts, too."

Even if he can build a workable rocket, Walker will have to persuade the FAA to give him flight clearance.

Already, he’s wrangled with the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Alvord Desert, over his take-off plans.

"They can’t say you can’t launch," he said. "No one owns the rights to the sky."

Walker has been dreaming about take-off for years. The details have been on his mind, too.

Spectators — many are expected — will be kept at a safe distance, he said. Water and Porta-potties will be hauled into the desert. He said he’ll offer money to people who live nearby that might be inconvenienced by the crowds.

If anything goes wrong after blast-off, Walker thinks it will be within the first 10 seconds.

In case the capsule loses pressure, he will be wearing a pressurized, $70,000 Russian space suit. He’ll have an ejector seat and two parachutes on his back.

When he reaches his 30-mile-plus apogee, he’ll be able to see hundreds of miles in every direction. He’ll drift a little in the wind.

Once back in Earth’s atmosphere, a giant custom-made parasail will unfold from the capsule and he will float back to the desert.

That’s the plan, anyway.

"I’m attempting to dream in a world where not many people dream any more," he said. "I’m their big hero now."

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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