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When Rocket Guy dreams

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[Photos special to the Times: Dean Guernsey]
"Right now I'm Brian Walker, the inventor. When I go up in this thing, I'm Rocket Guy, the astronaut." Walker is transforming a childhood fascination with space into a 24-foot rocket that he hopes will launch him to the edge of space.

By BILL DURYEA

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2000


A toy inventor who wants to see the world from outer space is building a ship to take him there.

BEND, Ore. -- The rocket that Brian Walker wants to ride into space stands in the Rocket Garden, an area that in any other house in his neighborhood would be known as the back yard.

Where his neighbors might locate a swing set, Walker has erected a gantry to support his 24-foot rocket. The structure rises from a bed of black lava rock cut through by gray concrete walkways, giving it the look of a Zen garden engineered by Werner von Braun.

Sometime late next summer, Walker intends to load the final version of Earthstar 1 onto a trailer and tow it to the desert of southeastern Oregon.

Brian Walker art
[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
There he will zip himself into a $70,000 Russian-made spacesuit, flip down the visor on his home-engineered helmet and seal himself into the cockpit he molded specifically to the roundish contours of his body.

Beneath him, six fuel tanks will be filled with 90 percent pure hydrogen peroxide that he distilled himself, bringing the weight of the whole craft to about 10,000 pounds. As the hydrogen peroxide passes across a silver screen, it will expand instantly by 600 percent, creating steam sufficient to power 12 motors, which in turn will create 12,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff.

For the next 85 seconds, as the rocket reaches a speed of approximately 2,200 mph, fuel will be consumed at a rate of 90 pounds per second until the tanks are spent and they separate from the capsule.

At the top of the trajectory, an altitude of roughly 30 miles, Walker will experience several seconds of weightlessness. The nose of the capsule will tip back toward Earth and he will see the world (most of Oregon, at least) curving away beneath him.

For a moment he will savor being someplace where it's okay to be alone.

* * *

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Walker does not have a death wish, but . . . "I'd rather die now trying something like this than spend the next 40 years bitter that I never made the attempt." He designed the logo on his helmet that shows a rocket flying over a star.

About 300 astronauts have seen the Earth from the other side of the atmosphere. None of them have done it riding a vehicle built by a college dropout in a glorified garage with a plan no more technical than a few sketches on an artist's pad.

"When I was 6 years old, the idea of space just grabbed me," Walker says. "By 8 or 9, I figured, you know, I'm not going to be an astronaut. They're all military officers with thousands of hours of flying time."

But he never shook his desire to explore space.

It would seem a fool's errand, or perhaps a Barnum-sized publicity stunt. And yet every day, another weld is torched, another fiberglass layer is slapped down, and a childhood fancy grows into an adult's obsession.

Illogical and suicidal as it might seem to citizens of the workaday world, building this rocket is nevertheless the full-time occupation of a middle-aged man who has shunned an office cubicle for the uncharted territory of the inventor's life.

Which all sounds very romantic until you hear about the depression, the poverty and the years of monkish solitude.

And yet, Walker would change almost nothing. Because after more than 20 years of doing it his way, he has finally earned enough money to take his biggest gamble ever. Well, he might change one thing.

A Rocket Girl would be nice.

* * *

rocket artWalker has wavy brown hair that he is trying desperately to preserve with a full-out Rogaine treatment.

"I think it's working," he says, showing a visitor the top of his head. "This used to be completely bald."

He has a trim beard, the trim legs of a weekend hiker and, at 44, the gut of a career bachelor who survives on microbrews and macroburgers. But if he didn't take all his meals at the restaurants of this town in central Oregon, Walker might never see anybody at all.

"Sometimes I go for days without leaving my house. I can go days without uttering a word. When I'm fully creative, I'm almost non-communicative in a human way."

On such days, he is likely to spend the bulk of his time in the cavernous workshop he built when he bought his home three years ago. His house has an elegant rustic exterior, but the inside is no more a reflection of Walker's personality than the showroom from which the leather furniture suite was plucked.

Like the house, the workshop is the reward of his recently achieved success as a toy designer, a career that provides him royalties of several hundred thousand dollars a year. The workshop floor is thick with arc welders, plasma torches and table saws, but it is the walls, festooned with mementos of Walker's many inventions, that make the workshop a 3,500-square-foot diorama of the inside of his head.

Over one door is the prototype of a foldable stretcher that he designed for the military. Next to it are enlarged color photographs of him launching the two-person submarine he built. They commemorate two of his biggest failures, but Walker treats them like trophies.

"The one thing I've done more of in my life than anything is fail. I wrote the book on failure until I was 35."

He is not being immodest.

Aside from winning a science fair award in fifth grade for building a laser, school was a torment.

"I was a lousy student. I barely made it through." He suffered from dyslexia, but no one diagnosed it then. Nor did anyone identify that he had attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. He didn't know about that until a couple of years ago.

His older brother was borderline perfect: grades, sports, student council.

Brian liked to blow up stuff.

No little animals, no school buildings, but not exactly a school-sanctioned extracurricular activity either.

"He was very enjoyable, very interesting as a child," says his 70-year-old mother, Pat Walker. "Always with a new idea."

"He never gave us any trouble," says his father, Jim, a clock and furniture salesman.

"Well, the law never got involved," Mrs. Walker says. "Remember when the people next door wanted to take out a fire insurance policy on our house? They were sure Brian was going to burn it down."

Walker barely lasted two semesters at engineering school, learning just enough drafting to keep from being totally unemployable.

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Walker did not graduate from college with an engineering degree. He did not graduate from college. But his uncanny mechanical aptitude enabled him to design and construct a variety of inventions, including a two-person submarine and a personal hovercraft. Here he welds a metal support for a mold of the cockpit of his rocket.
"I've probably had 30 jobs in my life. The shortest lasted an hour and the longest was probably two years. . . . I'm not built to be a spoke in a wheel. I want to be the whole wheel -- the rim, the spokes, the hub and the nut."

He was the wheel, all right. The wheel of misfortune.

Time after time he would invent something and watch it collect dust on his shelf. Working prototypes of ideas large and small languished unsold.

Snippity Clips, the portable scissors that fit in your pocket? Zippity doo-dah.

The device that squeezed juice out of tuna cans? Apparently not a problem consumers were desperate to solve.

The military stretcher that folded to the size of a woman's purse? A casualty of product development. Army officials admired the way it performed in the field, but they wouldn't requisition the stretcher without proof Walker could mass produce it, and no investor would finance production without a signed government contract.

What woman wouldn't want the Stun Glove, 50,000 volts of protection at the tip of her fingers? Most, it seems.

But Walker's turning-point failure had to be the two-person submarine.

He built it in Fiji, of all places, lured there by the millionaire owner of the exclusive Turtle Island resort. Walker was something of a novelty on the island, being the only working inventor as well as the only single person at a couples-only resort.

The sub worked amazingly well for something built without a Home Depot within 10,000 miles. There were, however, some problems.

"The third and last time I went out in it, it refused to surface," Walker says, adding that the submarine cockpit leaked a little bit. "I had to sit in it for four hours to wait for the tide to drop so I could open the bubble."

It wasn't long after the Fiji debacle that Walker was back in Portland, Ore., living with his parents. Again.

"I was very depressed. I had Dr. Kevorkian's number on speed dial.

"I didn't have a car. I didn't have a job. I didn't have any money. I had just about given up on inventing things. I didn't think I could take another failure like that."

His friends, all of whom had chosen cubicles over uncertainty, lost track of him. "He wasn't successful, so he didn't stay in contact," says Barry Blanchard, who grew up with Walker in the suburbs of Portland.

Some time had to pass before Walker could put the string of failures in perspective.

"It wasn't because I was a loser. It wasn't because I was lazy or stupid. I was just taking such massive risks that when they failed they failed really big."

He decided to get small.

* * *

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Toys that Walker designed are funding his rocket project. He favors toys with "wonder value." He put a tornado into the top of the pen at left. He puts lasers and gyroscopes into just about anything, including Star Trek-like phasers and spaceships.
In 1994, Walker moved to Bend, a picturesque town of about 45,000 people that was founded during the logging boom of the late 1800s. Exchanging the cool damp of Portland for the sunny dry air of Bend did him good.

He turned his inventiveness to making toys and discovered an industry that had a seemingly insatiable appetite for his idea of fun.

Walker made whimsical toys, like the pen with a swirling tornado where the eraser would be. ("They're going to put cows and cars in there, too.") He made an air-driven gyroscope, a do-it-yourself laser light show and something called the Celestial Seeker, a hand-held, illuminated map of the nighttime sky.

All told, he licensed 18 toys from the hundreds of prototypes he designed, and soon the royalty checks began edging out the bills in his mailbox. His income doubled a couple of years in a row. He bought the house (his first) for $310,000 and put $150,000 more into the workshop. Last year he gave himself a bright red BMW Z3 Roadster (license plate: RCT GUY), a $38,000 attaboy from the boss to his favorite employee.

By the standards of modern America, Brian Walker was finally a success.

There was something missing, though, something his brother had that he did not."He's got two kids, and that's better than having money," Walker says.

Twenty-five years of uncompromising individuality have made him very wealthy and very single.

If it's possible, Walker has had worse luck in his love life than he did with his inventions. His last serious girlfriend, an airline flight attendant, died suddenly while he was traveling in China.

The girlfriend before developed skin cancer. She lived.

"I don't deal well with relationships," he says, prying the cap off a bottle of beer with a pair of needle-nose pliers.

Having a load of disposable income hasn't brought him any closer to the friends he lost touch with when he was poor. None of his married friends have the money or time to take a spur of the moment trip to, say, China.

"If I didn't have something to keep me busy, I'd realize how alone I am."

Depending on how you look at it, Walker's rocket is either the greatest personal ad of all time or a dramatic way to avoid emotional commitment.

Not long ago, he thought he had found a kindred spirit. She was in the toy industry, too, and she wanted to start a toy company with Walker. More appealing, she seemed to like him and his rocket.

"I don't want an ordinary guy," she told him. "I want a guy with a rocket."

Turns out she wanted her own toy company more. They broke up.

"I don't know why I can't find anybody," he says. "I'm a decent guy. I don't have a criminal record. I don't have any sexually transmitted diseases. I'm a little eccentric, it's true, but I don't have any baggage."

Not unless you count a 10,000-pound rocket.

* * *

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The Rocket Garden is the centerpiece of the Walker Rocket Compound, soon to be renamed the Walker Rocket Ranch. ("It sounds less militaristic.") The garden features a full-size model of Earthstar 1 and a centrifuge for Walker to become accustomed to the sensation of multiple G-forces.

The rocket standing in the Rocket Garden is a smartly painted, full-size model of the one Walker intends to launch next summer. He is using it to make the molds that will later produce several test rockets.

Recently, Walker was working on the mold for the plug of the capsule, the rear end of the cockpit in which the seat will nestle. This entailed mucking around for hours with epoxy-soaked fiberglass. The fumes were enough to make any but the most ardent glue-sniffer run for fresh air, but Walker didn't mind.

"I fried that part of my brain years ago."

While Walker constructs the capsule, the 12 rocket motors are on order from a company in Milton, near Pensacola. A company in Orlando is sewing the huge parasail so that Walker can glide back to the desert floor. In Mexico, a man Walker met on the Internet is building a still that Walker will use to purify the hydrogen peroxide in his back yard. All told, the materials for the rocket will cost between $200,000 and $300,000.

(In June, Walker paid $15,000 to tour the cosmonaut facility in Star City, Russia. For his fee, Walker was given a ride on the Vomit Comet, a plane that simulates weightlessness by making high-speed dives. He also was whipped around in a centrifuge until he felt the pressure of six G-forces. "I wanted to go to seven, but they were afraid my eye would come out my ear.")

Walker is an insomniac and accomplishes a lot early in the morning. This enables him to get much of the day's work done before the calls from the media start.

Though the German media treat him respectfully (perhaps because he is using technology that Germany used for its V-1 and V-2 rockets in World War II), Walker gets less deference from the many radio shows that try to portray him as the kook of the day. But he still doesn't turn down many interview requests.

"I never know when some big company is going to call and say, "What's it going to cost to put our logo on the side of your rocket?' "

Walker thinks a sponsorship makes great corporate sense. His story is inspiring people all over the world. In July alone his Web site, http://www.rocketguy.com, had 477,000 hits. Walker recognizes, though, that Nike might be hesitant to put its swoosh on anything until after he steps out of the cockpit alive.

"There's some people who are getting inspired by what I'm doing. They're not getting it from Tiger Woods, but they're getting it from Rocket Guy."

The e-mails he gets indicate most people are less concerned with the quality of his engineering than they are with the size of his ambition. Most of the postings are from men like Joey:

"Good luck, mate. Everyone here at the 76 Squadron, Williamstown Air Force Base in Australia, thinks you must have (unprintable slang) the size of bowling balls. Personally, I like your style. Ignore the safety nazis and the fun police. This is exactly the sort of thing people used to do and in the process built your country and mine."

One Saturday in late August, shortly after midnight, a little e-poetry arrived from a woman in Minnesota.

'Recently I took a weekend drive with my mother and as we were coming home from South Dakota to Minneapolis, the sun was setting and the moon was rising,' began the note from a woman named Tammy.

"I was in awe of both. The sky was so clear in front of me with the paper moon seemingly in reach. I commented to my mother about how wonderful it would be to soar to the moon. (My mother) balked at the idea and told me to start dreaming more realistically."

(Reading the e-mail, Walker snorts out loud. "Dreaming realistically. Can you believe her mother said that?")

Tammy went on to write that she had heard Walker interviewed on a local radio station. "I could hardly wait to get home after work to e-mail you."

("I wish some of these women would send pictures," Walker says. "I'd like to ask, but I know it sounds so shallow.")

Then Tammy got to the point:

"I know that the time, effort and excitement belong to you alone with your endeavor; however, I do realize that it never hurts to ask: Have you ever considered a passenger to share the excitement with?"

Walker sent her a response right away. Polite, but blunt.

He told her no.

"First, it's a one-person rocket and I don't want to put somebody else at risk," he says. "Anyway, it's my dream. If somebody else came along, then it would be us, not just me."

* * *

Rocket Guy drives like you would expect someone contemplating a 2,200 mph ride to space to drive -- he speeds.

He does wear a seat belt. But sometimes he forgets until the car is well into second gear. "I think everyone should wear seat belts, but I hate that there's a law."

rocket artThat brings up the subject of risk.

His parents talk about it.

"I always hoped it would pass," Mrs. Walker says. "I decided I'd have to quit complaining and get with the program. But the thought of watching him take off is more than I can stand sometimes."

His friends talk about it.

"You do things, you take chances and sometimes the odds come up wrong," says Blanchard, his childhood friend who created the Rocket Guy Web site. "The thing that makes Rocket Guy's flight interesting is that the odds are completely unknown and definitely not one in a thousand or a million that something might happen."

Strangers e-mail him about it.

"If you fry up and plummet to your death, I hope that your guts (SPLAT) electrify the nation . . . to make sure your vision didn't get squished with you."

Walker is not afraid to talk about it.

"I know I'm going to die at some point. . . . But I'm not a fatalist. I don't have a death wish. I have a very strong faith in God. I happen to believe the next life is better than this one. But I'm not in any hurry to get there.

"I have to accept that part of my creativity is there's a risk involved."

He plans to install an ejection seat, just in case.

* * *

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Click for larger chart

When people hear about Rocket Guy's plan, they invariably ask one or both of the following questions: "Is he really going to do it?" and "Is he allowed to do that?"

The questions suggest that Walker is crazy if he goes through with it and that some sensible government agency should step in to save him from himself. The questions say more about our tolerance for risk than they do about Walker's sanity.

Lots of people get hung up on the fence between a great idea and the execution of it. That's why anyone who actually follows through with a dream amazes us. We know that anything ambitious is bound to cost us something valuable -- money, comfort, love. Maybe all three. So most of us roll over, punch the pillow and hope the government figures out the Social Security mess before we retire.

Following through has never been Walker's problem. Marketing, maybe. Learning when to cut his losses, maybe. But he's never lacked ideas and the gumption to make them real. Faced with the costs of failure, he has chosen rockets over love every time.

If we accept that about Rocket Guy, that he is wired differently from the rest of us, it becomes a whole lot harder to dismiss what he has in mind after the first flight.

"I want to attract some serious investors, build my own launch facility and start sending people up for three-hour orbits of the Earth."

There's hope for Tammy yet.

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