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SpaceShipOne engineer to speak

By Seth Burkett
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2355

Timothy Pickens of Huntsville worked on the engine for SpaceShipOne, the privately funded vessel that launched through the atmosphere and into history during the first manned commercial space flight.

Pickens will tell behind-the-scenes stories from the project Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Huntsville/Madison County Library at 915 Monroe St.

The Huntsville Alabama L5 Society, with which Pickens has ties, arranged the lecture.

"It'll be diving into certain aspects of what I was working on and what it's like to work on an aggressive space program — a commercial, privately funded space program — for three years. It will be showcasing some of the videos as well as some of the technical particulars," Pickens said Tuesday.

Pickens led the team that engineered the propulsion system for the spaceship built by investor Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites, an aerospace company based in California.

"Burt (Rutan, chief executive officer of Scaled Composites) always said, 'If you're doing true research, 50 percent of the people won't believe it will work. That's how you know you're doing true research,' " Pickens said with a chuckle. "I kind of came and went on it. I was like 'What are we doing? And we're going to do it how quick?' "

The Scaled Composites team won the privately funded $10 million Ansari X-Prize when SpaceShipOne completed two trips into space within one week.

He said the feeling, upon succeeding at sending SpaceShipOne to a sub-orbital altitude of 398,491 feet above the Mojave desert in June 2004, was indescribable.

But Pickens is modest about the accomplishment.

"I was one of the guys, but there were a lot of smart guys supporting that effort in the desert. You can't lead an effort if you don't have the right team," he said.

Pickens is founder and CEO of his own company, Orion Propulsion Inc. in Madison.

Ron Lajoie, an officer of the local chapter of the space society and one of the event's organizers, said Pickens, who does not have an engineering degree, got his start working on high-altitude launches from balloons.

"One thing that Tim has proven is the value of having a passion for a type of activity and how that can lead to status that, even at times, a classical education can't," Lajoie said.

But Pickens said a business suit fits him better than the lab coat.

"I'm an ideas guy, kind of good at coming up with a lot of neat things, and we've got some good engineers who pick up the slack for me," he laughed.

For more information, call Lajoie at 509-3833. Admission is free.

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