May 6, 2001
BEND, Ore. - Self-taught rocket scientist Brian Walker plans to shoot himself into space this fall in a $250,000 rocket he built in his back yard.
For the past two years, "Rocket Guy," as he's known locally, has been constructing Earthstar 1, the rocket he hopes will carry him to the edge of space and then bring him back to Earth alive.
"My whole mission is to show what a person can do on his own," says Walker, 44, a self-made millionaire who's invented dozens of mass-market toys for children.
A college dropout who attended just two semesters of engineering school, Walker will be staking his life on how well he has been able to teach himself rocket science.
The launch will be from a 200-foot tower in a dry lake bed in central Oregon. If all goes as planned, steam rockets and 12 Earthstar 1 motors will generate 12,000 pounds of thrust at lift-off, and in 15 seconds it should be out of sight.
For the next 85 seconds, pure hydrogen peroxide will pour out of a giant fuel tank and over a silver screen, creating a violent chemical reaction that will push the rocket upward at four times the speed of sound - about 2,200 mph.
At an altitude of about 30 miles, the fuel tank will detach and parachute back to Earth, hopefully to be used again.
Momentum will carry Walker and his capsule up to 32 miles, where he will experience several moments of weightlessness and then begin to fall back toward Earth.
During re-entry, a giant airbag will deploy to slow the descent.
Once the capsule slows, a massive parachute will open and Walker expects to drift down to the lake bed.
According to his plans, a pickup truck will be waiting to drive him to a group of bleachers where fans and 12 Hooters bar girls will pour champagne all over him.
Walker shrugs off any talk of danger.
"If I die, I die," he scoffs. "I'd rather die trying this than spend the next 40 years bitter that I never made the attempt."
The only glitch could be the Federal Aviation Administration, which has demanded that Walker produce a flight plan and details of his rocket design before it issues a permit for his launch.
"If they are not going to grant me permission to launch, I'll just take the whole thing across the border to Mexico," Walker says.