Alabama rocket scientists team up with Silicon Valley counterparts
Huntsville rocket scientists Tim Pickens and team are still chasing moon dreams with a $30 million prize in the offing.
Top rocket scientists from both Alabama and California are working together to make history.
The Huntsville-based Rocket City Space Pioneers has merged with Moon Express in California’s Silicon Valley. The two teams were in close competition with each other for the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award $30 million in 2015 to the first privately-funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth.
“When we merged with Moon Express in Silicon Valley, they agreed to name the lander Spirit of Alabama,” says Tim Pickens, a longtime Huntsville rocket scientist who is now working as chief propulsion engineer for Moon Express and overseeing the group’s Huntsville office.
“It remains an Alabama project; we’re just working together with Silicon Valley folks, as well.” In addition to Pickens, Moon Express has hired another Huntsville-based propulsion engineer and plans to hire local technicians and others in the coming months.
While winning the $30 million prize is certainly a goal, it is not the only focus for the growing space company. “The prize is not the centerpiece of our business model, but it is a wonderful way to get some free marketing if you win and a good way to pay back some of the investment that must be made to develop such a spacecraft,” Pickens says. “We’d love to win it, but we have to have a sustainable business model.”
Moon Express’ sustainable business model is to commercialize the intellectual property it is developing in the process of building a space vehicle and robot.
“We’re going to the moon, but our technology can do lots of other things,” Pickens says. “It could be used to raise other satellites or take low-cost missions to get debris; there are lots of possibilities.”
Because many of the components needed to build Moon Express’ robot and lander are difficult to obtain or simply don’t exist, the team is developing unique new technologies at every stage of the project. For instance, Pickens and his team are developing a device for holding propellant because nothing like it exists. In some cases, an item may exist but may be cost-prohibitive or may delay the project.
“A lot of components I need, such as a specific valve, could take nine months to a year to be delivered if I used a traditional vendor,” Pickens says. “Instead, I’ll take something similar from the automotive industry or another industry, make modifications to make it space-worthy and turn it into an aerospace product.”
Not only is this approach controlling costs for Moon Express, it is also building the company an entire arsenal of proprietary products that can be marketed to other companies or government agencies working in aerospace. Moon Express already has obtained a contract with Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center to outfit the Mighty Eagle, NASA’s robotic prototype lander, with Moon Express’ proprietary software. “That is a first for a commercial space company,” Pickens says. “We have a wonderful commercial-government relationship with Marshall.”
Currently, Moon Express is working with NASA officials at Marshall to close a Space Act agreement, a legal agreement required for certain types of cooperation with NASA, which was specified in the National Aeronautics and Space Act that established NASA in 1958.
In the future, Pickens predicts the company will be able to work with agencies like Marshall Space Flight Center and other government organizations to undertake larger missions. For instance, “there are lots of government assets, such as decommissioned missiles, and we have the ability to carry something pretty big to the moon, if it was carried on a Falcon or something,” Pickens says.
Some of the Huntsville-based companies that were originally involved with the Rocket City Space Pioneers are no longer actively engaged in producing the Spirit of Alabama, but Pickens and Moon Express remain committed to using local expertise when possible.
“Dynetics and the other local companies are still partners, and there are still opportunities to reach out to them,” Pickens says. “We still utilize some of their folks where it makes sense.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.