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To Boldly Go, Someday

Toy inventor Brian Walker is still tinkering on his dream: to take his homemade rocket for a spin in the stratosphere

June 30, 2002|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEND, Ore. — Rocket Guy is way behind schedule.

If things had worked out as planned, he'd already be the first person to single-handedly launch himself into the stratosphere. He'd be making the talk-show rounds, telling audiences about how this slightly wacky toy inventor took a childhood dream and made it a reality. He'd be bragging about how he boosted himself 30 miles straight up in a rocket he made in his home workshop.

Or, perhaps he might be dead. Rocketry, after all, is fraught with peril.

But being behind schedule doesn't seem to bother Brian Walker, a.k.a. Rocket Guy, because what's the rush? Just saying he's planning to blast off has made him something of a cult figure and talk-show regular anyway.

He's appeared on "I've Got a Secret" and "To Tell the Truth." His Web site counter has chalked up more than 14 million hits in the last two years. He's even picked an appropriate theme song: Kirby Swatosh's "Spaceship." The opening line is "I'm building a spaceship in my backyard." Walker has dubbed that backyard the "rocket garden."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 210 words Type of Material: Correction
Rocket fuel--A story about an Oregon man building his own rocket in Sunday's Southern California Living incorrectly implied that purified hydrogen peroxide was the key propellant used to send German V2 rockets toward Britain during World War II. Hydrogen peroxide powered the turbines within the V2 rocket, which was fueled primarily by an ethyl alcohol mixture and liquid oxygen.

All this without having yet built the rocket that will take him into space. In fairness, the 45-year-old Rocket Guy has been slowed by all the media attention. And he's been very distracted of late, given the fact that his bride-to-be--the one he found on the Internet--is due to arrive from Moscow late next month.

Until then, he'll work on the launch details. When it's completed he'll tow his 24-foot rocket to the launch site--wherever that ends up being--with a Mercedes sport utility vehicle. He's built a sizable geodesic dome where he will assemble the big one that will carry him into space. When he builds it, and he swears he's going to, the rocket will have a main engine with 12,000 pounds of thrust and weigh about 10,000 pounds when fully fueled and manned. Another outbuilding on his central Oregon compound contains an all-but-complete half-scale test rocket as well as a spacious office. Another still holds the equipment he will use to purify his rocket fuel. That will be hydrogen peroxide. As in the stuff used to sterilize cuts. But in purified form it is a powerful propellant that was used to send German V2 rockets toward Britain during World War II. It will also burst into flames if it touches anything organic.

Burned Through $350,000

This has not been a cheap undertaking, though chump change compared to the $20-odd million paid by American Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth for their space rides with the Russians. Walker figures he's burned through $350,000 during the last two years without so much as a test rocket leaving the Earth.

He's been to Russia for cosmonaut training and purchased a spacesuit from them for a bargain-basement $15,000. (He couldn't even get American manufacturers to talk to him.) He's built a centrifuge, powered by a small airplane engine, in his backyard so he can experience the G-force of a space launch. He's spent months welding, soldering and building molds and learning about rocketry on the fly. And he has lovingly built the test rocket, down to the engine that will theoretically power him to an altitude of 15,000 feet. From there, he will skydive back to Earth. If all goes well, that is.

"I'm building a dream," says a somewhat beefy, bearded Walker. "And that's what made this country great."

All of this would not be possible, of course, without the toys. Walker has invented dozens of toys over the years--things like air-powered bazookas and laser gizmos and things that whirl around and glow in the dark. The royalties from the toy sales have provided a nice financial cushion--in the million-plus range--that allows Walker to pursue the rocket dreams he's had since he was a boy growing up in Portland.

But life was not always so kind to Rocket Guy, a dyslexic with attention deficit disorder who squeaked his way through high school and dropped out of college. A series of dead-end jobs followed, even as he pursued his dream of being an inventor.

Early creations included a hovercraft, its only flaw being that it was hard to turn. There was the collapsible stretcher that evoked virtually no interest from its logical buyer, the military. And then there was the year and a half he spent on a remote Fijian island building a recreational two-person submarine. The only problem with that was that once submerged, it tended not to surface. With that kind of track record, Walker's inventive future looked bleak, indeed.

"My failures were so great, I had to move back in with my folks and start all over again," he says over dinner at a local eatery. "People looked at me as someone who couldn't make it."

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