Rocket Men

Two starry-eyed entrepreneurs shoot for the moon -- or at least for suborbital space

The way Harry Dace figures it, NASA engineer Jim Akkerman is the best mechanic in the world. For Dace's sake -- and for the sake of Dace's fledgling Civilian Astronaut Corps -- Akkerman had better be.

Next year, on the Fourth of July, Dace and Akkerman hope to blast six civilians into suborbital space. As holiday revelers watch from a Galveston beach, the pair predicts, the titanium rocket Akkerman designed will lift off from the Gulf of Mexico and make a 15-minute journey from sea level to 70 miles above the earth's surface. Then the rocket will glide back to Earth, landing in the ocean near Galveston's sea wall.

Then, within two weeks, Dace and Akkerman plan to repeat the launch. And after that, they hope to begin booking suborbital flights to other continents -- flights so fast they make the Concorde look poky.

"We are going to rewrite one of the most important phases of the aerospace business," says the immodest Dace, who plans to be onboard the first manned test flight of the vehicle. "We are on the cutting edge, and everybody else is going to be copying us."

If they can carry off their scheme, they might indeed revolutionize the flight industry, and win a $10 million prize in the process. And -- oh yeah -- Dace and Akkerman might get very, very rich.

Of course, they might also never leave the ground.
But that's a possibility that Dace refuses to acknowledge. "Like Napoleon said: If you say you're going to Vienna, by God, you better go to Vienna."

As Harry Dace walks, his head and shoulders precede his tall, thin body, and he unconsciously motions for the person trailing him to pick up the pace. "In a modest way, I've done all right for myself," he says, looking around the Brazoria County factory where he manufactures air-conditioning ductwork. "But three years ago, just before my 40th birthday, I decided I wanted to do something."

He made a list of people he'd like to work with, and at the top of that list was his boyhood hero, Jim Akkerman. As a 13-year-old growing up in Pearland, Dace was fascinated by go-carts. In a racing magazine, he learned that he lived near one of the best go-cart builders and race drivers in the country: Akkerman, an engineer at Johnson Space Center, held straightaway, drag-strip-style track speed records at places like Indianapolis Raceway Park. Dace was dying to meet him.

It turned out that Dace's father, who owned an air-conditioning installation business, had gotten to know Akkerman while installing the then-new Johnson Space Center's air-conditioning system. Dace's dad called Akkerman, who said for young Harry to come on over. Which he did.

For Akkerman, go-carts offered a chance to show off both his engineering prowess and his daredeviltry. "In big-car racing," he explains, "you're sort of racing cubic dollars. If you've got enough money, you can win. But in go-cart racing, you're racing ingenuity and careful preparation -- the kind of things that an ordinary guy could enjoy and do. And, if he did it well, he could win."

Akkerman belonged to a go-cart team, along with his dad and a couple of other guys from NASA. In an old red Pontiac station wagon, they traveled the country from race to race. And at home, Akkerman worked to make his go-carts the fastest.

The engineer's house was a go-cart geek's wet dream. There, he built his own engines out of solid blocks of aluminum and machined his own crankshafts. He had engines with three carburetors. He had rotary valves. He had reed valves. Dace was awed.

According to Dace, Akkerman asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Dace, in a fit of hero worship, gushed that he wanted to be a rocket engineer, just like Akkerman.

It was a bad idea, Akkerman replied. There were already people who knew how to build rockets. What the boy needed to do was to learn to make money. If he could do that -- if he could learn to run a business -- then one day, they could build a rocket together.

Akkerman doesn't remember the conversation, but it stayed with Dace. He remembered it almost 30 years later, in May 1995, long after both men had lost interest in go-carts. Midlife crisis raging, Dace called Akkerman. And once again, Akkerman told him to come on over. Which he did.

Dace had picked a good time to approach Akkerman about embarking on something new. After more than three decades with NASA, the engineer had grown disillusioned with the government's space program -- a program he'd once approached with the same zeal he unleashed on his go-carts.

In 1962, just a year out of UT-Austin, Akkerman had gone to work on NASA's propulsion team, creating a launch system that would send Apollo crews to the moon. Over the years, Akkerman developed a reputation as a problem-solver -- and as someone who couldn't take no for an answer.

"He is very good at ferreting things out," says Guy Thibodeaux, the former head of the propulsion division. "But sometimes Jim is a little naive about reality."

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