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Rocket Men

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."

Akkerman helped produce a 1979 NASA study that advocated building a satellite to harvest solar energy, a clean, renewable source of power. But Congress looked only at the high price tag -- $69 billion in start-up costs -- and promptly nixed the idea. Akkerman was heartbroken.

A devout Baptist, he sees that loss through the lens of his faith. "In the Bible, it talks about the Millennium, when the good guys call the shots," he says. "Well, solar energy is going to be the key. That will be the engine of the whole thing: low-cost energy."

Over Akkerman's years at NASA, other disappointments followed. He led a team that studied converting the space shuttles' rocket boosters from solid fuel to liquid. The team recommended the conversion; ten years later, the shuttle still runs on solid fuel.

Currently, he's helping design the X-38, an emergency escape vehicle for the proposed International Space Station. He complains that most of the work is being done by team members he refers to as "kids," while he's relegated to "nitpicky stuff." He did convince the "kids" to accept his magnetized docking system, rather than a less reliable bolt system, or a less safe pyrotechnic release. But still, the vehicle doesn't please him: In particular, he's worried about its parachute system, which failed in one test flight.

Private industry, he hopes, will be more satisfying. In 1989, Akkerman, along with other NASA engineers, helped Dr. Michael DeBakey develop an artificial heart. Known as the axial flow pump, the little device could be tried on a human as early as next year. Smaller than most artificial hearts -- no larger than two double-A batteries -- the pump could fit inside the chest of a small woman or child and would be powerful enough to circulate five liters of blood per minute.

After that project, Akkerman longed to throw himself into another project he could do the right way -- his way. And what NASA wouldn't let him do, Harry Dace just might.

The men spent a couple of months getting reacquainted, going through Akkerman's files. In them, Dace was sure, lay buried a world-changing idea that the two of them could work on.

In July 1995, sitting at Akkerman's kitchen table, they discussed building a new air-conditioning evaporator system. But Dace, already in the air-conditioning business, said he wasn't excited by the idea, and he didn't think it excited Akkerman either.

Akkerman replied that Dace was right. There was only one thing in the world that he really wanted to do. He got up, pulled a box from a shelf, and gently placed it on the table. From the box, he removed three pieces of a model rocket.

"If you can put together a company that can build these," he told Dace, "I'll guarantee you these are the best rockets that have ever been designed."

Dace and Akkerman were in business. The Civilian Astronaut Corps was born.

Actually, Dace and Akkerman didn't stick with that model, but switched to another of Akkerman's designs. The most startling feature of the Mayflower II, as CAC will call its rocket, is its launch pad: the ocean. Towed to a spot about 30 miles offshore, Akkerman explains, the rocket will bob upright in the ocean, just as a Coke bottle would.

Akkerman happily reels off the details that make his engineer's heart dance. The construction will actually be overseen by his own company, Advent Launch Services. The Mayflower II, he says, will be 70 feet long and weigh 15,000 pounds. It'll have a titanium structure with two 10,000-gallon-capacity fuel tanks: one for liquid natural gas, one for liquid oxygen. A cockpit will perch at the top of the rocket; directly below it will be a detachable passenger module 15 feet long and six feet in diameter. At the bottom of the rocket will be eight TRW engines, each capable of producing 5,000 pounds of thrust.

After the rocket's pressure-fed, underwater engine is started, its exhaust will create a large underwater bubble. After the rocket blasts off, the rising bubble will cause a wave large enough to make trouble for any small vessels nearby. "If there are any boats fishing," Akkerman laughs, "they're going to be in for a real ride."  

Dace prefers to describe the adventure of the ride, rather than the nuts and bolts of the machine. He says that the Mayflower's test flights out of the Gulf of Mexico will last about 15 minutes. As the vehicle approaches and descends from the peak of its journey, passengers will experience about four minutes of weightlessness. Clad in g-suits, they'll be free to unstrap themselves from their hammock-like seats, and can float around the cabin for roughly four minutes. "But when the pilot says to get back in your seat," says Dace, "you'd better get back in your seat."

That pilot will be Vaughn Cordle, a 42-year-old who's flown 767s for United Airlines for the past 13 years. Cordle, who claims 44 jet-stream-enhanced flight records, became involved in the project after a friend signed up for the inaugural flight.

On the phone from Atlanta, Cordle speaks in the monotone of all airline pilots -- the style that author Tom Wolfe claimed was copied from Chuck Yeager, who first broke the sound barrier 50 years ago. It's a monotone that makes anything, even flying a rocket, sound like no big deal.

"When it comes back into the atmosphere," says Cordle, "it's going to be traveling pretty fast, about 3,500 miles per hour. So around 30,000 feet, that's when I'll start bringing the nose back a little bit. I'll just ease it back, slow it down, and put it in the water. It won't be gentle; it'll be kind of a rough ride. But the landing and the gliding in, to me, are going to be a very safe operation. I don't take risks. I stay inside the envelope."

At Harry Dace's air-conditioning ductwork plant, pinned to a wall of his office, there's a large map of the world -- and of the future as he sees it. Magic-markered lines connect various cities, and above each line is written the time it would take to make a suborbital flight from one point to the other: 35 minutes from Los Angeles to Sydney; ten minutes from Boston to Ireland.

"You want to play the numbers game?" asks Dace. "Okay. Let's play the numbers game."

Take the Los Angeles-to-Sydney route, says Dace. If his rocket has room for six passengers, and he charges each passenger $5,000, and he makes three trips a day, 200 days a year, he'll gross a cool $180 million a year just on that route.

Of course, those projections focus on the future. Right now, Dace and Akkerman are playing a different, grimmer numbers game. Dace figures that it'll take $10 million to begin construction of the Mayflower II, and it's $10 million that he and Akkerman don't have.

To generate seed money, they've turned to would-be space travelers. Federal regulations prohibit charging for rides on experimental vehicles, so Dace doesn't come right out and say that he's charging $3,500 for a rocket ride. Instead, he says he's selling "memberships" in his Civilian Astronauts Corps. According to Dace, CAC members will actually own the rocket, but will agree to sell it back to Dace and Akkerman after the ride. That way, if the thing crashes, "their wives and kids can't come back and sue us." Of course, he hastens to add, he's not expecting anything of the sort.

Dace figures he needs to sign up 2,000 customers by this summer for work to begin. So far, he's had 20 takers.

One of them is 21-year-old Toney Hermes, an employee of Fox Sports Southwest. Hermes, a self-described thrill junkie, stumbled across the project's web page, and over his girlfriend's objections, made a reservation on CAC's first flight. That one, he says, is the one that'll get all the attention. The one that'll make history.

And, maybe, the one that'll win Dace and Akkerman the $10 million. Two years ago, a group of St. Louis businessmen established the X Prize Foundation, which offers that prize money to the first private team that flies two passengers to the suborbital height of 62 miles above the Earth -- and then does it again within two weeks. The foundation hopes to kindle the spirit of competition that propelled Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic; so far, 16 would-be space enterprises have entered the competition. X Prize officials say that all have a shot at winning.

But, so far, the pack of contenders doesn't particularly impress the space powers-that-be. "We think space should be open to commercial opportunities," says NASA spokesman Brian Welch. "And we're doing everything we can to make that happen. But what we've found over the years is that flying in space is difficult and costly and dangerous."

Other space-industry observers offer Dace and Akkerman even less encouragement. Two weeks ago, NASA and the Space Transportation Association, a private group that claims to represent companies hoping to develop commercial space travel, issued a report predicting that the first private-sector trips into space will likely charge at least $100,000 per passenger. The report made no mention of the Civilian Air Corps' plan -- at $3,500 per person, an astounding bargain.  

"I don't want to knock them," says STA spokesman Eric Stallmer, "because maybe they've got an idea that no one else knows about. But if it was easy to build a vehicle for that price, everyone would be doing it. The idea sounds a little hokey."

Still, Gregg E. Maryniak, chief operations officer of the X Prize Foundation, disagrees with those who doubt the Civilian Air Corps, and invokes the foundation's favorite historical hero. "Lindbergh had completely different technology from all the other teams," says Maryniak. "He had a very lean approach. One pilot, single engine, relatively light aircraft. And because he had such a simple approach, he won. But he was definitely the dark horse at the time."

Such debate means little to Jim Akkerman, who harbors no doubts at all about his approach; he only wonders whether Harry Dace can raise the money to build the Mayflower.

Akkerman's mind is already on other projects, such as privately launched satellites capable of harvesting his beloved solar energy, and a rocket even more ambitious than the Mayflower. "A suborbital ride is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "The real kick in the ass is going to be orbital flight. Spend two or three hours circling the earth -- now that will be a ride.


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