Los Angeles Times
Saturday September 11, 1999
When There Is No Place to Go but Up
One man’s love story with rocket science and the embrace of failure.
By TERRY McDERMOTT, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Shortly after nine o’clock on a Friday night in May, George Whittinghill realized he didn’t have enough three-eighths-inch cap screws. At the time, he was sitting at his kitchen table in his house in Camarillo. This is not the time or place most men choose to think about cap screws, but George Whittinghill in many ways is not like most men.
He got up from the table, got in his car and drove down to B&B Hardware, which was closing for the night. George told the night clerk he needed cap screws.
Come back in the morning, the clerk said.
But I need them now, said George.
What for? asked the clerk.
You don’t want to know what for, George said. You wouldn’t understand.
The night clerk stared.
Really, you don’t want to know, George said.
It’s hard to imagine George Whittinghill intimidating someone. He’s boyish, almost winsome, Tom Sawyer with straw-colored hair, crinkly eyes, and a self-deprecating tilt when he talks. Night clerks, on the other hand, can be hard-hearted people, the kind who would lock doors in the faces of handicapped people seeking canes.
But for mysterious reasons–who knows? Perhaps he was human, perhaps he saw something deep in George’s eyes that made him understand a man’s Friday night need for three-eighths-inch cap screws; whatever–this night clerk relented and let George in to buy his screws, which George then took back to the car, to the house, and to the kitchen table where he used them to bolt together a rocket motor. George once bolted together his rocket motors in the garage, but he missed his family and they missed him, so he moved to the kitchen.
The next morning he put the rocket motor in his Plymouth Voyager minivan, in the back next to the Toll House Cookie box that held the electronic assembly. Then he drove the whole works out to the Mojave Desert, where he was joined by mechanical engineer Al Cebriain, guidance and control specialist Joe Lichatowich, and computer programmer Brent Lytle.
This crew of specialists–think Mission Impossible team with bad wardrobe advice–spent the rest of the day attaching George’s rocket motor to oxygen lines, pressure transducers, computer leads and an Interstate car battery (sale tag attached, price: $79.95).
Except for the battery, it is what rocket crews have always done, the testing, checking, double-checking and securing that, back in moonshot days, would keep an entire nation in its grip, tension building and breath shortening with every pause by Walter Cronkite.
The Whittinghill team isn’t going to the moon. This was just a test to determine what material to use in a valve that had failed spectacularly the last time out. The long-range goal is to incorporate the new valve into Whittinghill’s 401K rocket, named for its source of financing: his retirement account.
The 401K looks nothing like a regular rocket. The 401K is, by most accounts, one of the most sophisticated rocket motor designs in the world, packing enormous power into a very small space. Its engine is a short, squat steel cylinder about the size of a small wastebasket.
It burns solid plexiglass plates as fuel. The 401K is Whittinghill’s entry in what might be thought of as a new space race, a contest not between governments of superpowers, but among a ragtag group of entrepreneurs, freelance rocket scientists and dreamers trying to reinvent rocketry and, with it, space exploration, as a business.
There are some truly nutty ideas in play, from nuclear bomb-propelled spaceships to IPO-financed gold mines in the asteroid belt. But there are reasons to pay attention, too. California has a significant history in both the business of dreams and the business of space.
In rocket country today, people put it this way: As the United States fills up, the more adventurous spirits still head West. When they arrive in California, they discover they’ve gone as far as they can get. They have no choice, they say. There is no place to go but up.
From Weapons to Tools of Science
A rocket is a pressurized vessel containing combustible fuel. When ignited, the fuel burns. As it burns, pressure increases inside the vessel. When it becomes strong enough, the pressure escapes through a valve. As it escapes, the container, acting according to Newton’s Third Law of Motion–that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction–is propelled away from the escaping gas. If the pressure, which in the case of a rocket is called thrust, escapes toward the ground, the container flies toward the sky.
The first machines to do this were invented more than a thousand years ago by the Chinese. They were simple devices: bamboo sticks stuffed with gunpowder. Aim the stick, light the fuse: Boom!
Rockets were used exclusively as weapons–and crude ones at that–until the 20th century. Around the turn of the century, a Russian schoolteacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, proposed building rockets fueled by liquid propellants, which would create greater pressures and thus greater thrust than the solid propellants then in use.
An American, Robert Goddard, independently arrived at the same conclusion and explained how such a rocket might reach extraordinary altitudes, perhaps escaping Earth’s gravity entirely. This was greeted with derision, but Goddard in 1926 built a liquid fuel rocket that actually flew. It rose to about the height of a house and landed 2 1/2 seconds later in a cabbage patch.
Thus began the Space Age.
Within a decade of Goddard’s invention, German scientists under the direction of Wernher von Braun developed liquid fuel rockets with ranges of more than 100 miles. These V-2s, their nosecones stuffed with explosives, were fired at Great Britain during the closing months of World War II.
As the war ended, Von Braun delivered himself and his scientists to the invading U.S. Army. They formed the basis of the U.S. rocket program, pioneering V-2s as transport for scientific instruments rather than explosives, then expanding their designs to build the family of Redstone rockets that launched America’s first astronauts.
The Army and Von Braun tightly controlled design and production. They were reluctant to contract out anything to private industry and, when they did, they usually went to traditional suppliers: Midwestern car makers. This continued after Von Braun’s group was transferred to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958.
The Air Force had gained autonomy from the Army in 1947. Lacking an in-house production bureaucracy, it subcontracted almost everything to private industry. So when the Air Force was assigned to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile program, it established its administrative center where its main aerospace contractors were: Los Angeles.
Several early commercial aviation pioneers–Donald Douglas, Jack Northrop, the Lockheed brothers–had previously made L.A. the Detroit of the aircraft industry. The huge industrial expansion of World War II solidified that role. At peak production in 1944, according to census data, half of all civilian employees in Los Angeles County worked for aerospace firms.
The business fell sharply after the war, but rebuilt around the new Air Force missile programs. Companies few had ever heard of–TRW, Aerojet, Rocketdyne and Litton–joined earlier regional aircraft stalwarts to make Southern California the aerospace capital of the world. By the 1970s, half of all space-related jobs in the United States were in Southern California. The post-Cold War recession crippled aerospace, but left fertile ground–not to mention infrastructure and a healthy supply of engineers–out of which a new Space Age could grow.
Space Flight Becomes a Passion
If human beings were laws of physics, George and Judith Whittinghill would be Newton’s equal and opposite action and reaction.
George came from back East, son of a cosmopolitan family of world travelers. His father held advanced degrees from the Ivy League and worked all over the world. George attended Eastern prep schools and lived abroad for various periods. It was during one of those overseas stints, in Ivory Coast in Africa, that America launched the Gemini astronauts into space. George was stricken, as helplessly in love as a schoolgirl.
Spaceflight became his life’s dream. He went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and majored in propulsion. He dreamed of settling down in a sunny subdivision in Southern California, a place where, before heading out for a day of rocket work, he could walk out for the morning newspaper, look up and down the street and see a dozen other dads doing the same thing. He wished to be rooted, he says, and California seemed the place.
Judith, meanwhile, was growing up in those very same subdivisions in and around Los Angeles, but she was hardly rooted. Her family lived in 22 houses before her mother, the family breadwinner, finally settled everybody in Irvine. Judith attended a small teachers college, studying mainly the humanities.
Degree in hand, she took a teaching job in Guam as the first waves of postwar Vietnamese refugees arrived. It was an epiphany, opening Judith’s eyes to a wider world. She went back to school to bring her and that world closer together.
So, she ended up in the summer of 1976 studying Mandarin Chinese at Harvard. On the third day of class in walked Holden Caulfield. Or so Judith thought. It was George, well-mannered, preppy, proper, diffident George, who had missed the first two days of school because he’d gotten lost in the Sahara.
They dated that summer at a cautious emotional distance. The problem, such as it was, Judith says, was that everything was almost too perfect. “Anyone could fall in love at Harvard. I wanted to be sure.”
She returned to Irvine and George followed, courtesy of Northrop Aviation, which hired him for a work-study program at its Hawthorne plant. George told Judith about his California dream, about the little subdivision and cruising Van Nuys Boulevard in a big-block Ford. It was a magical time. George remembers evenings driving south through the industrial swath of south Los Angeles to arrive in the blossoming Orange County orchards.
“Orange County at the time was a very charming place to fall in love,” George says.
Within a year, George and Judith made plans to marry. George returned to Cambridge to finish school. When Judith went back for his graduation, she and George’s mother offered to help pack his things. This was MIT, remember; George and all his friends were engineers, clever engineers. Their whole house was wired in weird ways.
Everything had purposes that their makers never envisioned. Blinds were connected to light switches; the phone could tell you if a clothes dryer in the basement was in use. Judith and George’s mother walked into this den of gadgetry and stared. After a moment’s wonderment, George’s mother turned to Judith.
“I’ll do motors,” she said. “You do power cords.”
When they finally got everything packed into George’s Mustang, the car sank to its axles under the weight. Judith was properly chagrined, George and his roommates thrilled.
Judith recalls: “His friends looked at it and said, ‘Oh great! A trip to Sears!’ ”
They bought heavy duty air shocks, jacked up the car and installed them. When that was insufficient, they finally installed the shocks upside down to make them stiffer. This worked, to a point. The car drove like a rock. It didn’t matter.
“They were as happy as could be,” Judith says.
Judith and George married that summer on Lido Peninsula and set up house in Corona del Mar. George took a job at McDonnell Douglas, Judith at the Bowers Museum.
Then George was transferred to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, where McDonnell Douglas was conducting tests on an early version of a system to identify and destroy missiles in flight. The Marshalls were at the tail end of the U.S. ICBM test range. Watching the missiles come over the eastern horizon, George says, was enchanting, “like miniature suns coming across the sky, moving very fast and very quiet.”
By then, Judith understood George’s love of space and even shared some of it, but much else remained a mystery.
“At one point, before we had children, we were living in a studio apartment. Just the two of us and, I think, we had three camshafts and at least as many carburetors there in the apartment with us. It finally occurred to me to wonder just how many camshafts does a person want to have.”
There is, of course, no easy answer to this. Judith, for one, had no need for camshafts whatsoever. George’s needs were large, perhaps infinite. At the time, he was regularly running his ’69 Mustang at the neighborhood drag strip. The apartment doubled as his spare parts warehouse. He was, noted Judith, the only drag racer wearing penny loafers.
The question about the camshafts led directly to another question that must eventually be asked by everyone in a serious relationship: Who is this person?
Judith eventually came to realize that she and the engineers were like Pygmies and Bantus, members of tribes sharing land but living in different worlds. These people liked problems, she realized, even problems they could not solve.
“Science is cruel to somebody out of the humanities, someone who knows how to define success and achieve it,” she says. “It’s cruel to put them in the sciences where you suddenly realize that the whole history of human existence has been built on failure. Scientists understand this because almost all of what they do fails.”
This didn’t become clear to Judith until years later, after they had come back from the Marshalls, after graduate school, after George worked at NASA and, finally, in 1989 came to California to work for a fledgling firm called American Rocket Co.
“I should have known better,” says Judith, “American Rocket Co.? It sounds like something out of the Road Runner.”
A Need for Better, Smaller Satellites
In rocket country, men say things like: “Those big liquids are fun.”
In rocket country, this does not mean the man enjoyed his 32-ounce Big Gulp from the corner store. In rocket country, a big liquid is a 100-foot-tall steel container filled with highly combustible materials that ignite, one hopes, only when asked to send the container skyward.
Big liquids are what made space flight possible.
The bigger something is, the bigger the rocket needed to get it into space. But the bigger the rocket, the more it costs, as much as $50 million to put a large satellite into orbit. For decades, almost everything anybody wanted to put into space was big, expensive and paid for by the government: satellites, nuclear warheads or capsules carrying people. Now, however, the old rockets are too big and too expensive.
The same technological forces that created the microcomputer and home electronics industries are revolutionizing the satellite business. What once might have weighed 10 tons is now 200 pounds. You don’t need mega-rockets like Titans or Saturn-class behemoths to put these new satellites into orbit. But there aren’t enough smaller rockets.
There are now about 2,200 satellites in Earth orbit. That is the net result of four decades of launches. In the next seven years, industry analysts see a demand for 1,200 more launches. A single company, Teledesic, wants to launch 288 satellites all by itself.
Lift capacity, as it’s called in the business, is insufficient to meet this huge demand. In part, this is because of a former congressional mandate that all U.S. government missions fly on the space shuttles. Commercial rocketry, always an improbable business because of high costs, was a dead end so long as the government, the biggest customer, wasn’t buying.
That policy ended abruptly Jan. 28, 1986, with the explosion of the Challenger shuttle. The disaster grounded the shuttle program for two years. NASA was forced to look for other means to put missions aloft and found the options limited. Out of the ashes of that disaster, the commercial space launch business was born.
This new business is two-tiered. There are old-line aerospace contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, concentrating on proven technology and using government contracts for any experimental work.
The second-tier companies are far smaller, far poorer and tend toward innovative, sometimes fanciful, design. Almost all of them are trying to develop smaller, cheaper, reusable rockets aimed specifically at the surging telecommunication satellite business. In effect, we’re living in the age of the Stanley Steamer, waiting for Henry Ford.
American Rocket Co., AMROC as it was called, was among the first and most promising of these new firms. It was formed in 1985 to develop a novel form of rocket engine, one that would combine liquid fuels and solids, such as plexiglass or plastics, in the same chamber. Hybrids theoretically would be cheaper to build and safer to operate.
Liquid rockets, whatever else they are, are large canisters filled with volatile materials. They sometimes blow up. “When they go, they go spectacularly,” Whittinghill says.
This could never happen with a hybrid. If a liquid rocket is a Molotov cocktail waiting to be ignited, a hybrid rocket is a charcoal fire waiting for someone to blow on the coals.
When Whittinghill went to work for AMROC, in a way, it was like going back to MIT. It was day after day of putting the air shocks on upside down, trying to figure out what worked. At one point Judith contracted acute pneumonia. George’s colleagues came to visit. They inquired after her health and prognosis, then sat down on the foot of her bed and argued about redesigning a rocket.
“That was a life-changing moment for me,” Judith says. “They were excited. As excited about the failure of their last test as other people might have been by success.”
Dealing With Lots of Disappointment
To read a catalog of rocket failures is to hear a droll litany of understated misery:
Vehicle terminated on launch.
Second stage failure, vehicle destroyed by range safety.
Inadvertent launch control command, vehicle terminated on pad.
Anomalous underperformance of booster.
Vehicle exploded 100 seconds after liftoff due to water line blockage.
Vehicle exploded after .75 seconds.
Stage failed to ignite, vehicle fell into Pacific.
“Ultimately, you’re building something that has to work perfectly,” says Al Cebriain, one of Whittinghill’s engineers. Often, it doesn’t. One in every seven rocket launches fails.
Just this past April, three consecutive Air Force Titan launches failed at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 billion. That’s more money than the entire capitalizations of all of the new commercial space companies.
The new space race is a search for scientific solutions, yes, but at the outset, it is a search for deep pockets. Most companies fail not because their science is bad, but because their wallets are thin.
AMROC spent millions of private investors’ dollars over 10 years and, many people thought, proved the viability of its hybrid technology. Its conclusive experimental launch was held at Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1989. More than money was at stake. This was to be the next great stage in making access to space affordable, in a sense, democratizing it. People flew in from around the world to watch.
“All systems were up, the countdown went, we hit fire,” Whittinghill says. “The motor developed only 30% of thrust. It sits there on the pad. Now we have a torrential fire under the rocket. That’s fine as long as you have thrust. We never did.
“AMROC was a $20-million company sitting there on the launch pad and it failed because of a little piece of ice on the back of a valve somewhere. It’s very frustrating,” he says. The rocket continued to burn. Eventually, “it fell over, ingloriously, on its side and lay there smoking and burning like a pile of tires.”
The scientists assumed they would come back out and do it again as soon as they could refurbish the motor. They never did. The money ran out. AMROC went under.
Whittinghill took a job in 1996 with a small software company that has almost nothing to do with rocketry. He couldn’t just stop cold, however. As Judith says, “George designs rockets like Van Gogh paints. He has no choice.”
Plus, their now 14-year-old son, Ian, was already a budding rocket scientist himself. George had to have something for Ian to work on. So he started building the 401K in his garage. It incorporates some of the same technology that AMROC used and goes beyond it. It also goes beyond a hobby. George and Judith, now in their 40s, have sunk more than $50,000 into the project, an amount that has begun to seem even larger now that George’s software job has disappeared.
Every month or so George takes the motor out to Edwards Air Force Base, where developmental tests are permitted. The test range is dotted with cracked and grassy concrete launch pads, equipped with five-ton gantry cranes, industrial-size iron skids and concrete revetments, all of it vestiges of the Space Age.
George’s little motor looks almost silly hooked up to the huge crane, but its small size is a good part of its value. “Weight is the enemy of every rocket,” he says. His won’t weigh much.
In the Space Age, this range was a busy place; the air buzzed with importance. The Space Age, or at least its glorious early decades, ended, as more and more things seem to lately, in the ignominy of boredom and bad TV ratings.
Today, the only buzz at the test range comes off the empty wind whistling through the scrub, broken by the slow, quiet murmurs of a ragtag collection of freelance rocket scientists.
Given the difficulties, it’s easy to wonder what motivates these people to keep at it. You either work for a huge, bureaucratic corporation doing less than cutting-edge science or suffer at an underfunded start-up.
“Whattya think? Why do we do this?” Al Cebriain asked, setting his beer on the table. It was the end of a long, hot day in the desert spent in slow-motion tinkering with valves and seals, testing the new valve, a long day that produced a single test-firing: a brilliant flash of blue-green light and heat. It lasted almost a second.
Cebriain laughed and motioned to the rocket men around the table. “I don’t know about everybody else, but by the time I was 10 years old, I was the fireworks dealer for my whole neighborhood. I just like to watch things blow up.”
This isn’t an isolated appreciation. Almost everybody who has spent any amount of time around rockets talks about the sheer, brute physicality of it, something approaching sensuousness.
“If you’ve ever stood next to an old piston-driven airplane or a jet engine under full power, it’s just so much energy getting released so fast. It’s very exciting, very scary, but it goes beyond that,” George says. “I feel space is man’s ultimate destiny. It’s pushing back the barrier and I want to be a part of it. It’s really out of love. I feel it passionately.”
Like Father, Like Son and Daughter
Judith Whittinghill, speaking of George, their daughter, Catherine, and son, Ian, says:
“The children have grown up the same way, willing risk-takers who keep plunging forward no matter how often they ought to stop. I have died a thousand deaths being associated with these three people.”
Judith and eighth-grader Catherine, whose risk of choice is horseback riding, are at the kitchen table talking about life among rocket men. They’ve just moved into the first house the family has ever owned. Judith has set ground rules, one being that George and Ian may not snake their power cords from room to room. Tripping was a genuine hazard in the last house.
“They’re hard people to dust around,” Judith says.
“Yeah,” says Catherine, pointing to a pile of transistors on the dining table, “the vacuum cleaner is always getting plugged with this stuff.”
The stuff causes a recurring problem at dinner time, too. In many households, people ask: “When’s dinner?” At the Whittinghill home, the question is not when but where, a reflection of how hard it can be to find horizontal surfaces not covered with rocket stuff, which Judith says arrives in a steady stream via UPS. “The man comes every other day and it’s never, ever things, things . . .”
Her voice trails off.
“. . . things we need,” volunteers Catherine.
“It’s flanges,” says Judith. “Flanges. We have many flanges.”
Then Judith smiles. It’s a satisfied smile that softens the angular lines of a long, lean face.
The Whittinghills are in fact rich in flanges. And much else as well.
Judith didn’t know this then, back when the camshafts began collecting in her little studio apartment, but whenever a camshaft breaks, George is going to replace it. He might even try to redesign it, but rest assured, he will continue to replace camshafts.
Judith didn’t know this then, but she has come to understand that to be married to a dream or a dreamer is to be wed to some extent to failure. There is always going to be a camshaft breaking, a rocket failing.
To be wed happily and with understanding to a dream or a dreamer, one must not disparage the failure, but embrace it. Judith didn’t know this then, but she has come to understand that the embrace of failure is, in its way, what love is.