First Day of Winter
When Bob Met Susan
by Jim Davidson
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
"I had crossed the line. I was free; but there
was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a
— Harriet Tubman
Bob Nolan met Susan Wilson at a bar in Flint, Michigan in November 1984. Bob was finishing his engineering degree and getting ready to go to work in the aerospace industry. Susan wasn't seeing anyone, and Bob was polite, friendly, and good looking. It was a Saturday night, there was good music for dancing and they really hit it off.
In May 1985, Bob graduated and in June they got married. Later that Summer, Bob had a job offer in Houston and they moved. Neither one of them was enthusiastic about Flint, which was never a welcoming place for liberty enthusiasts. The Houston area, though, was really great.
For one thing, the weather was warmer, with the very occasional snow or ice storm messing up traffic for a few hours, and melting soon after. Also, there were a great many space enthusiasts in the Houston area, which Bob enjoyed. There were conferences and speaker meetings, there was a significant L5 Society chapter which had hosted the 1982 space development conference, and there was a Lunar and Planetary Institute with lots of scientists and engineers working on all kinds of projects.
In December 1988 there was a conference in Atlanta, Georgia for Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). It would soon have more chapters and there was a great deal of renewed interest in developing space settlements. Reagan had ditched the idea of a base on the Moon in his 1984 state of the union address, but there was an External Tanks Company looking at retrofitting space shuttle external tanks, there was a company talking about hotels orbiting in space today, there was Space Industries with Joe Allen and Max Faget talking about a long-term platform with man-tended capability for really effective microgravity research. And since 1982 there had been a little company called Space Services which had proven they could launch Conestoga rockets from a private space facility they built on Matagorda Island on the Texas coast.
That conference is how Bob happened to meet Tyrone Johnson. Tyrone was working for Space Services and was secretary of the Houston chapter of L5. Tyrone had bought a new car, so naturally they car pooled to Atlanta to meet one of the founders of SEDS and talk about starting a new launch services project. That was interesting, because Space Services had won a contract to launch one, and possibly more later, commercial payload for a commercial space development centre at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. These would be suborbital flights from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
It was an epic road trip with three other members of L5 Houston in the car. The car was a 1987 Honda Civic station wagon, so there was plenty of room for their gear. It was a long trip, so there was also adequate time for animosity to develop and dissipate, for insults to be traded, and for everyone to be delighted to arrive at the convention hotel in Atlanta.
At one point Bob suggested that Tyrone was not getting along well with Steve because they had different beards, which Bob said looked like some advanced antennae he had been working on, and perhaps the beards were tuned to frequencies causing mutual interference. Years later the beard frequencies "joke" would still be passed around their crowd. As is often the case, "you had to be there" to find it even slightly funny.
The first of the Starfire rockets from Space Services was launched on 29 March 1989. A crowd of about fifty investors and family members were on hand to watch. The flight was flawless, the payload went up to 222 nautical miles and enjoyed 7.5 minutes of microgravity, then re-entered, deployed a parachute and landed safely. A retrieval team went out in the desert, found the payload, and the experimenters were delighted by their results. Crystal growth and foamed metal experiments were conducted, along with a number of others. Altogether about 600 pounds of science payload plus 300 pounds of the vehicle's guidance system, parachute pack, and avionics were recovered for refurbishment and re-use on the next flight.
There was even a modicum of publicity with NASA not pretending it was pointless or stupid, since they had funded the experiment team, and with the Department of Transportation issuing a commercial launch licence, the first of its kind ever. It seemed, to some, that there would soon be a thriving space launch industry for experiments and, perhaps, one day, for passengers. No one really knew when, though, and if they had any inkling that it would be decades before any of them would be able to buy a trip into space, they would have been unwilling to believe it.
The new space launch company was predicated on the idea that a golf ball launched into orbit was inherently a good thing, and that someone would find out what to do with a small mass well before the flight would take place. The design for the new launch vehicle was sound, though it had quite a few stages. Some equipment was even purchased, including a laser gyro system.
Bob and Susan travelled deep into West Texas one weekend with their friend Carlos "Gus" Gabrielli. They were going to an Outlaw rocket festival. Teams with giant solid rocket boosters were launching rockets to twenty or thirty thousand feet, well away from airports and aircraft, just for the fun of it. It was "outlaw" because the government did not approve. At the time, no licence could be had for love or money. Of course, the model rocket enthusiasts notified everyone they could think of that it was happening so there were no surprised air traffic controllers. A great time was had by all.
Best of all, Bob got performance specifications on a bunch of privately poured solid rocket motors. He now had all the information he needed to build his six-stage rocket. He began writing software to model the performance, based on the standard rocket equation and other fundamentals.
One day after Tyrone joined their team he and Bob had lunch together. "You do know that risk of failure increases by the exponent of the number of stages, right?"
It would work out that Bob never got to build his six-stage rocket, the company being sold to a defence contractor at the end of the year. But he did get to work with a great group, including telecommunications pioneer Walt Anderson. Later, Tyrone would be arrested on false charges of felony gambling promotion of a lottery, which would be dismissed a few months later after Tyrone's space travel company was destroyed. Walt would go on to successfully purchase the Mir space station, and then be attacked over charitable contributions by the IRS. Bob watched his friends go to jail and to prison and reflected on what could be done in a world with much less authority.
He would work on that problem for the next several decades.
[End part eight, continued in part nine]
Jim Davidson is an author, entrepreneur, actor, and director. He is the cfo of KanehCN3.com and the vision director of HoustonSpaceSociety.net You can find him on Twitter.com/planetaryjim as well as Pocket.app and Flote.app also as planetaryjim.
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