Pickens: Launch Industry Needs to Go Green

Tim Pickens gave an interesting presentation this afternoon at ISDC titled, “Greening the Aerospace Community.” The Orion Propulsion founder and CEO talked what he feels the industry needs to do moving forward toward a greener profile.

Historically, the launch industry hasn’t necessarily been very clean, Pickens said. In an effort to outdo the Soviets, engineers used the best launch technology available at the time. Unfortunately, that technology has resulted in the emission of a lot of pollution into the atmosphere and ground. Percolates and other chemicals also leaked into the ground during rocket production, contaminating the ground water under the San Fernando Valley and other areas.

Pickens believes it is disingenuous for anyone in the space business to promote their launches as being 100 percent “green.” After the talk, he was asked about Virgin Galactic’s claims about how green its future WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo tourism flights will be.

Pickens didn’t think much about that argument. He said that his current jet ski is much cleaner on its emissions than his previous one. But, he doesn’t think that he can declare going out and having fun on the water in that matter as being a green activity. Space tourism is the same way.

There has been some improvement in launch pollution control. The U.S. has moved to retire some of its more heavily polluting vehicles, Picken said. However, other nations such as Russia, China, and Russia are using rockets that produce a lot of pollutants.

Pickens said he is trying to make his rockets and thrusters as green as possible. His four-year old Alabama-based company is working with a number of projects, including collaboration with Boeing on Ares thrusters and delivering a lunar test bed to Marshall Space Flight Center for lunar lander thruster testing.

Working on NASA’s Constellation lunar program is “a big deal for us, it’s a real opportunity,” Pickens said.

He also pointed out that explorers will need clean propellants for landing on the Moon and Mars. Contaminants are likely to stay around, polluting the soil and atmosphere, negatively impacting scientific experiments, and getting sucked into habitats via airlocks. Thus, NASA is looking toward cryogenic propulsion on the moon instead of solid fuels, which are reliable but heavily polluting.

Orion is also developing thrusters for Bigelow Aerospace’s Sundancer space station. The system will burn urine, sweat and other waste products from the environmental control system as fuel to control the facility.

Pickens expressed concern over movement to impose emission fees on rockets in the United States. He thinks it will be a very costly effort that would not be very productive because there are no scrubbers that one can turn on to clean up the emissions from a rocket launch.

He believes the launch industry must be prepared with good answers as to why this approach would not work and viable solutions moving forward. I observed that fees could end up driving business overseas. Pickens agreed, saying that nations such as Russia and China are not likely to stop using their rockets, some of which produce a lot of pollutants.

Pickens also spoke of the need to take risks. It seems that everyone has become too risk averse in this country, that failure is not tolerated and budgets are cut too quickly. That needs to change if we are to have a clean and productive future on Earth and in space.