Link: Antigravity Research Corporation
B.C. inventor wants to put pop bottle rocket into orbit
Published: Sunday, February 17, 2008 | 3:42 PM ET
Canadian Press: Scott Sutherland, THE CANADIAN PRESS
CHILLIWACK, B.C. - Mr. Widget wants to go to space.
Ken Schellenberg, who has adopted the alter-ego on his company website, wants to put a simple but highly engineered bottle rocket into orbit.
Ken Schellenberg, shown in a handout photo, wants to put a simple but highly engineered bottle rocket into orbit. This could be impossible, but the CEO of antigravityresearch.com already holds the altitude record for boosting an elongated pop bottle - propelled by a bicycle pump, water and a bit of soap - into the air. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
This could be impossible, but the CEO of AntiGravity Research already holds the altitude record for boosting an elongated plastic pop bottle - propelled by a bicycle pump, water and a bit of soap - into the air.
Firing the ubiquitous, two-litre plastic container usually consigned to the recycle bin into space might create a whole new definition for space junk, but the dream keeps Schellenberg going.
"I got side tracked off what I should have been doing, which is electrical engineering," said the red-headed, 49-year-old father of five.
"I named the company before I had anything to do and people still call wondering if we've got a (Star Trek-style) transporter ready or if we've been able to defy gravity in the way that people think of anti gravity.
"I tell them 'No,' but we're hoping to stumble across that sometime soon."
From a large workshop in a pasture behind his home on a wooded mountain plateau high above the Fraser River valley, Schellenberg designs and builds "state-of-the-art-technology" pop-bottle rockets.
They're made by attaching plastic or cardboard fins to an empty bottle, punching a hole in the bottle top to act as a nozzle and pressurizing the bottle with air from a bicycle pump.
Add some water before pumping in the air and the bottle will go higher. Add a squirt of dish soap to the water and it goes even higher.
Schellenberg's two-stage model is easily capable of reaching altitudes of well over 200 metres.
Several years ago, one of his "toy" rockets - actually a Kevlar-reinforced, experimental, single-stage missile pressurized with compressed nitrogen and packing high-tech instruments - flew to just under 379 metres.
Based on that research, Schellenberg is now convinced that it will be possible to put a bottle rocket into orbit. In preparation, he's working on sending a modified two-stage rocket - reinforced with ultra-strong carbon-fibre and fuelled by liquid CO2 - up about five kilometres.
"I've already got the thing half-built," he said.
But he won't be launching that from his pasture near Chilliwack.
He acknowledged he'll need a proper site where passing airplanes would not be at risk - something along the lines of the military test facility at Cold Lake, Alta.
He said he'd definitely look for an organization to sanction the attempt at a new record, but he said these things always take time.
"It always takes me 10 times longer than I thought," he admits. "On the last world record I figured it would take a month, and it was about two years."
The first record-setting launch is documented at antigravityresearch.com, where Schellenberg sells a variety of one-and two-stage rocket kits, plus accessories like his China-built bicycle pump which he says "is the best in the world."
The website also features a dozen or so madcap movies, featuring Schellenberg as Mr. Widget in a white lab coat and heavy-framed glasses with the pre-requisite adhesive tape repairs.
In person, however, Schellenberg is soft-spoken and extremely self-effacing.
A graduate of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, he spent more than 20 years as a designer in the digital world, focusing mainly on micro-controller data loggers.
But he said he got bored with the work, while becoming fascinated by bottle rockets.
"They're simple," he said.
"You fill them with a little bit of water and you pump them up with air and then they fly way up and then come back down."
His shop is filled with machines he has modified or built himself.
Think Wallace and Gromit without Gromit.
One homemade contraption turns out the rocket's three stabilizing fins. It's pieced together with masonry nails welded to motorcycle chains that pull a sheet of meat-tray material through modified, $40 pancake griddles from Wal-Mart.
The griddles heat the thin-foam plastic, then the plastic advances to where a tiny vacuum tube holds on while a heated wire cuts the outline of the piece.
The vacuum then reverses to blow the completed component into a bin. The waste is sent off the end of the machine into another bin to be recycled.
The machine isn't pretty and plywood and auto-body filler are used extensively.
"If there was a place to go and buy a machine like this I would have. But there isn't, so I had to figure it out myself."
A metre away, another contraption heats a standard two-litre bottle and an extendible steel rod stretches it into a more aerodynamic shape. The bottle is then cooled to keep its shape.
Schellenberg has been making his primary living with AntiGravity for seven years through sales almost entirely on the web, although he does some consulting and still considers himself a part-time hay farmer.
He said schools are among his customers - the rockets are ideal for teaching physics.
"Acceleration, velocity, mass, thrust, all those good things that teachers try so hard to teach the kids," he says.
He has also sold large numbers of rockets to American Honda Corp. for use in management training courses, to Whirlpool Corporation for a program with the Boy Scouts, to mechanical engineering departments of universities, and to the U.S. Army.
Part of the selling point is safety.
"With (my) rockets, there's no burning fuel. The pressurized bottle is 25 feet away from you and the pump, so if the bottle should burst it's a good safe distance and at only 60 grams, if falls and hits anyone it doesn't hurt."
He knows because he's tested it himself with rockets falling from as high as 100 metres.
"I tested it in stages," he said. "If a baseball falls 6 inches on to your head, that really hurts, whereas a rocket of this type falling 300 feet doesn't hurt a bit."
AntiGravity's motto is: "Ongoing research projects of little or no gravity."
Orbit would be the best fulfillment of that. And Schellenberg says he sincerely believe's he'll get there.
"Well, perhaps sincere might be the wrong word. Overly optimistic might be better. It certainly looks possible," he says with a grin, trailing off.