christopher mullen radio mount
Image: David Emmite

Christopher Mullens demonstrates a shoulder-mounted radio tracking device.

THE DAY BEFORE THE LAUNCH, lightning-spitting clouds swept over 40 acres in deep Eastern Oregon, a high-desert Cape Canaveral of empty land owned by members of Oregon Rocketry, a statewide federation of amateur rocketry clubs.

Forty miles from the nearest gas station, the spread has been called “one of the best kept secrets in rocketry” by Rockets Magazine and offers a vast expanse for launches and landings. Before PSAS arrived, the land sat empty except for a rotting farm building, a rusting International truck, resident jackrabbits, and four portable toilets. As the clouds scattered, the snowcapped Three Sisters glittered in the distance.

The advance party consisted of Christopher Mullens and Robert Gaskell, both 28. Mullens works for Nishkian Dean, a venerable Portland consulting and structural engineering firm, and has worked on launch structures for various NASA programs. Gaskell served in the US Marines (PSAS includes at least two corps veterans) and became a PSU engineering student after quitting his job at a Clackamas auto shop.

In an earlier era, a pair of bright young men, equipped with engineering and military backgrounds respectively, might have forged careers wearing crisp white shirts and skinny ties at NASA Mission Control Center, helping launch Gemini and Apollo capsules as an awed nation looked on. Today, they find outlets for their technical savvy in a more uncertain world.

“People forget, because it’s not particularly glamorous, but failure is a crucial part of science.” –Nathan Bergey

“Right now, the US has no manned spaceflight capability,” Mullens said as the wind whipped his tent’s flaps. “If we want to send someone to space, we have to hitch a ride with the Russians. That’s amazing, when you think about it. The stuff that’s supposed to replace the shuttle is years, if not decades, away. At the same time, it’s exciting, because private enterprise is stepping into the void.”

The scrappy Portland State effort exists in a broader context of change so potentially sweeping, some call this the “new space” era. The shuttle program’s end is merely the most visible aspect of a near-existential conundrum for NASA. The agency’s aging and bureaucracy-laden workforce battles public apathy, ever-shifting political whims (in 2006, a lunar base was on; in 2010, it was off), and shrinking budgets. In addition, according to one estimate, a quarter of NASA engineers and nearly half of its scientists are eligible to retire. While the agency continues to mount impressive unmanned scientific missions—a rover dubbed “Curiosity” was scheduled to go to Mars in late November—NASA will be borrowing Soviet-era facilities in Kazakhstan for manned launches until maybe 2017.

As with elsewhere in American life, diminished public commitment leaves a gaping hole private efforts might fill. Besides millionaires’ well-publicized efforts to launch private manned missions—like Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, “the world’s first commercial spaceline,” and PayPal founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX—scores of start-ups are trying to concoct profitable rockets for scientific and recreational markets. Meanwhile, the vigorous rocketry subculture grows more ambitious. This autumn, a $10,000-prize challenge inspired an amateur launch to over 121,000 feet above the Nevada desert. The vessel failed to claim the prize, however, because its GPS system did not lock on its location properly. (“Their rocket engineering was very good,” Bergey said afterward, “but their GPS was not well thought-out. This is one of the things that sets us apart within the amateur rocketry community: we fly very sophisticated electronics.”)

In this new era, the workbench-level advances made by PSAS could lead to real commercial and professional payoffs. Over the last year, different segments of the group received grants for work on liquid-fueled engines and GPS systems. Technology developed to monitor inertia on board the PSU rockets has already spawned APDM, a spin-off company cofounded by Greenberg that sells diagnostic equipment to people with Parkinson’s and other muscular and neural disorders.

“This kind of stuff lets students get their hands dirty,” Gaskell said. “It’s just invaluable practical experience, because if you come up with something, it can’t just be neat. It has to actually fly.”