by Rollo Sears Pickford, Founder

My engineering career focused on combustion research, rocket engine thrust systems, high energy shock and detonation waves and their effects on various materials. Here are some photos I think are interesting and show the path I followed up to the founding of Thermeon.

Aeropak field mockup 5 1959

Aeropak test rig 4-1959

The first two photos are of the Aeropak, a rocket backpack device that I helped to develop at Aerojet in Azusa, CA in 1958-59. I think we were the first to try this with small rocket engines. We built the test pack out of an old WWII surplus backpack “board”. We rigged up a “floating tether” testbed (not pictured) to reduce the chances of injuring ourselves during testing. The first jets used compressed air. After a little experience, we switched to hydrogen peroxide as a monopropellent (with a silver screen catalyst the propellant decomposes to hydrogen/oxygen gases that then burn to form water vapor). After we finished successful testing in my research department using a real person in the floating tether testbed, Aerojet “promoted” the project to the Systems Division, choosing a lead engineer in that department who was not currently occupied — for good reason as it turned out. The new lead engineer did calculations on paper and “proved” it would not work, so Aerojet dropped the project. But paper calculations on the flight of a bumblebee “proved” that bumblebees could not fly either. So a competitor named RMI took up where we left off using engineers who understood that bumblebees fly in spite of engineering calculations and developed the unit you still see demonstrated at major events today!

Thor DM-18 Model Launcher - melted

Thor Model Launcher Test - blunt_nose

Rocket Launchers

I also obtained a contract with Douglas Aircraft who was responsible for the portable Thor intermediate range missile and its launch pad. When I saw drawings for Douglas’s untested flame deflector I warned them it would be cut to pieces during missile launch because the shock waves would attach to vulnerable points and sharp edges. We proposed and won a contract based on 1/6 scale model tests using an appropriately scaled rocket engine. The first picture shows what happened to the Douglas original design for the flame deflector. It melted within a few seconds. The second photo shows rocket exhaust flames and associated shock waves with a revised flame deflector. This design was good enough to get the missile launched without use of cooling water on the deflector and without much damage per launch.

I submitted a research proposal on underground missile launchers a few years before Sputnik but it was rejected. After Sputnik was launched, the government realized the Russians could lob a nuclear warhead over here with the same rocket used to launch Sputnik, and such an attack would destroy our own above-ground missile launchers. Immediately after Sputnik the Air Force contacted me and asked for a another 1/6 scale model proposal based on the Titan II missile system then being developed. I had already done flame defector research and design for the Titan I missile that was stored in an underground silo but raised to the surface by an elevator for launch. The Titan II model project was placed on the highest priority as we suspected the data generated for in-hole launch would result in modifications to the full-scale missile. Interestingly, a full size silo would be constructed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at the same time as our model project generated information.

Titan II Model Silo - day

Missile Launchers

The next picture is of the 1/6 scale Titan II missile silo we built above ground so we could easily test and service all parts. The 30 ft disk is a simulated ground plane. You can see the 1/6 scale missile (with working rocket engines!) about half way out of the silo. All this was designed and constructed in 60 days, working 24 hours per day, 7 days/week. The test silo had more than 250 data measurement channels — temperature, sound pressure levels, gas/air velocities, rocket engine performance and controls, etc. Quite a challenge in those days of analog devices.

Missile Killers

Shaped Charge Jet Thru Plate (X-ray)

The next photo shows particles fired from a shaped charge passing through a metal plate from left to right. The photo was taken with a very powerful high speed X-ray camera. The particles are going about 24,000 mph — sufficient velocity to escape earth's gravity. The leading particles that created the hole have been used up, so the ones you see beyond the plate simply went through the hole already created and could punch through more plates. Notice the very faint shock wave ahead of the first remaining particle. The goal was to create a much faster jet than this one, so fast that a good portion of the jet would be a metallic plasma. The highest velocity achieved was about 43,000 mph. These devices were tested in the middle 1960’s, the purpose being to develop a better means of disabling a satellite or incoming nuclear missile. You might say this was a “star wars” effort before the term came into being.

Argon Flash, ASA1250, article

Argon Flash, InfraRed Film, Telephoto

Mysterious Booms and Flashes

The following two “argon flash” photos were from a brief development to prove that a much better aerial reconnaissance light could be created than the magnesium flare/parachute devices used in Vietnam. Those magnesium devices had to be dropped from airplanes flying at about 15,000 feet. Many men and planes were lost to Russian SAM (surface to air) missiles which were quite effective at that altitude. The argon flash device could be dropped from very high altitudes, saving planes and lives. It could use the same airplane launching system and launching canister already existing. Camera shutter speed is not particularly important because the argon flash was so bright and lasted a fraction of a second. This technique was used in many of my research experiments because of the ability to create a brilliant millisecond flash. The light is created by sending a shock wave through argon gas. The argon device was never used by the military as the war ended prior to what could be called “ponderous” government approval. The high velocity jets, argon flash and work on shaped detonation waves were conducted at an Astropower, Inc., test site in Orange County, CA located in Gypsum Canyon a few miles from what is now Interstate Hwy 15. For the argon flash tests, the light source was located on a high ridge looking over the canyon test site. The first image is from a nighttime infrared film showing that the argon flash lights up the terrain for abut one mile. The second picture was taken with a telephoto lens showing the test site nestled at the bottom of the canyon. A clipping from the Orange County Register is attached that mentions a mysterious boom. The “resident” quoted was a sharp observer — my “flash booms” were indeed different than sonic booms!

Cartoon, RSP on rocket

Adapting the Technology for Industry

During the late 1960’s considerable design effort and preliminary testing was done on a closed cycle, turbine engine that showed promise of efficiencies greater than what was achieved with electrical power generating plants operated by public utilities. Because the proposed turbine would be operated at supercritical pressures, the turbine rotor needed only 2 or 3 stages and would be less than 8 feet in diameter. This compares to current systems with huge multiple stage turbines. Thermeon Corporation takes its name from this research/development effort. Unfortunately, shortly after the company was formed, the capital gains tax was increased to a point where venture capital essentially dried up.

Since prospects for turbine development were poor, I changed Thermeon into a software development company dealing with both technical and business solutions. Eventually, Thermeon concentrated on the car rental market which needed efficiently engineered software. Our major product, CARS+, was born and today is the most efficient software in the car rental market. By efficient I mean CARS+ requires the least amount of hardware to operate, the least amount of time to learn and train new staff, and is the lowest cost product to use and to customize for demanding clients. I also believe CARS+ is smarter about helping car rental operators earn more money!

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