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Feb 27, 2012
INTERVIEW - Dezso Molnar: Rocket science, rock music and flying motorcycles
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He built rockets in his teens for the Navy with Robert Truax. He constructed the Spirit of America jet car with Craig Breedlove, who inspired a Beach Boys song. He collaborated on space tourism projects with Amazon.com bestselling author Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize Foundation. He even helped invent the music video game genre. Now, Dezso has created a street legal flying motorcycle that he is testing with world famous explorer Mike Horn and Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes.

Dezso Molnar, like many teenagers (and adults for that matter), was fascinated with jets, rockets and hot air balloons. Unlike the leisurely enthusiast, however, who may have been content to read the latest NASA launch in the morning papers or indulge in outer space comic book misadventures, teenage Dezso had actually piloted hot air balloons and built a bonafide private rocket ship in his garage. No, not the sort of rocket ship made of cardboard tubes and mail order sparklers, nor the kind that whistles out of liquor bottles during Independence Day celebrations, noisily howling above the beach sands before an unremarkable splash mere yards away. This was the kind of nuts and bolts enterprise that glistens beneath the studiously furrowed brow of an earnest engineer. 

Mind you, Dezso was not alone. He worked initially as a volunteer for the Project Private Enterprise company created by noted rocket developer Robert Truax -- “Bob” Truax had served as a US Navy Captain developing rockets prior to German rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, coming to work for the United States. Truax then worked with both Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard, the father of liquid-fueled rockets, over the years. His collaboration with such luminaries gave him a visionary perspective.

Dezso, like Truax, saw NASA’s Space Shuttle and thought, “We, as a private industry, could ultimately perform the same core activities for a fraction of the cost, so I volunteered and worked with them for several years.” The year was 1984.

It may come as no surprise, then, that by the time Dezso joined the Air Force in his late teens, he was already casting a critical eye upon the latest rockets coming out of NASA’s backyard. As he perfected his aircraft mechanic skills rebuilding broken airplanes and then training as a flight engineer, Dezso was also working through his aeronautics degree in college. Even his day job in the Air Force was right in the thick of aviation, where he flew Lockheed C141 passenger jets or repaired fighter and transport jets in the hangar. When he hung up his well-worn and grimy Air 

Force mechanic garments, his free time was spent gleefully tinkering for Truax Engineering Inc. So innovative was Dezso and his team’s handiwork that, after the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, Naval Research Labs awarded them a contract to develop a new launch vehicle to reduce the Navy’s reliance on the Shuttle.

What led to Dezso and Bob Truax’s ragtag band of rocket engineers acquiring such a lucrative and landmark contract?

Prior to his Naval Research Labs work, Bob Truax had garnered fame for his work with Evel Knievel in the 1970s when he built a steam-powered rocket for the infamous Snake River Canyon jump in Idaho. Despite tests showing that the $150,000 Sky-Cycle could not clear the canyon, Evel Knievel insisted he keep his word and attempted the jump. The rocket’s parachute was accidentally deployed under power when the Sky-Cycle was launched and Knievel plummeted 600 feet down into the canyon, somehow surviving the debacle with only minor injuries.

However, Knievel was extremely satisfied with Truax’s work -- so satisfied, that when Truax said, “I can make you the first private astronaut,” Knievel immediately agreed; due to legal complications, unfortunately, Knievel was unable to follow through. The spark for a private rocket had been lit, however, and the groundwork laid for Truax Engineering’s foray into the private manned space program in which Dezso became involved. With Evel out, Truax sold Knievel’s seat in the rocket to Fell Peters for $40,000, and that became seed money for the lean years of research to follow.

Pete Wilhelm, then and now the Director for the Naval Center for Space Technology -- a branch of Naval Research Labs -- began the project Sea Launch and Recovery (SEALAR) to develop low-cost launch technology, for which he selected Truax Engineering as the contractor. Wilhelm would also later become one of the first customers for the rocket company, Space X, founded by Elon Musk (one of the co-founders of PayPal and the CEO of Tesla Motors) which has now begun a push to provide support to the International Space Station. 

“We all thought the Space Shuttle was wickedly complex for what they were doing ... the space shuttle has now been shuttered. A bunch of kids got their hands in there and are positioned to take over the Shuttle’s activities. Elon’s heading to Mars; been at it for only 10 years and they’ve already been to orbit and back.”

Dezso says the Department of Defense was arranged such that, “look, if you’re in the Navy, and you want to get something into space, you’re going to have to talk to the Air Force, as the Air Force ran Space Command, and the shuttle was grounded. So there was an end-run in the regulations that if a branch of the military developed a launch system from the ground up, they could launch their own payloads. The Navy put out a bid and said, ‘Who can build us a launch vehicle?’ and we were the low bidder. We had a rocket ship already in construction, and bid for under a million dollars.” Aside from the official company and military work, Dezso had also been developing pulse jet engines with some friends, “we were making jet engines with no moving parts.”

Truax’s rocket company had suddenly taken off from a garage start-up to a proper business. “I wasn’t officially involved on the business side, but I was still involved. Bob was the founder, with maybe 8 guys to start with, and as it grew I experienced the processes of a startup. The company received six figures initially in a cost-plus contract, and then we soon found ourselves with millions to spend, with paying jobs, running loose in military storage yards grabbing tools, jet engines, rockets, boats; took a 200 foot long barge -- 3 stories tall -- and began our work.”

The work that Dezso and Truax Engineering completed in advancing rocket launch technology from 1984-1991, involved, among other ingenuities, turning a boat into a launch pad. The Navy gave them everything they wished for and they essentially turned a ship into a floating factory. For what purpose? Dezso explains, “The rockets we were building were to test the viability of systems for a large scale version called Sea Dragon, which eventually was to be the size of a supertanker. It would be welded up in a shipyard, and floated out -- then a weight attached to the bottom section to make it point upward -- there was no launch pad -- and launch it from the ocean into space, do whatever it had to do (drop off cargo or whatever) and then return to earth, nose down, full speed into the ocean, punch into the water, float the surface, get refueled, and then launch again. We were doing drop tests from helicopters, and engine testing underwater ... we would run that rail under water and fire the rocket engines off ... because the eventual plan was to fire these engines hundreds of feet underwater, so what’s it like to do that?”

This was not Bob’s first venture into the arena of sea launched rockets. He worked on Polaris, and in the 1950s and 1960s, when Bob was with Aerojet General, a US propulsion company, two sea rocket prototypes named Sea Dragon and Excalibur. However, given Sea Dragon’s tremendous size -- it was going to be 75 feet in diameter and have a liftoff weight of 45 million pounds -- andwithNASA’s waning interest in putting a man on Mars, Bob found himself turned down by both NASA and the Air Force. So, he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy who was impressed by the Excalibur designs -- a scaled down version of the Sea Dragon which could put 100,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. A $5.2 million contract was eventually signed under SEALAR and both Bob and Dezso found themselves on the cutting-edge of rocketry. Despite the Senate taking an interest in SEALAR and authorizing $17.5 million for research at one point, the SEALAR ocean rockets never achieved flight test status. The project was cheap enough to get started, but not expensive enough to survive sweeping defense cuts in the early ‘90s.

The year was now 1990 and Dezso began yearning for more right-brained pursuits. He remembers that, “it was around the time Stevey Ray Vaughn died ... I decided to become a professional musician.” Dezso was now 25. He played bass and trumpet in bands, and made recordings that eventually led him to work with game companies by composing and programming musical scores. He worked on the music for both the first Spiderman game, and for a game called Zero Tolerance as the first outside contractor for Sega. The comapny was called Technopop and, “I made a living as a musician and just walked away from the aerospace world completely... did that until I was 29.” He also toured with Survival Research Labs, a machine performance art group know for pioneering the genre of large-scale machine performance. Dezso recalls fondly that his touring consisted of, “blowing things up.”

However, the world of rocketry suddenly grabbed Dezso’s interest once again in 1996, because, “You just look at a magazine rack for what makes you say, ‘hey cool’ and then go do it. I heard Craig Breedlove was building a land speed car to break the world record. The sound barrier is different than the land speed record, which is the reason I was interested, because it is a natural barrier rather than an arbitrary man-made number.” So, Dezso stowed away his instruments and joined the Spirit of America US land speed racing team, initially to fabricate parts of the car, and, and eventually as its crew chief. Craig Breedlove is a Motorsports’ Racing Hall of Famer who had created several jet cars all named Spirit of America -- his exploits were the subject of the Beach Boy’s song “Spirit of America”.

The first Spirit was built in 1962 and was then followed by the Spirit of America - Sonic I in 1964-64. Craig Breedlove used his turbojet-powered vehicles to become the first man to reach 400 mph, 500 mph and 600 mph on the ground. After a lengthy break from rocket cars, he decided in 1992 to reincarnate the Spirit once again by designing the car, driving it, and obtaining sponsors. Dezso, as crew chief, managed the construction and desert runs of the car, and coordinated with sponsors to obtain jet engines parts, raw materials, fuel, and support equipment  -- Ford, for example, donated 7 trucks -- in order to engineer the Spirit of America Formula Shell LSRV.

Yet, the Spirit of America team was not alone in its quest for land speed and sound barrier domination, for they had fierce competition from a British jet car team. Unfortunately, Dezso and Craig were financially outgunned by the British who were funded by many companies from the British aerospace industry and had a fighter jet squadron organizing the runs. For months, magazines were covering the intense competition between the US and British rocket car teams, hearkening back to themes of the Revolutionary War with “the British are coming.” Dezso explains that the US team had problems with solid carbon tires that needed to be re-manufactured after damage incurred during numerous trial runs, “we had no funds for spare tires, and ran out of time while repairing the ones we had -- rains hit the desert and ended the season before we could make a run at the new British record.” In 1997, the British team’s driver, Andy Green, broke the sound barrier with their car and the US team congratulated them.

“In 2005, I approached Steve Fossett to purchase and run for a record in the Spirit of America car”. Steve Fossett, a renowned sailing, ballooning and aviation record holder, had the car modified and prepared for record breaking attempts. Unfortunately, just before tests were to begin in 2007, while flying a single engine plane from Barron Hilton’s ranch in Nevada, Fossett crashed his plane into a mountain and died.

After two and a half years of rocket car engineering, that old mental wanderlust struck again and flipped the switch back to music for Dezso from 1998-2002. “I was wiped out and financially broke after the races in the desert,” says Dezso, who returned to San Francisco where the Dot-Com Explosion was in full swing. He met DJ Josh Gabriel, who’s company, Mixman, had developed a music re-mixing software. Dezso built an arcade game version of Mixman in his warehouse and sold the design to Atari for six figures. To test the machine, he placed it at the Virgin Megastore in San Fran and, “people would play it and I realized, dude, this is working.”  He and Atari execs took it to Japan where music games were becoming a rage, but ultimately the game was killed by Atari’s parent company who “needed shooters”. Soon after, Dezso sold a portable version to Mattel, called the Mixman DM2. Over the next three years, his first scratchable digital turntable toys helped take the fledgling Mixman music company from startup to a frontrunner, eventually merging with 80s pop star Thomas Dolby’s company Beatnik.

Beatnik developed a music synthesizer for cell phones, and Dezso became a music executive at Beatnik, spending three years armed with an American Express Gold Card showing rock stars the future of music at the turn of the century. Says Dezso, “we had this machine where, if we accessed original unmixed recordings ... and pulled samples off of them, they could be manipulated to make new songs by the listeners. We had to convince the record labels, band managers and artists that this was the future -- and that their music factories as they knew them would shut down. We told them, ‘you’re all going to be out of jobs, so you need new ways to sell music.’ This was before Napster and iTunes -- and helped invent the music video game genre that’s so popular now with DJ Hero and Rock Band.”

He offered an alternative to the music industry that is now deriving large revenues from the music video game genre. Musicians like Ice T, George Clinton, Moby, Money Mark, Britney Spears and ‘N Sync were some of the first to jump on board. “We went around 24-7 telling musicians you’re in trouble if you rely only on record sales, and here’s an option. We paid them, money was flowing into their wallets and our wallets. Beatnik pulled in tens of millions of dollars and we bought houses right when the Dot-Com was about to go bust.”

In 2001, Dezso was headhunted in Los Angeles by a group in Pasadena called Idealabs! that gathered 60 top rocket and robotics scientists to land three robot rovers on the moon and drive back to the Apollo 11 site. Dezso was hired as the Sound Director to deal with sound transmissions from the moon. It was the first in a string of projects in which he would collaborate with Peter Diamandis, the founder and chairman of the X Prize foundation and a key figure in the development of the private space industry. Peter was the CEO, and arranged for the company to purchase a rocket from Lockheed Martin. Unfortunately, the Dot-Com Bubble burst and the project never got off the ground. Their robot, upon which the robot from the movie Wall-E seems to have drawn inspiration, never got to land on the moon, but the project later provided the foundation for the Google Lunar X Prize.

What was next for Dezso? You guessed it -- he dove back into music in 2003 after the ill-fated Idealabs! Blastoff! project died. He started an “unkillable band” called Casino Mansion with Manuel Stagars, a Swiss trance music producer -- unkillable because the band “members” consist of personas who could be replaced by different people as they came and went. Dezso says, “Ahead of its time for the US - some of our music was just recently used on a Movado Sapphire watch commercial. It paid for the engine in my new gyrocopter.” They recorded four albums that sprung from the dance craze in Europe by doing Americanized productions of the sort of music playing in Notting Hill dance clubs in the UK.

During London’s heat wave of 2003, they teamed up with Magnus Fiennes, a well-known English record producer (Massive Attack, All Saints, Pulp) to shoot a music video.  Upon returning to the foggy June gloom of LA, Dezso was determined to leave immediately for some sun in the desert. But the traffic would not allow, so he waited. That night, when Dezso was driving to Palm Springs at 3 am on the freeway, he thought about how little congestion there was at such an ungodly hour. He ruminated about traffic patterns and realized, “we don’t have an infrastructure problem, we have a timing problem, where everyone is trying to be at the most congested spot at the same time, where everyone needs to be downtown at 9am. There’s no space for a long runway, so what if you could fly in with a vehicle that can land slow in a small space, and then drive away? You’d save tremendous time.”

So Dezso’s intellectual engineering gears started turning and he thought how if people had gyrocycles, they could just, “fly in, fold the thing up and park. Later you would drive away slipping between the lines of cars. Today, access is limited to just one helicopter per rooftop since it must fly out.” After 2 years of research, combining the characteristics of a gyroplane and motorcycle, Dezso had a viable design for a gyrocycle in 2003 that has since been patented. “It flew on its first attempt and every one after”.

In 2004 Dezso served as a judge for the Ansari X Prize, and it was between launches of Burt Rutan’s spacecraft that he discussed his technology with members of the Ansari family. Blending their names and talents, they formed Molnari, Inc. From 2004-2011, this vehicle design company, Molnari, has explored the marketing, commercialization and certification possibilities for their new vehicle. “To build the first gyrocycle, I did some early conceptual design with Zoltan Bathory (Five Finger Death Punch) and built it with Craig Calfee at his bicycle factory. Mike Solano flew it through 2006.”

Dezso is currently focused on refining the vehicle thru explorations and racing. To this end, he contacted Mike Horn, a top explorer whose exploits include walking the 20,000 kilometer Arctic Circle and swimming the entire Amazon River holding a piece of foam rubber. Dezso explains, “Mike Horn is a true warrior. He’s a trained Special Forces soldier from South Africa who climbs mountains without oxygen. He’s currently voyaging on a 115 foot long aluminum ice breaking sailboat, called Pangaea, and has been around the world four times in the last 3 years.” He survived walking across an illegal cocaine farm in the jungle, despite having cameras and several other people with him at the time.

How does the gyrocycle come into the picture? Dezso explains, “Like the sound barrier, the Darién Gap in Columbia, where the Pan American Highway is extremely rugged, is currently a natural barrier, and I think would be an ideal application of the gyrocycle to fly over it. I spoke with Mike and we both want to take a trip down the entire Pan American Highway, from Alaska to Uruguay … team up ... because he’s extremely skilled and lives for adventure.”

Does Dezso ever plan on mass producing his gyrocycle for the masses who would never dream of undertaking Mike Horn’s daring exploits? He says, “Not yet. First I’m going to take it out on expeditions to test it and improve the performance. I want to focus on development right now; not on building a factory or fielding customer complaints about a scratch on the paint. I’ll do the first long trip this year, from the bike factory in California to the east coast. Later with Mike, we plan to put a gyrocycle on his boat Pangaea. He’s driven the new machine and wants to take it to extreme conditions, like the North Pole and deep Brazilian jungle.”

 

In 2006 Dezso made a 2-seat version with help from Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes. “I focused on creating good ergonomics for the pilot and passenger rather than squeezing for every ounce of flight performance. Marcos is an experienced test pilot and engineer, and helped with this. He also worked extensively to explore certification requirements, and introduced us to the top manufacturing and development opportunities available in Brazil”.

Dezso explains a process he underwent in his Mixman music video game days when he developed a functioning prototype, watched it get changed into to numerous versions by committees with wildly different creative visions, only to eventually end up right back at the original design he had suggested years before. “If you, as an inventor, get involved in that entire thing -- which goes around in circles and back precisely from where you wanted to start from -- you want to skip that ride. I would rather fly or play in my band. There’s a way you can do this - do what you love. The only revenge is good art.”

Dezso made a 2-seat version with help from Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes. “I focused on creating good ergonomics for the pilot and passenger rather than squeezing for every ounce of flight performance. Marcos is an experienced test pilot and engineer, and helped with this. He also worked extensively to explore certification requirements, and introduced us to the top manufacturing and development opportunities available in Brazil”.Dezso foresees racing in the immediate future for his gyrocycles. Rather than filling out paperwork to race in sanctioned areas as required with the land speed car, he can drive on the roads and fly in legal airspace. “These days, having any flying car on the road is unique. I can race you to Pasadena, driving the speed limit on the freeway. Then say, ‘tell you what, now we’re going to race by flying from an airport to the Mojave desert. There we’ll open them up to 200 miles an hour at El Mirage.’” Unlike his rocket racing days which required specific tracks and planning, Dezso and his select customers can rally-race gyrocycles that only cost 50 dollars an hour to fly, because they use stock motorcycle engines. “We get 40 miles per gallon on the ground, and can reach speeds of 120 miles per hour in the air. Experience from pit stops will help us streamline the process of switching between ground and flight modes. We will get lots of practice.  Logistically, the land speed car cost $50,000 per run, and the Rocket Racing League planes I have been crewing on cost thousands per flight. That seriously restricts testing. Gyrocycles cost a tiny fraction of that and can operate in any weather, so we can run almost constantly.”

As for the future? Dezso plans by 2013 to build a small number of machines for a very select group of people that want to race them. He estimates that 5 vehicles will be built because, “those numbers are based on a reality check of how much testing we want to do -- we can always accelerate the process, but why? I compare it to World War I planes and how at the beginning reconnaissance pilots from different nations used to just wave at each other -- there were no high-tech weapons or anything. The first ‘weapon system’ to evolve was bricks, and they’d throw them at each other. In flying car aviation, we’re entering a barnstorming period.” Barnstorming refers to a popular form of entertainment in the 1920s in which pilots would perform simple stunts with planes. “We want cooperation to make developments in the early racing stages, and it will get wickedly more intense and competitive after that.”

Why take his time? He feels the world is not quite ready yet for the transition to flying road vehicles because demand and confidence is limited. “You have to remember, cars were a horse replacement back in the day -- people were still under the mindset that you’d have to keep a horse in the stable in case the car would break down. But once we complete this development cycle where using a flying bike is routine, real demand will result soon enough.” Dezso plans to resume test flights in June, moving his operation from the Calfee bicycle factory near Santa Cruz to an airstrip by the Snake River in Idaho. “We’ve got airplanes, a hangar, rivers we can swim in, and mountains we can run up. We’ll just use whatever we can afford for gas money.”

From rocket science to rock music and from rocket cars to gyrocycles, Dezso is sure to continue his 'unkillable' legacy of engineering and musical virtuosity.

 

Photos by David Perry, Peter Brock, and Sam Lowe

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