Dezso Molnar interview Part 1: On the road with a serial inventor and flying car advocate
Dezso Molnar is living his childhood dream, traveling America and the world as a wandering inventor, living out of the back of a Honda Element as often as not. He consults on all manner of fascinating projects, from rocketry to electric aviation to land speed racers, and he's in the process of starting up a flying car racing league, into which he'll enter his own flying motorcycle. Loz spent several days with Dezso in California, meeting some of his remarkable friends and taking a peek at some of his many projects. Here's part one of our long-form interview, in which Dezso talks about his origins as an inventor, rocket scientist and rock star.
I originally made contact with Dezso while writing about his second, gixxer-based flying motorcycle, the G2. We then caught up for dinner in Nevada last August, while I was filming our Deepflight Dragon review.
He was putting his flying bikes back together to try to start a racing league for roadable aircraft, he told us. He'd also just invented the world's most effective patio heater in his spare time. His friend Scott Truax was preparing to recreate Evel Knievel's Snake River canyon jump on a jet motorcycle, another had the world's largest collection of functioning jetpacks and was about to debut a new design that blew them all out of the water.
His housemate while working at Blastoff, an aerospace startup, was now CEO at Virgin Galactic, and Dezso himself had been a judge on the original Ansari X-PRIZE, as well as a crew chief on a land speed race team that had tried to go supersonic on the salt flats. He'd also worked on private manned space flight efforts with Bob Truax, a key character in one of my favorite books. Burbank's Wet Design had just hired him in his downtime to take Wet's extraordinary resources and use them to invent things to spin off.
By the time my head had stopped spinning, we were making plans to catch up next time I headed back to America, and January's Zero motorcycles launch provided the perfect excuse.
So here's part one of a chat we had in a rental car, driving from Craig Calfee's workshop in Santa Cruz out to Mike Corbin's factory in Hollister. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have an extended time to chat, and a privilege I'd like to share. So I'll let Dezso take it from here.
On what we should call him:
I just say I'm an inventor; I used to get introduced as a rocket scientist, but I never liked hearing that. Or rock star. I know enough people who deserve to claim that. I wouldn't want somebody to hire me to try to do orbital mechanics, or think that I have an entourage of fans, coz I don't. But I've made a living as a musician, and I've made a living making rocket ships, and always trying to get into the next new thing that inspires me.
On his early years:
I was born in Los Angeles, and my family moved to a farmhouse in Ohio when I was five. I just read books about inventors. I remember reading George Westinghouse's biography many times, I don't really remember reading anything before that. I just read biographies and books about inventors and scientists, maybe 100 of them. It definitely colored my delusion that I was capable of doing those things.
Working with Bob Truax on privately funded, manned space flight:
I started building a manned rocketship when I was 19 with a guy named Bob Truax – he used to work with Robert Goddard. It was a privately funded, manned ship, and I would say that was the earliest really substantial project I worked on.
I was in the Air Force at the time, and aware of the amount of money the military was spending on equipment and hardware. We also knew the same thing was happening at NASA. Something that might cost you $50,000 to purchase from an aerospace company in a government contract, we knew we could make for $150, or whatever. It was an incredible margin between what was being spent and what we knew we could do.
For pennies on the dollar, we built a rocket that was designed to have a seat in it, and go into suborbital flight. The powerplants were LR101 vernier engines out of Atlas missiles, we had a cache of them that were purchased in surplus. It was a famous project, Bob was on the Carson show, and in the first issue of Omni magazine there was a small writeup.
On valveless pulse jets:
While we were I met Ray Lockwood, who had been an engineering professor and the chief scientist at Hiller Aircraft Company, so he also became a mentor. Bob was teaching me about rockets, and Ray was teaching me about valveless pulse jets and combustion. I ended up building a jet powered go kart, and designed and tested valveless pulse jets for all sorts of different applications, while also putting myself through college.
A valveless pulse jet is an extremely simple jet engine that has no moving parts. It's a resonant chamber; an explosive version of a church organ. It allows you to have a jet engine that will run for years, it doesn't break like a turbine, it's a very loud and very fun way to have a jet engine without a lot of money. You can build these things for a hundred bucks, which is what we had at the time – we never had any money. Our budget for the rocket company for five years was probably $40,000.
On time in the Air Force:
In the Air Force I started out as a mechanic, and worked my way into flight engineer training to fly heavy C141-B jets. So I kept the aviation thing happening. I started flying balloons when I was 12, and always wanted to be an aviator. I did everything I could to get as close to aviation and rocketry and space as I could.
The invention process was always there, we were always inventing things. We were never intimidated by people's perceptions of what we were dead-set on accomplishing. You know, there's often a chuckle factor from other people about what you're doing, but when you're in it and you understand it, you just ignore them and get on with it.
[After the rocket project] I didn't want to be dealing with the navy or anything military related, so I just quit completely and went off and became a musician. And I did that for a living.
On being a musician:
I was playing the bass and writing songs and doing shows, typical rock bands and stuff. I was in San Francisco, so a lot was exploding in multimedia. I ended up helping to edit a couple books on multimedia. That's how I learned about it actually – I was a proofreader. I proof read these books, and then I ended up becoming a subject in them.
Some friends of mine had a video game company, so I did music and sound design for about six or seven video games. I was doing very well, and had a good living in that business. I did the first Spiderman video game, I did one for Sega called Zero Tolerance, we did some living books for Trimark. It was a challenge to do the music at the time, because it was all computer based, and I didn't know anything about computers. But they forced me to learn enough to do it.
I had to compose music that was compelling, but often it could only play one note at a time, so stuff sounded like Devo songs. Plus sound designs for crunching brains, aliens getting shot, whatever. You had to be creative.
I invented a music remixing interface called the Mixman DM-2, which was arguably the first digital, scratchable consumer remixing machine. It let little kids or anyone become DJs. I sold it to Atari initially, and then to Mattel. It was based entirely on Mixman remixing software, and we did a lot of development at both Atari and Mattel.
I spent the next three years traveling around the world doing music deals. I worked with David Bowie, Ice T, Kelis, George Clinton; a lot of stars.
On chasing the land speed record with Craig Breedlove's Spirit of America:
I heard that Craig Breedlove was building a land speed car. I thought that was pretty amazing when I was six years old, so as my inner six-year-old I contacted the guy and ended up running the racing team. We made an effort to break the sound barrier. I did that kinda between video games, I'd say.
We didn't break the sound barrier, the British did. I was there that day of course. I ran the American team and Richard Noble ran the English team. We built the machine, we made some great runs at it, but the company wasn't adequately funded to keep going. We were definitely less funded than the British team. They had a fighter jet squadron that was operating the vehicle, and a lot of sponsors.
The sound barrier was 763 miles per hour that day. We were up well over 600 … it's been a while now. We ended up doing a big u-turn at about 670 … it ran really nicely on CNN for a few days. But nobody was killed when we had that mishap in '96, so we rebuilt the car, went back in '97, and ran some more.
In '97 we went to Black Rock with only one set of tires for the car, we couldn't afford a spare set. We ran as long as we could until the tires became so damaged that it wasn't safe to run them any more. The year ran out, we ran out of time, the rains hit and started flooding the desert. Eventually I arranged the sale of the car to Steve Fossett, who wanted to try returning the record to the USA, but he died in a plane crash before making an attempt, so that closed the chapter on the Spirit of America.
We had a lot of data supporting the idea that our car was wickedly faster than the British car. When we went into the u-turn, the power curve … we were headed for 920 miles an hour when Craig pulled the car out of power and went into the u-turn. It was only in first stage afterburner and it has four stages. It was a J79-8 out of an F4 Phantom … more than capable. We only had a one and a half mile run-up to that speed. So we had a lot of ground space available that we didn't use and we had a lot of power that we didn't use.
The British car was designed to have 100,000 pounds of aerodynamic downforce, which was shoving the wheels into the ground like a snow plough. Our car did not – we had only one G of loading, we were an 8,000 pound car. So we didn't cut really deep ruts in the ground, and therefore our car was incredibly quick off the line. I think we were 0 to 700 mph in 15 seconds. We were pulling 6 second miles.
If you look at the Bloodhound, it's similar to our car, with a tricycle arrangement and no downforce. I haven't looked at it closely and I just don't really care. I was interested in the land speed project because the sound barrier is a very real thing, and it's not some perception, or some kind of made-up objective. It's a very real barrier, and I felt the undefined challenges were the next thing to conquer before we went to Mars. When the sound barrier wasn't available any more, I wasn't that interested in land speed racing.
I was also interested in building the car as an illustration of what we can do as humans. It wasn't my objective to continue in the field of racing, it was my objective just to put that in the history books behind me so we could get on to the next thing. It's more of a metaphor of what's possible as opposed to some prime obsession.
People would ask "why are you doing this?" I would say "because it matters to me." It mattered when I was a six year old kid. I thought it was really impressive, and maybe it helped me make decisions to get into this lifestyle of development and creating things. For that reason I felt it was valuable and I thought I could create value if I pushed it forward a little bit. But it doesn't mean I have to do it twice.
On the Ansari X-Prize and Rocket Racing League:
I was a judge for the X-Prize, it was a competition to build a three person rocketship to carry a person into sub-orbital flight. I used to work with some of the guys at Scaled Composites, they were the prime and only competitor to launch
Then I was on the crew for Rocket Racing League, where I helped build a few rocket powered planes to race each other. We never had a reliable power plant, but tried many different ways to develop and integrate one. That was a challenge.
These machines were very expensive to operate; our land speed car was $50,000 per run, the Rocket Racing planes were probably $20,000 a minute to run the engines. So these things are very unique and interesting, but there's also a challenge; even for developers it's tough to come up with the resources to do these things. It was an overly-ambitious project.
Check out part two of this interview, in which Dezso talks to us about his current passion: flying cars, or roadable aircraft. Dezso is trying to start a racing league to showcase and develop the 60-odd flying cars currently in existence. He talks us through his favorite existing designs, a few he's very much not a fan of, and his thoughts on the future of electric aviation. Coming up soon!