Back from Huntsville and a visit with Orion Propulsion, led by Tim Pickens. Some highlights:

–Barbeque at the Pickens residence. The Pickens clan gathered for burgers and hot dogs (I brought the veggie burgers), Volkswagen-tinkering, rocket truck tours, and hybrid suitcase rocket demos.

–Orion’s a profitable, $2-million company owned by its main engineers, with no investors. It’s poised to expand significantly. If NASA selects Boeing to build the Ares 1 upper stage, Orion will build maneuvering and roll control thrusters for the system. NASA expects to choose between the Boeing team and one led by Alliant Techsystems next month.

–Last month, Orion was awarded a contract from the Army to build a rocket called Responder: 22 pounds to low Earth orbit that can be launched for under $1 million on a moment’s notice from a portable pad. Pickens envisions hundreds of pop-up satellites transforming the satellite launch industry.

–Speaking of vision, Pickens moved me and filmmaker Mark Greene to tears as we taped an interview with him at Orion. He spoke of his and his 15-year-old daughter’s dream to fly to space, and he told us how he started Orion by selling rocket parts on eBay. If I can do this, you can too, he said. Pickens is at once disarmingly down-home in his presentation and powerfully eloquent, a winning combination.

Mark and I hope to have video to post in the next couple of weeks.

Correction on 7/16/07 at 2:14 PM ET

Tim Pickens phoned me just now to clarify that his contract for Responder is just for a study by way of Colsa Corporation, not direct from the Army, and not for actually building the system.