Thursday, September 30, 2010

Deceased--Robert C. Truax

Robert C. Truax
September 3rd, 1917 to September 17th, 2010

"Robert C. Truax dies at 93; rocket pioneer aided daredevil Evel Knievel's 1974 canyon jump"

The retired Navy captain also played a role in several high-profile military projects and worked on building a suborbital rocket in his backyard.


Keith Thursby

September 30th, 2010

Los Angeles Times

Robert C. Truax, a retired Navy captain and pioneering rocket engineer whose adventurous projects included working with daredevil Evel Knievel and building a rocket in his backyard, has died. He was 93.

Truax died of prostate cancer Sept. 17 at his home in Valley Center, Calif., said his wife, Marisol.

He interacted with such scientific luminaries as Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun and developed concepts that led to high-profile projects such as the Polaris submarine missile and the military's pre- NASA space programs, but he might be best known for building a steam-powered rocket for Knievel's 1974 attempt to clear the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, then trying to prove space travel could be affordable by building his own rocket in the early 1980s.

"What distinguished him was his visionary sense," Rick Sturdevant, deputy director of history for the Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colo., told The Times. "I've had numerous rocket engineers tell me that a lot of Bob's ideas were ignored because they were too far out of the box, but that didn't mean they were naive or unworkable."

Truax had "an absolute passion for rockets," his son Scott said in an interview. "Rockets were in the forefront — everything else was a distant second. You could say it was a healthy obsession."

Robert Collins Truax was born Sept. 3, 1917, in Gary, Ind., the younger son of Alida and Darwin Truax. The family soon moved to Northern California because of his mother's health problems. By the time Truax graduated from Alameda High School in 1933, he already was a "space cadet" who built rockets from tooth-powder cans, he told The Times in 1985.

He entered the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1939. During World War II, he served on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, then led a team that developed the first liquid-propellant takeoff-assist units for naval aircraft.

Truax earned a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering at the Naval Academy's postgraduate school in 1952 and a master's in nuclear engineering at Iowa State University in 1953.

In the 1950s, Truax was on loan to the Air Force, for which he worked on the Thor missile project and the first Air Force satellite program. He also served as president of the American Rocket Society, a group started in 1930 to advance the concept of manned spaceflight.

He retired from the military in 1959 and joined Aerojet General in Sacramento, developing the Sea Dragon, a reusable, sea-launched rocket. He also continued work on steam-powered rockets that eventually led him to Knievel. By 1967, Truax was president of his own company.

The motorcycle daredevil's 1974 jump was a media event. Knievel had become a celebrity by courting danger with elaborate motorcycle jumps, but the attempt to get over the 1,700-foot-wide canyon was by far his most dangerous and most lucrative. A headline from a 1974 Times article said Knievel would "make a killing — or kill himself."

He survived the jump but didn't make it over the canyon. News accounts said a parachute opened too early, affecting the flight of Truax's "Skycycle."

"Technically, he made it over the canyon" but was blown back by a 15-mph headwind, said William Sprow, a consultant to Edwards Air Force Base and Johns Hopkins University who started working for Truax in 1959.

Sprow said they knew of the wind issues but that Knievel couldn't delay the launch because of the commitment to televise the event. Knievel died in 2007.

By the 1980s, Truax turned to building a rocket in the backyard at his home in Saratoga, Calif. His plan was for a 25-foot rocket that would send a volunteer into suborbital flight of at least 60 miles up. He believed space travel could be more affordable and that spacecraft could be reusable.

"Ultimately, he saw our future in space, and the only way we're going to get there was to make it affordable," his son Scott said.

Truax had trouble finding enough money to complete the project, but received plenty of media attention, including an appearance on the "Tonight Show."

"You think it's going to work?" host Johnny Carson asked Truax, who didn't hesitate with his answer.

"You bet it's gonna work," he said.

In addition to his wife, Truax is survived by four children from his first marriage to Rosalind Heath Schroeder, which ended in divorce: Ann Fleming of Lincoln, Calif., Gary Truax of Berkeley, Kathleen Truax of Sonoma and Steven Truax of Sacramento; two children from his second marriage to Sally Sabins, who died in 1993: Dean Truax of Vancouver, Wash., and Scott Truax of Willard, Utah; seven grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.

"Robert Truax, a Top Rocket Scientist, Is Dead at 93"


Douglas Martin

September 29th, 2010

The New York Times

When Evel Knievel failed to leap the Snake River Canyon in 1974, he rode a vehicle powered by Robert C. Truax’s rockets. Drag racers could not beat speed records in his rocket-powered cars. NASA never bought his idea of using battleship-size missiles to launch satellites.

Nor did his dream of building bargain-basement spaceships materialize, despite decades of effort. He predicted that 50,000 people would be living in space by 1980, rather than the three that did, residents of the International Space Station.

Mr. Truax was nonetheless regarded as one of the premier rocket scientists of the 20th century. He died at age 93 of prostate cancer on Sept. 17 in Valley Center, Calif., said his wife, Marisol.

Mr. Truax was a career naval officer lent to the Air Force for top-secret projects, and later a corporate aerospace executive and an entrepreneur. His early research for the Navy laid the foundation for the liquid-propelled rockets that are the centerpiece of American space efforts, and he was a leader in developing the Thor, Viking and Polaris missile programs.

When Wernher von Braun and other German rocket experts came to the United States, Mr. Truax led the team that debriefed them. As president of the American Rocket Society, he was an early, vigorous advocate of the American space program.

The Encyclopedia Astronautica called him “one of the great originals of American rocketry.” In an interview, Rick W. Sturdevant, an Air Force historian, called him “an artist when it came to rocketry.”

Mr. Truax was more modest: “I just like to go out and play with rockets.”

His backyard rocket program, which he called Bob’s Space Program, sounds playful indeed, but its purpose was serious. It was an initiative to meld surplus rocket parts, like engines at $25 each (down from $15,000) and send civilians to space. Volunteers — including a tortilla tycoon and a guy who had ridden a roller coaster at Coney Island 5,000 times — were plentiful; money, less so.

Mr. Truax’s began this “Volkrocket” project in the mid-1970s and pursued it until 2004, when he lost a $10 million competition to be the first nongovernment entity to send civilians to space.

Robert Collins Truax was born Sept. 3, 1917, in Gary, Ind. His father became ill working in a steel mill, so the family moved to rural Northern California and built a log cabin. They later moved to Alameda, Calif., outside Oakland, where Mr. Truax completed 12 years of school in nine years and became an Eagle scout.

He also made rockets with gunpowder, shaking the family’s house, yard and tranquillity. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the Naval Academy, where he wrote scientific articles on rockets. After serving on ships for two years, he was ordered to form a Navy team to find ways to use rockets to help planes take off in a shorter distance with more bombs.

Robert Goddard, the United States’ most celebrated early rocket scientist, led a civilian team to compete with Mr. Truax’s using a different method. Lieutenant Truax’s was chosen.

For three years after World War II, Lieutenant Commander Truax worked for the Navy’s “rocket desk” in Washington. He then went to the Naval Postgraduate School to earn a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering and to what is now Iowa State University for a nuclear engineering master’s degree.

In 1953, he developed a concept for putting long-range missiles on submarines. Some say the Polaris missile emerged from this work.

He left the Navy after 24 years, partly because he doubted the military’s commitment to missiles. He began his research on steam-powered rockets when a teenager his daughter was dating was experimenting with dangerous amateur rockets. Mr. Truax thought steam would be safer.

It was a steam rocket that Mr. Knievel used in his failed leap. But the daredevil still considered a proposal to use the same vehicle to jump over Mount Fuji. Mr. Truax flew to Japan, though nothing came of it. A steam-powered dragster he built for the champion drag racer Walt Arfons had several mishaps and never succeeded in its goal of exceeding the land speed record.

A contrarian theory of Mr. Truax’s that still captivates rocket experts was his idea that the cost of a rocket had little to with how big a rocket was. He did calculations showing that complexity, not size, drove costs. Hence, his proposed “space truck,” two football fields long but relatively simple in design.

Mr. Truax’s first marriage, to the former Rosalind Heath Schroeder, ended in divorce. His second wife, Sally Sabins, died in 1993. He is survived by his current wife, Marisol Guzman, 4 children from his first marriage, 2 sons from his second; 7 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.

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