En­gi­neer who loved rock­ets worked with Evel Knievel

Los Angeles Times - - Obituaries - Keith Thursby keith.thursby @latimes.com

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 high­pro­file 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 tooth­pow­der 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 great­grand­chil­dren.

Ser­vices will be pri­vate.


Carol Berson

Robert C. Truax, seen in 1980, ges­tures to show the path his rocket would take as he sits on the seat to be used by a pri­vate as­tro­naut on a sub­or­bital flight to the edge of space. The project was never com­pleted.

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