Rocket scientist Robert C. Truax, who built ship for Evel Knieval, dies at 93

Capt. Robert C. Truax, third from right, was a Navy rocket scientist who later designed a
Capt. Robert C. Truax, third from right, was a Navy rocket scientist who later designed a "Skycycle" for daredevil Evel Knievel. Capt. Truax died age 93. (Family Photo)
  Enlarge Photo    
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 10:25 PM

Rocket scientist and retired Navy Capt. Robert C. Truax collaborated with physicist Robert Goddard in the 1940s and helped design some of the military's most advanced ballistic missiles during the Cold War.

He spent part of his retirement from the Navy designing a steam-powered, red-white-and-blue rocket to propel daredevil Evel Knievel over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. It might have worked, but a parachute malfunctioned.

"Old Evel crawled up out of the river and said, 'Bob, now what have you got up your sleeve?' " Capt. Truax told Popular Mechanics in 1981. "I told him I could make him the world's first private astronaut."

Capt. Truax, who died of prostate cancer Sept. 17 at age 93 in Valley Center, Calif., was an engineer with unorthodox ideas and grand ambitions. Inspired by an enthusiasm for private spaceflight, he took out a classified advertisement in the Wall Street Journal:

"Wanted: risky capital for risky project. Man or woman interested in becoming the world's first private astronaut - must be in reasonably good health and able to produce 100,000 in spendable money."

So began his work on the X-3, which cannibalized many of the leftover parts from the 1974 Knievel escapade.

He built the vessel at his home in Saratoga, Calif. His yard was scattered with cars, motorcycles, rocket engines and jet parts, and he kept the white spaceship on a launch pad next to his pool, which was in the shape of the state of California.

"It isn't everybody that can sweep pine needles off their own rocket," Capt. Truax once said of the vehicle, which was designed to climb more than 60 miles then float back with parachutes in less than 15 minutes.

He called the 25-foot-tall vehicle the "poor man's space shuttle" because it closely resembled an enlarged hot-water heater with a nose cone and fins. The ship's four engines - which came from a Cold War-era ballistic missile and provided 20,000 pounds of thrust - cost him $25 apiece at a junkyard.

Knievel, who was still a bit embarrassed about falling into the Snake River, left the operation. To drum up interest - and cash - Capt. Truax published the Journal advertisement and also appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

He received more than 2,000 responses, including from a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force, a Florida thoroughbred jockey, a millionaire tortilla magnate and a Beach Boys roadie.

"I even had a blind guy who wanted to fly it!" Capt. Truax told science writer Ed Regis for his 1990 book "Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over The Edge."


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company