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."
But many of the would-be space travelers bowed out when they learned just how dangerous Capt. Truax's rocket was. Because of budget constraints and weight, the spaceship was not equipped with an emergency oxygen supply or escape pod.
"NASA doesn't talk to me," Capt. Truax told Regis. "They think I'm nutty as a fruitcake."
Robert Collins Truax was born Sept. 3, 1917, in Gary, Ind., and grew up in a log cabin in Mendocino County, Calif. He later moved to San Francisco, where he delivered newspapers.
He became interested in rocketry as a teenager and constructed balsa-wood missiles filled with a rudimentary propellant of powder from shotgun shells and glue.
Another of his successful experimental vessels was a tooth-powder can filled with nitrate movie-reel film that sent streams of the highly flammable celluloid slithering all over his lawn, igniting patches of turf.
"It was more an accident than anything that I didn't kill somebody," Capt. Truax recalled.
As a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in the 1930s, Capt. Truax gave the upperclassmen chocolate bars suffused with laxatives, an episode that earned him the nickname "ex-lax Truax."
He graduated in 1939 and served aboard the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier. As a young officer, Capt. Truax helped develop a jet-assisted takeoff system for propeller-driven planes so they could launch from the short deck of the carrier.
He received a second bachelor's degree, in aeronautical engineering, from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and a master's degree in nuclear engineering from what is now Iowa State University.
Afterward, Capt. Truax contributed to the design of the submarine-launched Polaris ballistic missile and the intermediate range Thor missile.
Roger Launius, senior curator and space historian at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, said Capt. Truax played a role in the founding of NASA.
While representing the American Rocket Society in fall 1957, after the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, Capt. Truax prepared a proposal for Congress advocating for the creation of an independent space agency, which later became NASA.
After working at what is now known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Capt. Truax retired from the Navy in 1959 and joined Aerojet, where the company's executives gave him a $1 million budget and the freedom to design as he pleased.
Capt. Truax said he felt stifled by the corporate structure and in 1967 formed an engineering business. Knievel was among his first clients.
Capt. Truax's first marriage, to Rosalind Schroeder, ended in divorce. His second wife, Sally Sabins, died in 1993.
Survivors include his third wife, the former Marisol Guzman, of Valley Center; four children from his first marriage, Ann Fleming of Lincoln, Calif., Kathleen Truax of Sonoma, Calif., Steven Truax of Sacramento and Gary Truax of Berkeley, Calif.; two sons from his second marriage, Scott Truax of Willard, Utah, and Dean Truax of Vancouver, Wash.; 13 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Capt. Truax's X-3 rocket never left Earth. Of the 2,000 spaceflight volunteers - his "Lindberghs," he called them - none worked out. When someone suggested he pilot the ship for the dangerous trip, Capt. Truax humbly declined.
Calling himself "a chicken," he told Newsweek in 1980, "Besides, who'll go back to the drawing board if the thing goes boom?"