Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Competition for NASA

It was one of those proverbial suburban Sunday afternoons, and Robert Truax's neighbors were out planting daffodils, pruning shrubs, or lounging on their turquoise lawn furniture reading the funnies. In the backyard of a California ranch-style home on Green Meadow Lane, however, the retired Navy captain was up to something considerably less terrestrial.

Robert Truax was tinkering with his rocket -- a sleek white cylinder that resembles an elongated hot water heater with four miniature milk cans protruding from one end. Over the last few years he has assembled this space vehicle using material salvaged from junkyards and bought through government surplus catalogs. He affectionately refers to it as "Project Private Enterprise," the "poor man's space shuttle" and "Volksrocket X-3."

About these ads

If all goes well, in the next couple of years Mr. Truax will launch his home-built rocket into the stratosphere and the man or woman who is strapped to the tip of the rocket will become the world's first private astronaut in space.

What a man does in his backyard is his own business. Yet it seems rather remarkable to find, on the edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains in a sleepy bedroom community like Saratoga, at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, up a tree-lined driveway, near the three-car garage and the swimming pool, beneath a large Monterey pine, a man who has assembled a miniature NASA.

"It isn't everybody that can sweep pine needles off their own rocket," Mr. Truax says, wide eyes gleaming with a combination of determination and mischief. He wheels a blue trailer carrying a mockup of X-3 around his son's basketball hoop. Taking a broom, he vigorously whisks fallen debris from the fuselage the way one might beat dust from an Oriental rug on a clothesline.

Truax is a trim grandfather with a graying military brushcut and a furrowed John Ford face. He wears ocher suede shoes, dark cotton trousers, a mistletoe-green corduroy shirt, and half-spectacles that are constantly slipping down the bridge of his nose. His manner is casual and friendly. In the presence of his rocket, he is capable of the unmitigated glee of a six-year-old beholding his first red wagon.

This backyard Flash Gordon was one of the United States pioneers in the field of rocketry, missiles, and space vehicles. Former president of the American Rocket Society, he also directed the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics, its first jet-propulsion office, in 1941 and is often called the "father of the Polaris" submarine missile. In 1955 he became the first head of the Air Force's intermediate range ballistic missile project, Thor. Later, in 1958, he directed the Samos, Midas, and Discoverer projects, as part of the military's top-secret space program. Long before it was fashionable, he advocated establishment of a national space program and administration.

After 20 years in the government's rocket, missile, and aerospace program and 10 years in private industry, Captain Truax retired, and now, as an outsider, he is trying to prove a point to NASA: that the existing space shuttle is too expensive, too complicated, and could slow down rather than accelerate the exploration of outer space. The sooner the door to space development is opened to red-blooded capitalism the better, he says. He hopes that his Volksrocket will dramatize to entrepreneurs that one man working in his back-yard with private money, spare parts, and a mostly volunteer ground crew can build a simple, inexpensive, reusable rocket capable of an abbreviated version of astronaut Alan Shepard's 1961 suborbital venture into space -- for a fraction of what it cost the government.

"I'm trying to stimulate competition and get people [into the space industry] with a profit motive," Mr. Truax says, striding by his black El Camino pickup, which he has to leave in the driveway. There is no room in his three-car garage with all the pressure gauges, nose cones, welding tanks, drill press, band saw, wrenches, and cardboard boxes of enough valves to outfit a battleship.

About these ads

"I don't think you'll get an economic shakeout as long as it's a government monopoly. You'll never find out what is the best way to do it unless you get a lot of profit-oriented guys in there questioning the engineer every time he wants to make something a little more complicated. You've got to keep asking 'Is this really necessary?' 'Is it economically justifiable?' After you do, I think you'll come up with an entirely different design [for the space shuttle] than NASA's."

From the back of the garage, near the rear end of a test rocket he calls his "hangar queen," comes a nasal shout: "Hey, Bob! We've got a few flaky oscillations back here but I think we're in the ballpark." It is the voice of Dan Slater, an inventor, electronics whiz, and space buff who flew up from Los Angeles for the weekend to help get the bugs out of the autopilot.

"We'll find some way to tighten that down before liftoff," replies the rocketman with characteristic insouciance.

If nothing else, Mr. Truax is inventive and resourceful. The rocket he is assembling from junkyard parts would have cost the government umpteen millions. The X-3's propulsion unit, for example, is made up of four Rocketdyne LR101 engines he picked up from a junkyard in Fontana, Calif. The engines were built in 1958 for the Air Force's Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles at a cost of about $15,000 apiece. He picked up four for a mere $100. Prospecting in government surplus catalogs, he found, at bargain-basement prices, an oscillograph designed for the B-52 bomber, and several inertial platform units from the supersonic X-15, once the world's fastest airplane. He paid $36 for each of the units, then resold one for a cool $17,000 to help finance his project.

The X-3's wood and red vinyl astronaut seat (nothing fancy, mind you) was donated by a local furniture manufacturer. The astronaut will ride in a cramped space capsule -- 6 feet high, 25 inches in diameter -- fashioned from the tail end of a reject aircraft fuel tank designed for a Grumman Albatross. "It's about as small as a guy could get into. I won't say it's comfortable," Mr. Truax says.

Pointing to a section of the rocket where the astronaut will sit, he explains that tail end was left over when he used the nose end for Evel Knievel's Skycycle X-2.

It turns out that shortly after retiring, Mr. Truax completed the design and construction of the jet-powered motorcycle which daredevil Evel Knievel used in his unsuccessful 1974 attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The steam rocket Mr. Truax constructed for Knievel worked like a charm, but the parachute unit (which he did not design) deployed as Evel was taking off and he, star-spangled jumpsuit and all, landed in the drink.

"After the Knievel failure," Truax's wife, Sally, recalls at the kitchen table of their Saratoga home, "he asked Bob, 'How am I going to top that? and Bob said, 'I'm going to make you the first private astronaut in space.' Bob's like an old war horse, he can't stop building rockets."

In many ways, Project Private Enterprise grew out of that day seven years ago when Knievel was fished out of the Snake River. Shortly thereafter he plunked down $3,000 for Truax to do a design study on a rocket that would carry Knievel into suborbital flight. Truax finished the study, but by then Knievel had gotten into trouble with the law and been sentended to six-months in jail for "playing baseball without a ball," Truax says. The rocketman had to find another astronaut.

"Everybody told me nobody would be crazy enough to ride this thing, but I've had hundreds of calls and letters. I actually have guys fighting over it -- 'Take me!' 'No, take me!' "says Truax. At the moment he has a list of more than 2,000 volunteers.

"I had one young fellow write me," he recalls, "who said he spent a whole week riding the worst roller coaster he could find. Five thousand trips on a roller coaster at Coney Island and he says his main qualification is that his body can take more Gs in more directions than anybody I'll ever find."

Among the other aspiring astronauts is a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force, a Florida jockey, a 26-year-old millionaire tortilla magnate from California, the stage manager for the Beach Boys, a tire salesman from Oakland, a warehouse worker for a major grocery store chain, and a woman pilot for Braniff Airlines, who would be the first American woman in space. "I'm surprised more women haven't jumped at the chance," Truax says.

Why is Truax so magnanimously relinquishing the privilege of being blasted into the stratosphere?

"You called that a privilege?" the rocketman muses. "The reason I'm not going up is because I'm sane, and anyway I'm chicken. I'm too old to be a hero. Get some new Lindbergh."

While the world appears to be populated with would-be Lindberghs, investors in backyard rocketry appear to be rather rare birds. "It's pretty amazing that so many people are willing to risk their lives and so few are willing to risk their money," says Truax, who used up all his savings, a retirement fund, and now "may have to take out a loan from my mother." He even tried recruiting financial backers in the classified section of 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."

Truax figures Project Private Enterprise is $1 million and a year's work away from blastoff. International Creative Management, a Hollywood agency that markets stunts and actors, told Truax that his first space shot would generate between $10 million and $20 million in television rights, movie rights, T-shirts , trinkets, and the like. There was even talk of charging spectators $140 to autograph or scribble a message to a girlfriend on the rocket before liftoff.

Originally, Truax had the support of a Chicago consortium of 38 businessmen who kicked in $240,000 but waived the privilege of riding the Volksrocket. Last September, however, they pulled out of the project and Truax was forced to lay off all but one of his dozen employees. The project, however, was given a recent boost when the government of the Bahamas offered to give Truax a launch site in the islands free from legal and insurance entanglements in exchange for the international publicity such a media event would attract. Truax and officials from the Bahamas are in the midst of negotiations. This week he flies to Dallas in hopes of securing the $1 million he needs from financial backers to launch the project.

Still confident his rocket will get off the ground, the rocketman is scrambling to come up with enough cash. "I told all those guys who want to be the astronaut, 'Look, none of us are going any place unless we get some money behind us.' I tried to convert them all into fund raisers. I said 'Go out and beat the business and the first one back with $100,000 I'll sign an exclusive contract with and make him the astronaut.'"

The rocket will be guided by an on-board automatic pilot, and the emergency functions (cutting the engines, deploying the parachutes, separating the propulsion unit from the capsule), if needed, will be performed from the ground in the launch control center, a van donated by a local moving company. Thus, the duties of the astronaut will be minimal: He or she must squat on the small paded stool in the nose cone.

Though the compartment will be pressurized, the astronaut will not wear a space suit, only a stunt pilot's seat belt and a helicopter pilot's helmet. He will be given a television camera to point out any of the three polycarbonate plastic windows. He is basically along for the ride, which will last approximately 15 minutes from liftoff to splashdown.

"The astronaut is basically there for PR. He takes the public with him. After all, we shouldn't waste that experience on just one guy," Truax says, obliging a photographer and buckling himself into the tiny space capsule. His assistants lower the nose cone over his head, giving Truax the appearance of a naughty schoolboy sentenced to wearing a dunce cap in the classroom corner. He is much too large for the capsule. His elbows stick out the side windows and he is unable to look directly out the front window without severely craning his neck. "We hope the astronaut has the presence of mind," Truax says, poking his head out, "to point the camera out the window and say "Folks, we have a liftoff. It's a beautiful day. I can see Nassau coming up over the horizon. . . ."

If all goes as scheduled, the countdown in the Bahamas will be an abridged version of the ritual at Cape Canaveral. The rocket will be raised to vertical position, and the public relations person Truax selects as astronaut will climb the 13-rung ladder to the nose cone. The ground crew will strap him in and begin and countdown. At blastoff, the rocket will weigh 3,000 pounds and the engines, fueled by keronese and liquid oxygen, will fire with a combined thrust of 4,000 pounds, enough to propel the rocket to a velocity of 2,250 miles per hour. (The velocity needed to escape the earth's gravitational field and put a vehicle into orbit is 25,000 mph, but 2,250 mph is sufficient for the suborbital flight Truax has planned.)

"It will take off very slowly, with about the same acceleration that Saturn V [NASA's moon-rocket booster] had, but it had better lift off within a couple seconds of firing or it will melt the launch stand from underneath it," Truax explains.

With a nearly vertical trajectory, the Volksrocket will attain the speed of sound at 30,000 feet, and as the atmosphere gets less and less dense, it will accelerate to 2,250 mph. After 100 seconds of flight, when the rocket is 20 miles above the earth, the fuel will burn out and the engines will quit. The spaceship will cruise to an altitude of 60 to 70 miles. Truax's rocket must exceed an altitude of 100 kilometers (62.15 miles), the beginning of "outer space," to be internationally certified as a space flight.Anyone entering that region qualifies for the title of "astronaut." Until that altitude, you are only a pilot.

According to Truax, "the astronaut should be high enough to see the curvature of the earth. The sky will be black and the stars will be out in the daytime." After reaching apogee, the rocket will fall back to earth, tumbling end-over-end through space. After three minutes of this ("It will seem like three hours to the astronaut," Truax says, "but he will be entirely weightless for that period"), a drogue parachute will open, then the main canopy. The rocket is expected to hit the water at about 27 mph, 10 miles from the launch site. Total flight time: about 15 minutes.

Once the rocket and astronaut are in the water, "we've got all kinds of ways to find him," Truax assures. "We'll be tracking him on radar, and he has a beacon on board. We'll have a helicopter and two frogmen. Both of the frogmen were on the Apollo recovery crews."

The only air available to the astronaut is that in the capsule at liftoff -- enough, Truax says, to sustain him for at least 30 minutes. Because the flight is expected to last 15 minutes, a quick recovery is essential.

"The rocket will be floating in the water and we hope he'll be lying on his back. There's a possibility that the wind would roll him over and over again. Chances are he's never going to have to open up [the capsule], but if we can't find him and we have to call the search on account of darkness, then he would have to spend the night in it and we'd find him in the morning, maybe. We'll probably give him a snorkel -- you know, a breathing tube with a ping-pong ball."

"If everything goes well, the frogmen will detach the parachutes, attach the rocket to the helicopter winch, and pick up the whole rocket with the astronaut in it. We'll set him back on the launch pad, unbutton him, and let him descend the 13 steps to talk to what will probably be a jillion newspapermen."

Truax is the first to admit that the Volksrocket X-3 mission is no joy ride. In order to cut costs to one-tenth of what it would cost NASA, Truax said he has settled for a 90 percent survival goal, as opposed to NASA's more expensive 99 percent survival target. Truax says he will not send an astronaut into space until two successful unmanned missions have been completed successfully.

The X-3 does not have an astronaut escape system (though Truax is considering one) for that critical portion of the flight between blastoff and reaching an altitude where it is safe to bail out.

Again, Truax openly admits the danger involved. "If the rocket should go off course and we have to abort the flight, we would have a full tank of fuel. There's a good chance, even if it hits the water, there would be an explosion. You've heard of the big-bang theory," he says chuckling sardonically. "It would be best if we could separate the propulsion unit from the capsule."

If the rocket loses thrust during the early phases of the flight, the astronaut would be, in Truax's words, "a gone gosling."

In his booklet on the project, Truax offers a blunt disclaimer: "We expect to achieve the extremely low cost by rigorous adherence to a minimal objective, by strick simplicity of equipment, by extensive use of well-proven but surplus components and, quite frankly, by asking the astronaut and the sponsors to take somewhat higher risk than is currently acceptable to the US Aeronautics and Space Administration."

What do the boys in the rocket industry think of Truax's shenanigans? "If all he's going to do is go up and come down, you can do that in an elevator, and with a lot more comfort," a former Air Force officer once said of Truax's project.

Rudi Beichel, one of the nation's foremost rocket authorities, came over from Germany with Wernher von Braun's team in 1945. Until retiring a few years ago, he worked as the chief scientist at the Aerojet Liquid Rocket Company in Sacramento. "You can build a rocket in your backyard if you have the resources, materiels, and knowledge. Truax certainly has the knowledge. He has been working on rockets since he was a teen-ager. He is building this rocket like the guy who goes to the scrapyard and puts together a junk car.I'm not sure what his purpose is. After he puts a man in space, where will he get the next $1 million to do it again?I would agree with him: We certainly don't need the huge federal programs with all that featherbedding."

Another leading rocket expert who is familiar with Truax's work but asks not to be identified, says, "If I were to build a rocket myself, I'd just as soon have Bob build it for me. But I would never do something that risky. The experiment is reasonably sound, but the rocket is a fortuitous collection of scrap he put together for a song. Any rocket operation is dangerous. You can have the whole federal apparatus on your side and it's still risky. There is a German company that is making cheap, simple rockets of the same sort in Libya, and it has caused quite a fuss because they have the same characteristics of ballistic missiles and might get into the hands of terrorists who could hold a city hostage. No self-respecting terrorist, however, would touch Truax's rocket because there is no way to know whether it would hit Fresno or San Francisco."

Truax, who doesn't seem to miss a trick, has already considered the possibility of space-age "barnstorming." He says that if the advertising and "show biz" aspects of the X-3's maiden flight pay off, he would sell rides on his rocket for "less than $10,000" to "anyone having a yen to see our beautiful earth from out there." That "anyone" would, of course, have to sign a waiver absolving Truax of anything that might happen after the customer snuggles into the nose cone.

Needles to say, Truax is concerned that the Volksrocket will be written off as "just a stunt, another Evel Knievel project." He is worried about losing his credibility. Believe it or not, the rocketman has something bigger and better up his sleeve.

Truax hunches over a table in his office just off the garage and unrolls the blueprints for a contraption he calls the Sea Dragon. A glint of excitement flashes in his eyes as he describes a scheme to build a reusable, cheap, but enormous rocket the size of a medium oil tanker. It would be launched from, and recovered in, the ocean, and would carry twice the payload into space as NASA's space shuttle.Nearly the length of two football fields, the Sea Dragon "staggers people's imaginations because it's so large, but I've been in the business for 40 years and we've always been staggered by size," Truax says.

"Actually, it's small by shipbuilding standards," he points out somewhat defensively as he gingerly runs a hand over the Sea Dragon plans which have been mothballed since the 1960s.

"We would treat it as a ship: Build it in dry dock, tow it out into the ocean , and fuel it from tankers, which would save a lot of land storage. We would have a ballast unit which is flooded and erects the rocket to vertical position. We launch it right out of the water without gantry cranes or expensive launch pads.

"If I can convince people [with the Volksrocket] that you can reuse a rocket many times after a recovery with no major refurbishment, then someone just might buy the idea of the Sea DRagon. I've always made a serious effort to rock the boat and I've at least got it started in that direction," Truax says.

In 1965 Truax headed a recoverable launch vehicle study sponsored by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, a study which some believe was instrumental in convincing NASA to begin work on the space shuttle. Now Truax believes the space shuttle concept is not radical enough. "NASA is afraid of a water recovery because they think if you get it [the shuttle] wet, you'll have to overhaul it completely. As a result, they are paying a big penalty for wanting to land it on land.

"Their biggest mistake was opting for wings, and assuming that if it looked like an airplane, it would have the operating cost of an airplane.

"The wings are extremely heavy for what they do, and they have pushed the technology right to the breaking point. Already NASA is realizing that the shuttle doesn't have enough payload for certain missions. The Sea Dragon, on the other hand, would be capable of putting 1,000 tons in orbit in one shot."

While Truax appears to be tooting his own horn, he is not just talking through his space helmet. He believes that unless space shuttles are larger, more economical, and more simply designed than NASA's existing vehicle, then the conquest and ultimate colonization of space will be pushed further into the future.

"I believe in the industrialization and colonization of space, but the day that a viable space civilization arrives is going to be drastically influenced by the cost of getting there.

"A thousand years from now, if we survive, we will have taken all the matter in the solar system and constructed a giant ring that is circling the sun at about the orbit of Mercury. Assuming we collected only asteroids at first, small pieces that could be easily moved about, I once calculated we could construct a habitat with generous space for every person, certainly more space than people in New York City have. It would support a billion times as many people as are living on earth now."

Truax's rocketing imagination is gaining momentum. "Of course that would mean a billion times as many scientists and some of those would take us to the stars, opening new options for individuals. In the old days, all you could do in America was farm.It took 90 percent of the population working to feed us. Now only 3 percent are farmers and the rest are doing things almost unheard of in Colonial times. Our horizons have expanded, and certainly intelligence was meant to be used for more than inventing better ways to split a roteen log and get out a few more bugs."

Truax sighs. With the mention of bugs and rotten logs, his space fantasy appears to have deployed its drogue chutes and is slowly drifting back down to earth. He leans back in his office chair and takes a long pensive swig of soda.

"In all honesty I expect I'm a little premature. I usually am. Some noted business type once said, 'Never be the first or the last to get into a new line of business.' Firestone ended up a pauper. Now $250,000 of my own time and money is down the tubes [on the X-3 project]. Just think of all the people in history who came up with grand and glorious ideas but ended up on the poorhouse. I'm well on my way but it sure is fun."

Speaking of fun, Truax suddenly remembered he had promised to take Dan Slater and his brother for a ride in his Vari-Eze, a tiny, two-seater Styrofoam and fiberglass airplane that seems to fly backward, and incidentally was dreamed up by another backyard inventor, Burt Rutan, an aeronautical engineer. Truax grabs his navy blue flight cap, but as he and his two assistants head for his pickup, they run into a young man wandering up the driveway. He is carrying a clipboard and the diligent smile of a traveling salesman. As he approaches the house and sees the Volkrockets propped up in the driveway pointing toward the Pacific, his jaw drops.

"Whatm is that?" he squeals with the astonishment of someone who has stumbled onto a Minuteman missile silo on someone's front lawn.

"It's a rocket," Truax responds in a slightly perturbed tone of voice as he motions his friends to hurry and get in the car.

"But, golly," the young man persists earnestly. "What are you gonna do with it?"

Truax pauses with one hand on the car door handle and looks at his digital watch. He is already an hour late for the airport. "That's a long story, I'm afraid. Why don't you talk to my wife?" As Truax drives off, the peddler is left in the driveway, gawking at the gleaming white rocket. He has no doubt forgotten the soapsuds or encyclopedias or whatever he came to sell. His gaze seems to be fixed on the nose cone. He, too, is probably dreaming of other worlds.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.