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“Interview with Robert Truax: Rocket Pioneer,” Interviewer Unknown
Quest Volume: 30 #3 (2023)
Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun are more familiar to most people, but another important rocket pioneer and visionary of that era was Robert C. “Bob” Truax. As a teenager in Alameda, California, he began experimenting with solid rocket propulsion. He tested his first liquid-propellant thrust chambers as a midshipman at the US Naval Academy in December 1937 and demonstrated one to Arthur C. Clarke and other members of the British Interplanetary Society in July 1939. Several months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Truax established and led a project to develop liquid-propellant JATO units for the PBY seaplane and other Navy aircraft. At the Navy’s Engineering Experiment Station in Annapolis, Maryland, his team worked side-by-side with a second team led by Robert Goddard. The design by Truax’s team proved superior to Goddard’s. Soon after the war ended, Truax organized the Naval Missile Test Center’s propulsion laboratory at Point Mugu, California, and headed a four-person team of rocket engineers who interrogated Wernher von Braun at Fort Bliss, Texas, after his arrival to the United States from Germany. From September 1946 to August 1949, Truax headed the Bureau of Aeronautics “rocket propulsion desk” in Washington, DC.
Frustrated by the Navy’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for large rockets, Truax accepted an assignment to Gen. Bernard Schriever at the US Air Force, commander of the recently established Western Development Division, whose charter centered on accelerated development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Truax became the first manager of the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile program and later supported NASA’s early human spaceflight efforts. Thor also served as the first stage of NASA’s Delta rocket. He next oversaw the transfer of the Air Force’s first satellite program, WS-117, to Schriever’s organization and became its West Coast manager. His final active-duty assignment took Truax to ARPA, where he served as a technical advisor on the Corona reconnaissance program.
After leaving the military in 1959, he worked for Aerojet-General Corporation’s Advanced Development Division, where he conceived of a low-cost, ultra-heavy lift sea-launched, reusable booster—the Sea Dragon, which was unable to gain funding. In the mid-1960s, he left to form his own company, Truax Engineering Inc. (TEI), which developed designs for a number of rockets including the Excalibur and the X-3 “Volks-Rocket,” which in the late-1970s sought to launch the first private astronaut into space. He also designed a steam-powered rocket to help daredevil Evel Knievel for an attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho.
Bob Truax passed away on 17 September 2010 at the age of 93. Many experts throughout the years have said he was a visionary whose ideas were far ahead of his time. In the following interview, it is easy to connect his beliefs regarding reusability, cost-monitoring, and rocket design with the business plan that SpaceX has followed.
The following oral history took place circa 1984. The interviewer is unidentified. The cassette tapes can be found in the SPACE 3.0’s Space Business & Commerce Archives.
Truax, Robert C. “Interview with Robert Truax: Rocket Pioneer.” Interviewer Unknown. Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly 30, no. 3 (2023): 41-57.