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Engineer Gets a Blast Out of Backyard Rocket

December 08, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

SARATOGA, Calif.--The good thing about having your husband build a rocket in the backyard is that you know where to find him if there's a 50-pound sack of dog food to carry in from the car. The bad thing is that would-be astronauts and others who are helping with the project get the idea that they can flop down in front of the TV set anytime they feel like it.

"Sally doesn't mind the rocket hardware (which litters the yard and garage of their suburban home) too much," retired Navy rocket engineer Bob Truax said. "But when they (his helpers) start bringing their old cars around to work on them and don't clean up the shop. . . ."

This is no mere vacation project that must be endured by long-suffering Sally Truax. Bob Truax's bid to show that private space flight can be commercially viable has been under way for seven years now.

There are other groups that have worked on similar projects. (Two are Starstruck Inc. of Redwood City and a Houston firm called Space Services Inc., which managed to launch a 10-minute suborbital flight in 1982.) But Truax--because he works alone and at home--best represents the valiant struggle of the common man who is trying to show that space flight is not the exclusive domain of government agencies.

A Manned Rocket

Truax hopes to launch a human volunteer stuffed inside a space capsule no larger than a typical gym locker. The astronaut will sit atop a 25-foot rocket. The initial flights (starting with a launch near Oxnard that would go 65 miles up and 10 miles downrange to an ocean splashdown) are intended to prove that Truax's rocket is reusable and economical. Then he wants to press on, building an enormous workhorse capable of carrying 1,000 tons of payload into the heavens.

When that day comes--NASA, look out.

The agency's monopoly on the heavens will be broken, and Truax predicts hundreds of individuals and small businesses will scramble to build their own backyard rockets, hoping to cash in on the billions to be made from providing launch services cheaper than NASA can offer.

Truax is 68 years old. One potential investor has voiced the concern that the engineer may not live to fulfill his dream. But five years is all he needs, Truax said, for his scheme to fly on its own. "I should live that long. My mother, who lives in the back house, is 92," he said with a smile that's warm, and just slightly off kilter. It's the smile of a man who's persevered with a grand idea for a long time, despite ridicule and doubt.

Truax runs his personal space race, which

he calls Project Private Enterprise, in a low-tech domestic setting. On a recent morning, his wife's keeshond dogs yapped in the side yard. His 18-year-old, Scott, mixed paint for the rocket's fuel tank in the driveway. There was a basketball abandoned in the bushes; vines with bright red flowers climbed the house beside the front door.

Truax was in his office off the garage. He has pure gray hair that stands straight up on his head, and he was dressed as if he were going out to chop wood, in a soft flannel shirt and khaki trousers. He settled in behind his desk and began to tell a tale he's told many times before.

In the mid-'50s, Truax was on loan from the Navy to the Air Force where he was busy running the Thor Missile Program. He went on to head various satellite reconnaissance projects. He also developed the submarine-launched Polaris missile.

Truax said he had been something of a "space cadet" ever since he was a boy and constructed tiny rockets from tooth powder cans. As an adult, however, the idea that took hold of him was not the usual dream of being a spaceman.

During the excitement of the early space launches, hardly anyone was worried about expense, but Truax wanted to know why going into orbit cost so much money. "I wanted to see space develop. I wanted to see colonies in space, and the thing that limited it was the cost," he said.

Truax plunged into his own cost analysis of space flight. He originally guessed that the difference between the cost of space travel and city buses or other kinds of transportation must be the price of the fuel needed to provide thrust for the craft to leave the Earth's atmosphere.

Cost Factors

However, he said, the cost of propellent to put a pound of payload into orbit is only about $6, while the price per pound for a shuttle ride is $4,000. There had to be other factors keeping the cost up. Truax eventually came to believe it was the very nature of the government agencies regulating the space effort.

NASA and Politics

"NASA has my sympathies," he said. "They've got politics and personal inclinations to deal with. They've got people pulling and hauling at them--senators who want parts built in their state. Administrators who want to keep their jobs no matter what it cost. Divisions who want to hire more employees so they can go up a pay grade."

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