(September 3, 1917—September 17, 2010)
Iowa State College alumni, U. S. Navy captain, rocket pioneer.
Robert Collins Truax was born on September 3, 1917 in Gary, Indiana, the younger son of Darwin Hoskins Truax and Alida Retta Gleason Truax. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to rural northern California where his father built a log cabin. Later the family moved to Alameda, near Oakland, where Robert grew up, became an Eagle Scout, and graduated from Alameda High School. As a teenager he became fascinated with rocketry, read articles on rocketry by the rocket scientist Dr. Robert Goddard in Popular Mechanics, and built his own simple rockets made of balsa wood, gunpowder, and glue.
After high school graduation, Truax entered the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1939. During this time he published articles on rockets and developed, built, and tested small liquid propellant rocket engines. After graduation, he served two years on sea duty and then started working at the Engineering Experiment Station in Annapolis. He set up the Bureau of Aeronautics' Project TED 3401 and formed a Navy team to develop means of using rockets to assist Navy aircraft in taking off over shorter distances with more bombs. This early work formed the beginning of Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) systems. Over the next few years, he successfully developed larger and more powerful thrust engines. He also competed successfully against Dr. Goddard for about a year on improving JATO designs.
After the end of World War II, Truax led a team that debriefed the German rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun shortly after the latter's arrival in America in 1945. Also after the war, he organized the U.S. Naval Missile Test Center's propulsion laboratory in California and the U.S. Naval Rocket Test Center in New Jersey.
In addition, he decided to improve his formal education by enrolling in the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School to study for a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering and then in a master's degree program for an MS in nuclear engineering. The program required that he take his final year at a civilian institution, and he chose to spend that year at Iowa State College (1952-1953, now Iowa State University) where he finished his master's thesis. It was entitled Charging Systems for Electrostatic Generators. It was a study of the possibilities of using ions in a flowing gaseous medium for charging electrostatic generators that had been previously developed by Robert J. Van de Graaff. His conclusion was that the charging system could be used to replace a conventional belt used in the Van de Graaff system.
In 1955, Truax joined the U.S. Air Force's Western Development Division (WDD) and headed the Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) system. In 1958, he was appointed project director of the Advanced Reconnaissance System in the Advanced Research Projects Agency. He actively promoted the early American space program and assisted in the Mercury program. He developed the concept of putting long-range missiles on submarines which helped lead to the development of the Polaris Missile. He also assisted in developing the Viking sounding rocket. In addition, he directed the Samos, Midas, and Discoverer projects.
In 1959, Truax retired from active duty with the rank of captain and accepted a position at Aerojet General Corporation where he headed the Advanced Development Division. During the next seven years he worked on developing a number of new systems including the Sea Bee test vehicle, the Sea Horse test vehicle, Sea Dragon orbital launch vehicle, and the Excalibur orbital launch vehicle.
In 1966, Truax left Aerojet and formed his own company, Truax Engineering in California and developed a range of sea launched rockets. He participated in a number of space and missile related efforts; a recoverable launch vehicle study for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and a study of future ballistic missile systems, sponsored by the Institute for Defense Analysis. In addition, he was a trouble shooter for TRW Corporation on the Minuteman ICBM program. Now self employed, he acquired a reputation over the years for independent thinking in the development of rocketry and developing systems that appealed to the popular rocket culture. He built rockets in his back yard and advocated developing space travel that would be affordable for the general public.
He also developed a rocket for the stuntman Robert Craig (Evel) Knievel Jr.. Truax attracted media attention and made an appearance once on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.
Truax patented at least four inventions; a jet reaction motor (US2434298A) in 1948; a two-stage rocket system (US2408111A) in 1946; a rocket motor cooling system (US2625007A) in 1953; a steam powered rocket and launcher (US3029704A) in 1962. He also invented a pressurization system and method for effecting propellant flow in a liquid propellant rocket (US3320742A) that was patented by Aerojet in 1967.
In 1951, Truax was awarded the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Award by the American Rocket Society. He was a long time member of the American Rocket Society, served as its president in 1957, and later became an honorary fellow of its successor organization, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was awarded the Legion of Merit citation for his conceptual work on the Polaris submarine missile system. In 2003, he was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.
Truax was married three times. He married Rosalind Heath Schoeder in 1941, and they had four children; Ann Heath, Kathleen Rosalind, Steven Robert, and Gary Hale Truax. He and Rosalind divorced in 1964. He married Sally Sabins on October 11, 1964, and they had two sons, Scott Alan and Dean Shepherd Truax. Sally died in 1993. In 1994, Truax married Marisol Guzman who survived him. They had no children, but Marisol had two children from a previous marriage.
Truax spent his working and retirement years in California, living variously in Saratoga and Valley Center, both located in San Diego County. He died at Valley Center on September 17, 2010 and was interred in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Secondary sources on Robert C. Truax include Willie Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel. New York. The Viking Press, 1957, pp. 252, 438; Wernher von Braun, Space Travel: A History. Philadelphia. Harper & Row, 1985, pp. 82-83, 101-102, 167, 170; and Ann Garrison Darrin and Beth L. O' Leary, Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology, and Heritage. Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press, 2009, p. 231; online under “Truax” in Encyclopedia Astonautice at http://www.astronautix.com and information on Sea Dragon at http://www.citizensinspace.org.
Truax's master's thesis at Iowa State can be found at C O 1953 Truax, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University. His patents can be found at Google Patents online.
Feature articles on Truax include William Gildea, “Once Upon a Time, Robert Truax Built A Sky-Cycle,” Washington Post, August 21, 1977; Stewart McBride, “Competition for NASA,” Christian Science Monitor, April 2, 1981; and Ed Regis, “From Canyon to Cosmos,” Air & Space, October/November, 1990, pp.100-104.
Many obituaries appeared after Truax's death. A sampling includes the New York Times, September 29, 2010; the Washington Post, September 29, 2010; the Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2010; the Daily Telegraph (London), October 8, 2010; online at http://ww.collectspace.com and http://www.spaceref.com.
And interment information at https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/66932891.
Family information can be found in Public Member Family Trees from the U. S. Censuses at https://www.ancestryinstitution.com.