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Truax illustration
In the 1950s Robert Truax, with his multiple roles in the military and other organizations, was the king of the space enthusiasts. (credit: USAF)

Rocket man


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Captain Bob Truax (USN, ret.) passed away on September 17. He was 93.

You can be forgiven if you don’t know his name. It has been a long time since Truax was known in space circles. He became famous in the mid-1970s when he built a “Skycycle” to enable Evel Knievel to jump the Snake River Canyon. Something went wrong and Knievel didn’t make it. Both men bitterly blamed each other for the failure. After that, Truax faded from public view, but he continued to advocate low cost launch in his own unique way, usually involving very large rockets launched from the ocean.

Truax was well-known in space circles long before that stunt. In fact, in the early 1950s he was in some ways king of the space enthusiasts. Wernher von Braun was more famous, and more articulate, but he had that Nazi baggage that he dragged around with him. That made him unpalatable to a lot of people, particularly those in the military.

In the early 1950s Truax was in some ways king of the space enthusiasts.

Truax, however, was a military officer who had started building rockets while still in the Naval Academy and later built rockets to boost Navy planes into the air. After World War II he was in charge of rockets for the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. For many years he was also president of the private American Rocket Society, a combination that today would probably violate ethics laws, but which was acceptable back then. Even more unusually, Truax soon went to work in the Air Force’s fledgling missile and space program.

In 1995, when the CORONA reconnaissance satellite was declassified, the press published a flurry of articles on it, calling it “the first reconnaissance satellite.” Several retired Air Force officers took exception to that. They knew that the Air Force had started the “Advanced Reconnaissance System” satellite program several years before CORONA, but that it had been essentially unfunded. So several of them—Jim Coolbaugh, Jack Herther, and Bill Troetschel—wrote short memoirs about their involvement in the early days of the ARS program, from around 1954 through Sputnik. They circulated these accounts amongst themselves and I managed to acquire them.

Collectively, these memoirs tell the story of how a series of studies conducted by The RAND Corporation starting in 1946 then turned into the Air Force space program. Most space histories still gloss over this period, mentioning the RAND studies, jumping to the creation of an Air Force reconnaissance satellite office, and then jumping ahead to Sputnik and CORONA in only a few more sentences, reducing several years and the work of a handful of people into only a short description. When I acquired these memoirs (I helped Coolbaugh publish his, and have used their stories in several articles in The Space Review; see “Bill King and the Space Cadets,” The Space Review, July 6, 2009), I also obtained several short chapters of Bob Truax’s unpublished memoir. I’m not quite sure how I got it, but Truax and the other guys shared their accounts.

When Truax took over the leadership of the American Rocket Society in the early 1950s, one of his first actions was to politely berate the society for ignoring the issue of spaceflight, which many of the ARS members thought was not serious.

All of the men wrote their memoirs many years later, but Truax’s is slightly problematic. It contains some errors and requires a good ghostwriter to clean it up and fact check it. Truax had been involved in rocket programs for quite awhile when the Air Force created an ICBM program, and in 1955 he was assigned to the Western Development Division, which was responsible for the ICBM. He went to see WDD’s commander, Brigadier General Bernard Schriever, who was unaware that Truax had been assigned to him. Schriever “was a bit non-plussed,” Truax wrote, but soon recovered his composure. But Schriever was still a little wary of Truax. There’s an old story, probably apocryphal, about how Air Force General Curtis LeMay once dressed down an aide by telling him that the “Soviet Union is our adversary… our enemy is the Navy.” Truax was as Navy as they came.

Schriever told Truax that he wanted him to be loyal, not a spy for the Navy. Truax agreed.

Truax was initially placed in charge of the “Tactical Ballistic Missile.” As he started work on it, he had to consider all of the little details involved in operating such a weapon in Europe, such as measuring street corners in France so that the missile could be transported without scraping the sides off of buildings in Paris. Soon the designation of the weapon was changed to the “Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile” because, according to Truax, they did not want anybody to think that this was anything other than a strategic weapon. It also acquired a proper name, as well, the Thor.

Truax initially proposed that development of the Thor be given to Wernher von Braun and his “Rocket Team” in Huntsville. Schriever and his men were aghast. Von Braun was a rival. But Truax argued that von Braun’s team was essentially idle. Once it became clear in the Pentagon that most of the Army group’s money came from an Air Force program, it would be relatively easy for the Air Force to take it over. Schriever wanted nothing to do with such a plan; he was convinced that they could grind out the Army’s program completely.

Truax didn’t like working on the Thor, in part because he thought that the Air Force really should have given von Braun’s team the development job, and he was not fond of some of the design compromises. He also had an interest in spaceflight, however. In fact, when he took over the leadership of the American Rocket Society in the early 1950s, one of his first actions was to politely berate the society for ignoring the issue of spaceflight, which many of the ARS members thought was not serious. When he heard that the Air Force’s fledgling satellite program was being transferred from Wright Air Development Center in Ohio to the Western Development Division in California, he asked to be assigned to that program. Schriever agreed and put Truax in charge of handling the transfer of the office and its personnel from Ohio to California.

Truax’s real loyalty was to rocketry and spaceflight. If his autobiography is published some day, the public will see just how passionate he was about shooting his rockets into space.

After the office was established, Truax had another assignment: looking for a launch site. He and a young Air Force captain, Jim Coolbaugh, were the only pilots attached to the program office. They signed out a B-25 and flew up the California coast. They looked at an area of the coast that hosted Camp Cooke, a former Army training base that, according to Truax, was then under the control of the Navy as a site to track missiles launched from Point Mugu, farther south. Fortunately for Truax—and the Air Force—the Point Mugu station was then run by a former Navy buddy of Truax’s, Bob Freitag. Freitag agreed to allow the Air Force to build its launch site at Camp Cooke, which was named Vandenberg Air Force Base a few years later.

Several of the younger Air Force officers who worked with Truax were somewhat in awe of him. Whereas they had become interested in and excited about satellites in the mid-1950s, they realized that Truax had been working in the field for many years. They had jokingly referred to themselves as the “Space Cadets,” and labeled Truax their first true Space Cadet.

Truax was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2003. This was a bit of a hard-sell. Apparently somebody who knew Truax back when he was working in the reconnaissance satellite office had opposed his nomination, believing that he had been the “Navy spy” that General Schriever was concerned about. But Truax’s real loyalty was to rocketry and spaceflight. If his autobiography is published some day, the public will see just how passionate he was about shooting his rockets into space.


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