In 1937, Midshipman Robert C. Truax poked around in the scrap-metal box of the Naval Academy machine shop and retrieved a discarded nickel-steel pinion gear. He fashioned it into a component of a crude but effective rocket thrust chamber that, supplemented by experiments conducted during the following years at the nearby Engineering Experiment Station, helped launch the Navy into the missile age.
Truax would rise to the rank of captain and participate in the development of rockets, guided missiles, and satellites throughout his naval career. He was in charge of all rocket propulsion work for the Bureau of Aeronautics from 1946 to 1949, supervising development of power plants for Lark, D558-2, and Viking, and initiated development of the engine for the hypersonic, rocket-powered X-15 aircraft. He also would supervise development of Regulus I and II and be loaned to the Air Force from 1955 to 1958 to head the initial intermediate-range ballistic-missile development program. Still later, he worked on the Samos, Midas, Centaur, and Discoverer satellite programs, retiring in 1959.
In these edited excerpts from his September 1964 Proceedings article, “Rocket Development,” Truax looks back to the early experiments on the shores of the Severn River.
During World War II, Annapolis somewhat reluctantly became the cradle of American rocketry. The days, and sometimes the nights, were interrupted by stabbing flames and thunderous roars from concrete emplacements across the Severn River and the Engineering Experiment Station.
Wartime secrecy requirements made it impossible to explain the rather mysterious and irritating goings-on. Early in 1943, however, a PBY airplane took off from the Severn River with these same flames issuing from cylindrical objects suspended beneath either wing. It then became obvious to one and all, and in particular to the patrons of the Chesapeake Bay ferries that used to ply in and out of Annapolis, that the Navy was developing rockets to assist the take-off of heavily loaded seaplanes.
The rocket development work continued at the Engineering Experiment Station throughout the war and covered not only solid-propellant and liquid-propellant JATO [jet-assisted take-off] units for aircraft, but also some of the earliest propulsion systems for guided missiles. For its development work in this period, the Navy brought to Annapolis the most famous of all rocket pioneers—Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is named in Dr. Goddard’s honor. Truax then expounded on his first self-initiated rocket-engine project at the Academy.
When my masterpiece was completed, I took it to the head of the Marine Engineering Department and requested permission to set it up in the foundry and fire it. In perhaps justifiable concern over the future of Isherwood Hall, permission was denied. I found a much more receptive climate across the river at the Experiment Station. A welder named Sugar Evans was assigned to give me a hand in the construction of the rocket test stand.
Nowadays, construction of a rocket test stand requires upward of 18 months and many millions of dollars. Sugar and I took a much more practical approach, although not a very elegant one. In making the stand and propellant tanks, we went out to the stock rack, selected some steel pipe of approximately the right size, and pulled it out to what appeared to be about the right length. Sugar, whiz that he was with the cutting torch, then cut the pipe off without even removing it from the stock rack. There was a tank for the fuel, a tank for the liquid oxygen, and, since the thrust chamber design utilized a nozzle cooled in part by an injection of water, there was also a tank for cooling water.
With the first combustion chamber, we made a number of more-or-less successful runs, often during the lunch hour when workmen from the shop would gather around the rocket throwing stones into the jet to see how high they would be hurled. The measurements made during these runs were reported in the Journal of the American Rocket Society, some of the earliest measurements on rockets ever described.