Evel Knievel, Astronaut
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Evel Knievel, Astronaut

Jul 15, 2023

The strange but true Truax story of the world's first private space program.

Elon Musk is aiming for Mars. Jeff Bezos is building "a road to space." Richard Branson is selling gravity-defying joyrides. Among the New Space entrepreneurs, there's a lot of talk about the future. But what about the past?

We think we know about the history of space. (Heck, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably lived through a lot of it!) Popularizations like Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and Ron Howard's Apollo 13 have made the space race story common knowledge. It goes like this: The Soviets kick things off by blasting Sputnik, and then Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. The Americans respond by dropping Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and then 10 others, on the moon, where they play golf and rip around in a buggy. The Soviets up the stakes with a space station. The Americans meet the challenge with a space truck. And so on.

But those astronauts and cosmonauts alike were civil servants. Their doings were the antics of the great powers, the achievements of impossibly vast military-industrial complexes in a new Great Game. At its peak, NASA gobbled up nearly 5 percent of the United States’ annual budget. The strain of the Cold War on the Soviet balance sheet was a key reason that the state itself failed. Game over.

In the 21st century, NASA is moribund and the USSR is no more. There's a new space race, different from the old clash of the nations. Space rivalry is now a competition between the world's billionaires—who very much intend to reap a return on their capital investments. Mars, when and if Musk terraforms the planet, will be the greatest real estate play since Columbus planted a Spanish flag in the New World. Bezos's road skyward will start here on Earth, next to the Amazon tollbooth. Branson has already sold several hundred tickets to the show and promises to begin giving tours later this year—and a once-in-a-lifetime space jaunt has got to be on at least a billion bucket lists. We’re living through the New Space story right now, and the next chapter is going to be a page-turner.

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It should come as no surprise that New Space has a history too. Musk, Bezos, and Branson are not the first space entrepreneurs—they’re just the first successful ones. New Space has its own Apollo 13 story, its own near-miss spectacle. In the 1970s and early ’80s, there were three Americans, private citizens, who nearly made it past the Kármán line and into space proper. All three had the right stuff. Not only did these ancient astronauts build themselves a fully functional spaceship—the Volksrocket—but they had the means and the moxie to light it up.

You even know some of these would-have-beens by name, albeit not as astronauts. The first aspiring astronaut was Evel Knievel, already a celebrated daredevil before he turned to space. The second was Jeana Yeager, who would eventually find fame as an aviator—she and her copilot were the first people to make a nonstop, non-refueled flight around the world. But the third, the still-obscure Robert Truax, is the most important name. Truax was the crazy inventor who actually designed and built the Volksrocket. Each of them, except for a quirk of history, would have, should have, or could have been the first private astronaut to reach space. Knievel, who wrote the first check to finance the Volksrocket, washed out of Truax's astronaut program after a flash of murderous anger. Yeager dropped out when she fell in love and decided to take another path. As for Truax himself, he was in his 70s when his rocket was finally ready, and he flunked out too: a last-minute failure of nerve.

The first small step of the incipient space industry was a great leap: a mile-long motorcycle jump over the Grand Canyon. At least that is what Evel Knievel said he was going to do—or, more accurately, what the actor George Hamilton, playing a character named Evel Knievel, said he was going to do at the close of the eponymous 1971 B-movie biopic that documented and glamorized Knievel's life so far.

The motorcycle-jumping adventurer had been discovered in 1967 by ABC's top-rated Saturday variety show Wide World of Sports. By 1968, Knievel and his motorcycle had already flown over the fountains in front of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He broke nearly every bone in his body trying to land that jump.

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The footage of the crash made Knievel famous. For a few seconds, he and his bike tumble side by side and ass over teakettle down the ramp and through the surging crowd. The horrific scene was captured in exquisite slow motion (by Linda Evans, the soon-to-be soap opera star, no less) and endlessly replayed on television. It was, in the words of Wide World of Sports host and announcer Jim McKay, "the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat."

Evel Knievel, the movie, was a surprise box office hit. But it was the licensing dollars that made Knievel rich. Evel Knievel action figures (with their windup Stunt Cycle) were the toy sensation of the 1970s. Every young boy in America had to have one. With his satin cape and white leather jumpsuit unzipped to his nipples, Knievel was a new kind of American idol.

It's unclear what his net worth was at his peak, but Knievel spent, in contemporary terms, like a billionaire. The action figures bought him five Ferraris, two Learjets, five other planes, and a helicopter that ferried him between his two yachts: Evel Eye 1 and Evel Eye 2. At work, he had a walk-in bank safe next to his office. Inside was a gold-plated chopper totally obscured by a mountain of loose bills, a snowdrift of cash.

And for his next act, Knievel—the real Knievel, the newly rich and famous Knievel—was going to attempt to jump the Grand Canyon. He was going to make Hollywood hyperbole real. He had the means and the will. The only thing he was lacking was the technology.

Evel Knievel's original concept was to take a nitro-powered Triumph Bonneville motorcycle and equip it with a pair of rocket engines. In theory, this was similar to a technology that the U.S. Navy had pioneered 30 years before: jet-assisted takeoff, or JATO.

"Jet-assisted" was the military euphemism for "rocket-assisted," because in the late 1930s, rocketry was for sci-fi-obsessed space kooks. The reality was that World War II was looming, and the navy had a fleet of flying boats that were underpowered, incapable of taking off with a heavy load of men and materiel on board. The problem was drag. Water makes a poor runway—it has to be shoved out of the way as the seaplane accelerates to takeoff speed. The fix turned out to be a short boost of 3,000 pounds of additional thrust. JATOs had more than enough power to get the heavily laden boats into the air. They were, in actual fact, rockets—just not the spacefaring kind.

So why not strap a couple of rockets to a motorcycle for a short trip over the Grand Canyon?

While the concept was similar to the navy's, Knievel's jet-assisted-motorcycle design was not particularly well thought-out. He simply located a pair of rocket engines—which by the ’60s were readily available to hobbyists—and bolted them to the sides of his motorbike. There was the thrust that would propel him over the lip of the North Rim. Lift would be provided by two stubby "wings," each cut from a single piece of sheet metal, mounted fore of the rockets. Knievel toured the country with this "experimental skycycle," which was displayed with a placard reading "Motorcycle to Be Used by Evel Knievel to Jump the Grand Canyon," and generated lots of ink. But would this pig really fly?

In a word, no.

As a piece of engineering, Knievel's flying motorbike couldn't pass the chuckle test. While the rockets might have gotten the bike up to the jetliner-type speed that Knievel would need to clear the canyon, the wind in his face—at 400 or 500 miles per hour—would have blown him off the Skycycle long before he even left the ramp. And even if Knievel had figured out a way to chain himself to the bike, and had made it into the air over the canyon, he’d have found himself tumbling wildly—as his wings had no actual lift capacity or control surfaces.

A young aeronautical engineer, Doug Malewicki, who saw Knievel's Skycycle on display at the local Ford dealership in Phoenix and explained these facts of physics to him, ended up with the commission to design a new vehicle. Knievel called it the Skycycle X-1. The X-1 was a streamliner: The motorcycle itself was encased in a fairing, complete with a fighter jet–style canopy so that Knievel, the would-be pilot, could peek out over the nose cone. Behind him were three tail fins. Below him were two wheels. Those wheels made the Skycycle, technically speaking, a motorcycle. It didn't look anything like a motorcycle, however. It looked like a supersonic airplane sans wings. Or like a rocket.

Indeed, the Skycycle did have a rocket engine. There was no way that Knievel could get up to speed without one. Malewicki subcontracted the rocket engine to a man named Robert Truax—the hero of this story, the prehistory of the private space race—because Truax was the only one (so far) who knew what he was doing.

Malewicki had designed a beast of a machine: a half motorcycle, half rocket ship. It was a fiendishly complicated chimera. Not only was there a rocket engine inside; there were also to be JATO rockets strapped onto the outside. And while the X-1, with the JATOs, may have had enough power to get across the canyon, it would almost certainly have killed Knievel in so doing. It was eventually flown over the canyon in an unmanned test, during which it went into a flat spin before crashing into the river. This, and other problems, led to Knievel firing Malewicki and offering the entire project to Truax, who was definitely the person for the job.

Truax had helped invent JATO for the navy during World War II, working alongside the likes of rocket pioneers Robert Goddard and, later, Wernher von Braun; he had spent his postmilitary years helping break land-speed records by designing jet-powered cars. Truax took the Skycycle project on the condition that the motorcycle part of the jump across a canyon be abandoned—he would build Knievel a machine of his own design: the world's first personal rocket ship.

On the morning of September 8, 1974, Knievel's new Skycycle, the Truax-engineered X-2, was sitting on its launch ramp, ready for its debut voyage. Reporters and photographers from around the world were present. Knievel had sold the television rights for a reported $6 million.

Much had changed in the years that Truax had been working on the project. Controversy over the best site had led to the jump being relocated to the Snake River Canyon. And what had begun as a motorcycle was now a full-fledged rocket. It was just over 2 feet wide and 13 feet long from tip to tail (and registered as an airplane).

The X-2 was ugly but rugged as all get-out and, unlike the X-1, fully functional. Its rocket body was refashioned from the surplus 300-gallon,wingtip-mounted fuel tank of a Grumman Albatross seaplane. The finished version used no electronics. Its stubby wings had first seen duty on a helicopter. Its guidance system was a 10-story steel launch rail, angled at precisely 51 degrees above the edge of the canyon. Even the unflappable Knievel was taken aback when he first saw the X-2 sitting on its launch ramp. "My God!" he gasped. "That rail is going straight up!" The jump over the canyon was going to be like no other. He would have to fly the X-2 without the help of stabilizing gyros. Control surfaces on the wings would help him keep the rocket from spinning. If that didn't work, Knievel could bail out of the open cockpit.

The rocket engine was similarly basic. Thrust came from yet another surplus tank, the oxygen bottle of a Boeing B-29 bomber. Truax had filled it with water (though Knievel would have preferred beer, because he was trying to get a big brewery to sponsor him) and heated it to 468 degrees Fahrenheit. As long as the water stayed in the pressure vessel, it wouldn't boil. When released, it would flow from the pressure tank into the booster nozzle, where it would instantly turn to steam and generate some 6,000 pounds of thrust. The X-2 was literally a steam-powered rocket.

Truax had steam-rocket technology—he patented it in the early 1960s—that he’d developed while working on the design of a toy rocket. For his X-2, he simply scaled up the toy. Knievel was now a real-life action figure.

Despite all the changes—or perhaps because of them—public interest in the jump had reached a fever pitch. Initially, there was a carnival atmosphere at the jump site, with spectators (including herds of Hells Angels) camping out a week in advance to watch the test firings and drink. But in the days approaching the launch, the mood had turned bleak. Bad blood had built up between the biker gangs and Knievel, who was famously pro-helmet and anti-drug, and then it boiled over. Rioters toppled a beer truck and liberated its contents. Outhouses were lit on fire. Clothes became optional. People were fighting—and fucking—in the streets. The national guard was called, but declined to come. And at the zero hour, the moment of truth, Knievel was in his trailer, praying with his family for his life and saying his last goodbyes in case of his death.

At which point, Truax sends word that he can't hold the launch much longer—the superheated water inside the X-2's rocket engine is starting to cool—and Knievel steps out to address the assembled. "I’ve never been afraid in my life of dying," he says. "I think that man was put here on Earth to live, not just to exist—and today is the proudest day of my life." And with that, he clips his parachute onto his red-white-and-blue jumpsuit, climbs into a bosun's chair attached to the end of a giant awaiting crane, is lifted to the cockpit of the X-2, and buckles in.

Truax starts the countdown from inside the launch ramp control center (a.k.a. the Skycycle X-2 Super Van): Ten…nine…eight… The recitation calms the rowdy crowd: Seven…six…five… Everyone suddenly realizes, en masse, that this is it—do or die: Four…three…two…one… Truax flips the switch that opens the booster nozzle at the back of the X-2. And at that instant, at precisely 3:44 p.m. Mountain time: WOOOOOOOOOOOSH!!!!!!

The rocket accelerates up the rail, locked in like a slot racer, but even before it reaches the end, out slips the drogue in a parachute malfunction! Two seconds later, at the rocket's thousand-foot apex, the main canopy deploys, catching the jet steam issuing from the back of the X-2 like a kite caught in a fire hose. Two seconds after that, the engine cuts off, and the rocket heads straight down into the canyon, bouncing off its lava-rock walls to a crash landing on the near bank of the Snake River.

Miraculously, when Knievel emerges from the wreckage, he is unhurt, save for a bloody nose. He's helicoptered out of the canyon and back to the launch site, and there's no hard feelings for his engineer. The first thing he says after seeing Truax is "Bob, that is going to be a hell of a hard act to follow! What else have you got up your sleeve?"

Truax has been waiting all his life for the question, and he has an answer at the ready.

"I think I can make you the world's first private astronaut."

Knievel knew a couple of astronauts personally, including James Lovell, who attended the canyon jump, and he was eager to join their exclusive club. Truax had been dreaming of space travel since he was a kid, playing with model rockets in his Alameda, California, backyard. Opportunity was banging on his hatch. He told Knievel that a ticket to ride would cost about a million dollars.

It wasn't simply a made-up number. Truax had done some of the first-ever cost-to-orbit studies when he was working in the nascent rocket-industrial complex of the 1950s and ’60s. Those studies had persuaded him that the path to space was something he called "the big dumb booster." It was the navy's classic KISS principle—keep it simple, stupid—as applied to rocketry. And now he had a big dumb booster of another sort in Knievel.

Knievel's first check, $3,000 for "research," was likely the very first investment in private manned spaceflight. It wasn't much, but Knievel had always operated on a pay-as-you-go basis, and, regardless, Truax already had most of the parts he needed squirreled away.

Truax had a house on an acre of land at the end of a long driveway in Saratoga, California. He had chosen the town because of its proximity to Lockheed Martin and NASA's Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale and the house because it had a four-car garage. There were no cars in that garage. It was a warehouse for Truax's vast collection of rocket parts. An inveterate scrap hound, Truax had been collecting decommissioned rocket parts at aviation junkyards for years, long before he knew what to do with them all. By the time the X-2 flew, Truax saw that his hoard added up to an almost-complete rocket: one just barely big enough to get a man to space and back. He sketched out a design for Knievel and called it the X-3 Volksrocket in homage. Soon he was plumbing the parts together with the help of a mostly volunteer crew. There were a half dozen young space enthusiasts working with Truax, including welder Craig Adams, who was still in high school; airplane mechanic Dezső Molnár, who was still in college; and draftsperson Jeana Yeager (no relation to Chuck), who would soon earn her pilot wings. It all happened right in Truax's suburban garage.

The first task was to build a pressurized capsule for Knievel to ride in. A tip tank from a junked Grumman Albatross was cut free and turned into a nose cone complete with Lexan windows and a tiny plywood stool: the astronaut's seat. At its base, the capsule was two feet in diameter. Below the bulkhead that separated the astronaut's capsule from the rocket proper were 16 linear feet of fuel and oxidizer tanks, including two 2-foot-diameter titanium pressure spheres from decommissioned Titan 1 missiles. Gone was the single tank of superheated dihydrogen monoxide that had propelled the X-2. The X-3 was a real liquid-fuel rocket with four tanks: kerosene for power; liquid oxygen to burn it up; and, in the titanium spheres, helium, a pressurant used to keep the fuel flowing into the four LR101 rocket engines—surplus Atlas missile parts—at the bottom of the stack.

It was a single-stage design with a minimum of moving parts: the simplest-possible solution. The Volksrocket's engines would fire well into the stratosphere and then shut off by running out of fuel. The rocket would continue, coasting through the mesosphere until it touched the edge of space, more than 50 miles up. Weightless and sealed inside his tiny capsule, Knievel would radio home about the blackness of space above and the curvature of Earth below. Then gravity would regain its grip, and the X-3 would start falling. A drogue would deploy, then five minutes later the main chute, and finally a dunk in the ocean. Total time of flight: 15 minutes. Since there would be enough air in the pressurized capsule to breathe, Knievel wouldn't technically even need to wear a space suit. But at the end of the parabola, he would have his pot of gold: Knievel would forever be the world's first private astronaut.

For two years, it all went according to plan. Truax and crew would wrench in the garage, conduct water-landing tests in the pool behind the house, and every now and again hitch their home-brew spaceship to Truax's ’73 El Camino and tow it to the test stand at the Rocket Research Institute in Sacramento to fire the engines. The Volksrocket was ready to go. And then Evel Knievel, drunk on fame and possibly high on opiates (prescribed to dull the pain from a lifetime of crashes), read Evel Knievel on Tour, a tell-all about the Snake River Canyon jump written by the promoter he had hired for the event, Sheldon Saltman. Enraged, Knievel tracked Saltman down and beat him senseless with a baseball bat, badly breaking Saltman's arm and wrist. A judge sent Knievel to jail for six months in 1977, and in short order he lost both his fame and his fortune.

Truax, however, did not let the loss of his patron stop what he was now calling Project Private Enterprise. He soldiered on, sinking $100,000 of his own money into the build. And why not? Truax had seen how much money a showman with a rocket could raise from corporate sponsors and television rights. How much more would the world pay to watch an ordinary civilian be blasted into space?

Truax's first big break was an appearance on The Tonight Show on June 27, 1980, three days after the first successful test firing of all four engines, at an airport in Fremont, California. He sat in the chair and bantered with Johnny Carson for over 10 minutes, at one point even offering to send the television host to space. Carson turned the question around, asking Truax why he wasn't going to be the world's first private astronaut.

"You think I’m crazy?" joked Truax.

By the end of the segment, Johnny and Bob are walking over to the stage where a mock-up of the X-3 is parked. The nose cone is open on the floor before them. "That's where the unfortunate—I mean ‘lucky’—guy sits," Truax says, hamming it up. Carson, turning serious, asks whether there are any real qualifications for the astronaut job.

"Well, yes," says Truax. "First, you’ve got to be small, and second, you’ve got to have guts."

The segment ends with Carson turning toward the studio audience. "Anyone want to go?" he asks. There's a show of hands. "Five hundred people right here will go!"

In fact, Truax had someone in mind already. She was small, only 95 pounds; and brave, a budding test pilot. Not only would Truax launch the first private astronaut into space, but she would be a young woman—28-year-old Jeana Yeager.

Truax's Knievel-inspired plan was playing out. He had an almost completed rocket, a mediagenic astronaut, and even some significant investment money: a quarter of a million dollars from a consortium out of Chicago. The timing of the first (uncrewed) flight was set: June 1981—a year after the Tonight Show appearance. And if that went well, Yeager would fly in the fall.

And then everything started going south again. Yeager started dating a friend of Truax's, Dick Rutan, the famed test pilot. Soon they were off setting records together (including, in 1986, that nonstop, non-refueled, around-the-world flight). Then Truax missed his self-imposed test-flight deadline, and that August his main backer pulled out. He tried to get other investors, but to no avail. Steve Jobs came by and donated a bunch of Apple computers, but didn't write a check. Steve Wozniak later stood him up. Silicon Valley's VCs didn't return his calls: too much risk, even for them.

It didn't help that Truax was constantly criticizing NASA's space shuttle, which had its first successful crewed launch in April 1981. "Wings on a rocket," he sniped, "make about as much sense as tits on a bull." But NASA wasn't the only source of competition. Other private space companies started popping up. Space Services, out of Houston, launched the Conestoga 1—developed from an old military intercontinental ballistic missile design—in September 1982, thus snatching a prize that Truax had thought would be his. The Conestoga 1 was the first privately funded commercial rocket to reach space. Another competitor, Starstruck, popped up in the early 1980s. It had bigger money behind it—and Apple's former CEO, Michael Scott, in charge. Truax, always so ahead of the curve, finally had real competition: fast followers that were hitting milestones and sucking up investment money. In comparison, he started to look like a crank.

Yet the way many of Truax's former employees tell it, his rocket could have blasted off to space. Craig Adams, who ended up in charge of building the X-3 (and who has since had a distinguished career as an aerospace engineer with Lockheed), is adamant that "it would have worked. No doubt. The rocket would have gone up past the Kármán line with a 175-pound passenger. I have no doubts at all!" Dezső Molnár, who has since won a degree of fame as an inventor, agrees. "It wasn't some pie-in-the-sky bullshit," he says. "It really was a manned space program."

The sticking point was the guidance system. In those days, commercially available gyroscopes and accelerometers were still mechanical and thus low-precision. "The only issue we might have had," says Adams, "was spinning—and that could have been a death knell." The four LR101 rockets that powered the X-3 were all plumbed to the same fuel tank. So if one of those rockets, for whatever reason, fired for a split second longer than the others, it could capsize the ship and send it tumbling through the void. "The guy probably would have to pull the retaining ring out [disconnecting the capsule from the rocket] and parachute from whatever altitude down to Earth."

Truax may not have been willing to risk his rocket on an uncrewed flight to test the guidance system. He was holding out for a million-dollar investment and, by most reports, was blinded by the media limelight. After The Tonight Show, there was a feature story in Newsweek. There were appearances on That's Incredible! and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Truax thought he was working the Skycycle playbook, but the Knievel-size payout never came. There was no advance money from broadcast rights, publishing contracts, or merchandizing deals. There was no Bob Truax action figure. Instead, he became the kook magnet of the decade.

All sorts of dubious characters dangled promises. There was a Saudi prince, Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who was making inquiries on behalf of the kingdom; a former stage manager for the Beach Boys, Ray Upton, who wanted to launch his next career with a ride to space; a tortilla baron, Dan Correa, who believed that he was descended from aliens; a young artist-entrepreneur, Fell Peters, who had invented Cat Rocks, a rip-off of Pet Rocks, 10 years after that fad. Truax hung his hope on each in turn and was disappointed by them all. His final option would have been to just go himself, but at 70-plus years of age, he was too aware of his own mortality to risk his own life.

At the end of the ’80s, the navy—Truax's first patron—reentered the picture, offering to sponsor the project, with a $7.5 million budget, on the condition that the astronaut idea be abandoned. The navy needed a cheap, reusable satellite launcher. After a decade of hustling and $457,000 spent on the private-astronaut dream (almost a quarter of it coming from Truax's own pocket), it seemed an offer too good to refuse. "The only reason I had planned to put a person in the rocket," Truax wrote in his memoir, "was to pay the bills." In the end, Project Private Enterprise had to be rescued by the military-industrial complex—where it disappeared.

An action hero, a crazy inventor, a heroic young woman: this unlikely trio tried, came oh so close, and—while they never crossed the chasm or touched the stars—did start the private spaceflight industry. And ultimately, Truax was vindicated. Private enterprise, mostly in the form of Elon Musk, did step in. Truax was even invited on a private tour of the SpaceX factory and, in 2010, saw the first generation of the Falcon series of rockets that have now replaced NASA's white elephant space shuttle. Truax died later that year, at 93, knowing that he was right all along, and that he had taken that first small step, for all mankind.•