News Column

Sunday spotlight: Rocket scientist keeps dreams of space alive while selling newspapers

July 13, 2014

By Staci Matlock, The Santa Fe New Mexican

July 13--In his head, he's designing rockets.

Robert J. Salkeld has sold copies of The Santa Fe New Mexican at that same corner since Sept. 23, 1991.

He's been creating single-stage shuttles, dual-fuel engines and reusable spacecraft much longer than that. He holds seven patents and expects the U.S. Patent Office to award his eighth this fall.

"It's a hobby," he said, during a recent interview.

Designing spacecraft used to be his living.

Salkeld, 81, was a part of the United States space program in its heyday, when science-fiction writers inspired space fantasies, astronauts were rock stars and aeronautical engineers made man's first steps on the moon more than a dream.

But about the time a shuttle disaster and shifting political priorities dimmed the space program's outlook, Salkeld's own life fell apart.

Lifelong passion for space

Salkeld traces his love of space to his grandfather, comics, an artist and a war.

His father was a New York banker. "He could have cared less about the stars," Salkeld said.

It was his grandfather who introduced him to the stars. When he was 6, he would stand under the night sky with Henry F. Salkeld, a farmer with a third-grade education, and learn about the universe.

His grandfather had every copy of National Geographic since the magazine began publishing. "He was the intellect in the family. He was self-educated," Salkeld said.

Not long after he began watching the night sky with his grandfather, he began reading Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comic strips in the Sunday paper.

"You know who else loved the comics?" Salkeld asked. "Buzz Aldrin."

He would find out later that he and the Apollo astronaut had grown up not far apart. And they had a more recent connection: Salkeld once had to prove that a portion of a patent was unique from something Aldrin had designed.

In May 1944, when Salkeld was 12, Life magazine published a series of astronomical paintings by artist Chesney Bonestell. "When I saw his painting of Saturn as seen from Titan, I knew I would either be an astronomer, an astronaut or a rocket scientist," Salkeld said. "A few weeks later, when the V-1 bombs started falling on London, I knew I wanted to be a rocket scientist or an astronaut."

The 1-ton V-1 "buzz bomb" was a pilotless drone, based in part on designs by rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, who later would work for the fledgling U.S. space program. His life would intersect with Salkeld's more than once.

Designing ahead of his time

With a path in mind, Salkeld earned a bachelor's degree in physics at Princeton and a master's in business administration from Harvard.

He was an idea man and an artist. "I was always good at drawing and painting. I had trouble with algebra and calculus," he said. "I had to knuckle under and just do it.

In 1950, he saw Destination Moon, a film based on Robert Heinlein's science-fiction book about putting a man on the moon. Salkeld began thinking about a single stage to orbit, a mixed-mode rocket that would lift off and hurtle into space with dual-fuel engine, without jettisoning any parts along the way.

"I had ideas then -- because I didn't want to spew nuclear exhaust into the atmosphere -- of lifting off using hydrogen and oxygen. The exhaust would just be water coming out."

He wasn't the only one who believed a single-stage shuttle was doable and better than the two-stage launch design. Others were working on the same notion.

He published his first paper in 1966 in the Journal of Spacecraft, an analysis of the economic benefits of mining propellants from the moon, three years before man landed there.

It took more than a decade for Salkeld to work out the math behind the single-stage shuttle design. In 1971, he published "Mixed-Mode Propulsion for the Space Shuttle" in the journal Astronautics & Aeronautics.

By then, the U.S. shuttle program was underway. "I published my paper five months before Nixon signed off on the [two-stage] shuttle design. It was just too late," he said.

Salkeld believes if the shuttle had been a single-stage design, neither the 1986 Challenger nor the 2003 Columbia disasters that shocked the world would have occurred.

"The Challenger was the fault of an external strap-on booster," he said. "And the Columbia was the fault of the external tank insulation coating. If it had been single stage, there wouldn't have been any external boosters and there wouldn't have been any tank."

Gen. Bernard A. Schriever sent Salkeld to brief engineer Von Braun about his ideas for a single-stage rocket and a dual-fuel engine. Von Braun was intrigued, Salkeld said, but not about to shift gears on the shuttle design so late in the game.

But the ideas caught the attention of another engineer, Rudi Beichel, and the two became friends and colleagues. In 1973, they co-authored a paper detailing the ideas in Astronautics & Aeronautics. In 1975, Salkeld obtained the master patent for the dual-fuel rocket engine.

Now, decades later, private companies are vying to perfect reusable, single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft. But no one, as far as Salkeld knows, has yet built and launched a dual-fuel rocket.

Rise and fall in space work

Salkeld has published more than 70 papers on spacecraft design and systems. He has served on the national board of directors of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and was chairman of the Space Systems Technical Committee. He has testified before Congress and has sat on international aeronautic panels.

In 1970, he wrote War and Space, a book exploring the strategic and political potential of space in the arms race. He dedicated the book to his grandfather.

He worked for several years at System Development Corporation as an assistant to president and chairman George Mueller, who had been a key architect of NASA's Apollo program, the Skylab and the space shuttle.

But in the 1980s, things begin to fall apart for both Salkeld and America's space program. In the mid-1980s, System Development was folded into Unisys Defense Systems. Mueller retired, and everybody associated with him was let go, Salkeld said.

He consulted with Beichel at Aerojet for awhile, but then Beichel retired. The work went away.

"The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and so the whole aerospace industry got turned upside down," Salkeld said. "The first people to go are consultants when companies tighten their belt."

"Bob was recognized everywhere; he had many friends in high places," Beichel told the Santa Fe Reporter in 1994. "But NASA is one big organization and if it doesn't like your idea, you're out of work. The whole space industry is in collapse and respected aerospace engineers like Bob are on the street."

Beichel died in 1999.

For Salkeld, the dominoes kept falling. Within a couple of years, "my father passed away. My wife wanted a divorce. My mother got sick, and we moved her to a nursing home in Albuquerque."

Divorce wiped out a lot of Salkeld's money. He moved to Albuquerque to be close to his mom and lived for awhile off his father's estate money. By then he was 60, a man with a lot of experience in spacecraft systems but no doctorate.

He didn't have the right degrees or experience to get a job at Los Alamos or Sandia National Laboratories, he said. He didn't want to teach.

After his mother died, he moved to Santa Fe. Too young to collect Social Security and without a job, Salkeld ended up at a homeless shelter for a few months. There, he found a job selling newspapers.

He enjoyed the work. He met people, the work was easy, and he made enough money to rent a small apartment. A couple of years later, Social Security kicked in. Salkeld was able to save a little money so he could still travel to present papers.

In his free time, he continued engineering spacecrafts.

In the 1990s, Salkeld told the National Enquirer, "places like NASA have become regimented. They want people who will toe the line, not rock the boat with new ideas."

Salkeld's latest patent, approved and published in 2013, is for a direct-flight far space shuttle that could be launched from suborbital altitudes into space and land horizontally. The one he expects to have approved soon is a reusable global launcher -- an unmanned, suborbital space shuttle.

Salkeld lives in an efficiency apartment that is just big enough for his bed and a table stacked with papers and his drawing materials. He has no filing cabinet. "My filing cabinet is up here," he said, tapping his head.

He still designs by hand and uses only a calculator for the math.

"I'm computer illiterate. I'm not on the Internet. I've never had a PC," he said. "If you know what you are doing, you don't need a computer."

He's outlived most of his family. He has a daughter in North Carolina, whom he talks to periodically, and a granddaughter he has never met.

His is a quiet life, and he seems content. As long as he can think and draw and stand all kinds of weather, he says he'll continue selling newspapers and designing rockets.

"I like the independence of selling newspapers," he said, waiving his hands at the patents, drawings and technical papers spread on his table. "I have enough spare time to work on these things,"

Contact Staci Matlock 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

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(c)2014 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at www.santafenewmexican.com

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Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM)


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