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
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
It was his grandfather who introduced him to the stars. When he was 6, he would stand under the night sky with
His grandfather had every copy of
Not long after he began watching the night sky with his grandfather, he began reading
"You know who else loved the comics?" Salkeld asked. "
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.
The 1-ton V-1 "buzz bomb" was a pilotless drone, based in part on designs by rocket engineer
Designing ahead of his time
With a path in mind, Salkeld earned a bachelor's degree in physics at
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
"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
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."
But the ideas caught the attention of another engineer,
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
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
But in the 1980s, things begin to fall apart for both Salkeld and America's space program. In the mid-1980s,
He consulted with Beichel at Aerojet for awhile, but then Beichel retired. The work went away.
"Bob was recognized everywhere; he had many friends in high places," Beichel told the
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
Divorce wiped out a lot of Salkeld's money. He moved to
He didn't have the right degrees or experience to get a job at
After his mother died, he moved to
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,
In his free time, he continued engineering spacecrafts.
In the 1990s, Salkeld told the
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
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."
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