For Auburn magazine:
That poor watermelon never stood a chance.
These five good ole boys, all experienced hunters and skeet shooters, had constructed a trebuchet and then hurled the melon in a majestic arc before they yelled “pull!” and fired their rifles. The stunt, for an episode titled “Hillbilly Armageddon,” launched the National Geographic Channel’s hit reality show, “Rocket City Rednecks,” by simulating an asteroid hurtling toward Earth, or more specifically, toward the red-blooded heart of civilization – the Southeastern United States, represented by a crudely drawn target map (a crawfish doodle symbolizes Louisiana) with Huntsville, Alabama, at its center. The astrophysics, though, are more sophisticated than they seem.
“The old theory was that comets were similar to dirty snowballs, but recent findings show they’re more like something with a hard rind and a slushy inside – so a frozen watermelon seemed like a good analog,” explains Travis Taylor, an Auburn alumnus and the ringleader of this posse of freckle-faced Einsteins who conduct experiments that combine advanced principles of science and engineering with “redneck ingenuity” in the birthplace of the U.S. space program in northern Alabama. “Hollywood disaster movies always show the asteroid headed toward New York or L.A. or Washington, D.C. Here, we’re focused on saving the world between Mobile and Nashville.”
During his career with NASA, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, where he currently holds top security clearance, Taylor, 43, has explored real-life ways to deflect an asteroid, as well as nuclear-electric propulsion techniques and exploration models for expeditions to Pluto. In other words, he is an actual rocket scientist with five degrees, including a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Auburn, and another in progress, as well as a textbook titled Introduction to Rocket Science and Engineering to his name. Taylor’s co-stars — patriarch Charles “Daddy” Taylor, nephew Michael “The Kid” Taylor, brother-in-law “Pistol Pete” Erbach, and best friend Rog “The Sidekick” Jones –also claim stratospheric I.Q.s and credentials in physics, optical sensors, and grease-monkey “tinkering.” They have done their share of farming, turkey hunting, and four-wheeling, too, and Rog, the one in overalls, lives in a doublewide on the edge of a pond he calls “Lake Flaccid.”
“My hardest job to date? Working in the chickenhouse,” Taylor says, with an accent that could sweeten iced tea.
NASA, meet NASCAR.
“Rocket City Rednecks” premiered last September to the National Geographic Channel’s highest ratings of the year and went on to average 476,000 viewers per show during its 20-episode run – a following large enough to cinch a second season, which is in the works now and scheduled to air this autumn. So far, these rascals have successfully tornado-proofed an outhouse; converted moonshine into an “alternative energy source”; bomb-proofed a pickup truck with beer cans and plywood; dared a local sheriff to catch them with a radar gun in their “stealth vehicle”; built a solar-powered bass boat; and designed a “trailer of the future” for optimal off-the-grid living – all punctuated by whooping Rebel Yells and toasted with six-packs. In fact, they devised a way to keep their beer colder at Talladega with nitrous oxide, which they demonstrated by quickly freezing a peach. Their motto? “Safety Third!” It was inspired by “a shop teacher who was missing a finger,” Pistol Pete explains. In addition to watermelons, the guys have launched reclining chairs, a toilet seat, and – their crowning exploit of grandeur and aspiration — the double-barreled, 700-pound “Big Ass Rocket.” These high-tech rednecks with their Rural Route street cred may focus on the “world between Mobile and Nashville,” but the series shows that, for them, the sky really is the limit.
“We have a saying around here: Either go whole hog or nothing at all,” Taylor says. “We go whole hog.”
The charm of “Rocket City Rednecks” derives from the way it upends Southern stereotypes by embracing them in a bear-hug — and then putting them in a playful head-lock. Part of the mission of Taylor and his buddies, beyond enhancing Bama pastimes like blowing up junk and stalking deer in an armored “war wagon,” is reclaiming and honoring the R-word.
“I have to explain the history of that word to a lot of people, especially in California, who hear ‘redneck’ and have some racist and other negative associations with it,” Taylor says. “It has several origins, the primary one from this region’s sharecroppers whose necks got sunburned while they ploughed. They had to learn to build and fix things, to invent and make repairs, or their families would go hungry. So, to me, the word ‘redneck’ is a testament to this tradition of resourcefulness and resilience of indigenous farmers, to their on-the-spot, improvisational engineering.”
In keeping with other traditions of often underestimated Southerners, the Rocket City Rednecks speak slowly but think fast. They wonder aloud whether “some dang ol’ somethin’ will work worth a flip” and then vault into Stephen Hawking jargon without missing a beat. In a line from the show, Taylor’s nephew, The Kid, says, “Most Americans think that just ’cause we talk with a Southern drawl and we drink sweet tea, I guess they think we must be idiots.” Ironically, his dialect is so thick that Nat-Geo helpfully provides English subtitles, and the web-site for the show offers a glossary of redneck terms (“crazy as an outhouse rat” is a favorite). To some metropolitan viewers, the men might appear to be country-hamming it up for the camera, but anyone who grew up firing potato guns in the rural South will recognize their authenticity.
“These guys really bring something fresh and different to television,” says Erin Griffin, a network representative who has succumbed to the regional hospitality. Cast and crew usually rendezvous first at “Daddy’s Farm” to plot their schemes while sitting on the tailgate of a truck. “It’s an unusually laidback set for all of us in the industry. As odd as it sounds, our crew members have started calling his father ‘Daddy,’ and Travis’ mom, who is a retired cosmetologist, is always cooking this delicious, homemade Southern food and insisting we all eat.”
Taylor’s pedigree makes him a natural for this show. His father labored as both a sharecropper and one of NASA’s original machinists, working in the Saturn V program during the Space Race and helping Wernher Von Braun build America’s first satellites, some of which are still in orbit. “Daddy handled Von Braun’s blueprints!” Taylor says. (On “Rocket City Rednecks,” the laconic older man’s facial expressions are fun to watch as he wryly rolls his eyes at the shenanigans of the “boys.” He often says he would rather be fishing, but concedes the show is “a hoot.”)
Taylor, who grew up in Decatur, built his first rocket at age six, and in third grade, took an aptitude test that predicted he would become a scientist, astronaut, or superhero. Since then, he has accumulated a lengthy list of science fair ribbons, bylines in peer-reviewed science journals, diplomas, and polymath hobbies (SCUBA diving, piloting, martial arts, singing, creative writing). He turned down a couple of full-ride scholarships to attend Auburn because of its highly ranked engineering program. “I wanted the chance to do hands-on work and learn circuitry from the guy who literally wrote the book on it,” he says, referring to Dr. David Irwin. Early on, Taylor was accepted into the cooperative education program at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.
“What I remember most about Travis Taylor during his undergraduate years at Auburn was his focus on learning and his sense of the relevancy of math, science, and technology to every-day life,” says Dr, Kim Durbin, director of the co-op program, “I remember walking into my supervisor’s office years ago, minutes after meeting with Travis to discuss what he had learned during his most recent co-op work semester. I told my boss that this student had a command and understanding of science like no one I had ever met. More importantly, Travis could explain this knowledge to others in ways that allowed for easy understanding while at the same time appreciating the greatness of what Travis was talking about. I told my boss then that it was my belief that Travis was destined for greatness, and one day we would all read about his varied accomplishments.”
Taylor went on earn master’s degrees in physics and aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama-Huntsville; a master’s in astronomy from the University of Western Sydney; and a doctorate in optical science and engineering, and he is working toward a PhD in aerospace engineering, while writing – “in all my copious spare time” – science fiction novels. His half a dozen titles, such as Back to the Moon and One Day On Mars, about a band of anti-federal separatists on the Red Planet, published by Baen, have established him as a celebrity in the unabashedly geeky genre. A few years ago, when television scouts for Flight 33 Productions did a Google search for “space warfare experts,” Taylor’s name popped up. His sandy good looks and courtly manner passed the screen test, and he appeared on The History Channel in “The Universe” and “Life After People.”
“That’s when I started thinking about developing my own show,” he says. “I wanted to make science fun and accessible for average people, to make them learn something without even realizing it because they’re having so much fun. So my wife got behind the video camera and started filming me and the other rednecks. I sent the tape off to National Geographic, and they were immediately sold on it. I came up with a spreadsheet of 120 experiment ideas. Right off the bat, the National Geographic crew said, ‘Any way you can do an experiment where you blow up a truck?’”
Hell, yeah! Hey, y’all, watch this…