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Travis Taylor

College of Engineering alumnus

Years before he was performing homemade experiments with beer cans and plywood for National Geographic Channel's new show "Rocket City Rednecks," Travis Taylor was attending classes in Parker and Broun Halls, building the foundation in engineering that would lead him to a career with the Army, Department of Defense and NASA in his hometown of Huntsville, Ala. Taylor, a 1991 electrical engineering alum, has written numerous science fiction novels, technical papers and textbooks, and has appeared in several television documentaries before landing his own show based on the engineering know-how and creativity that he, his father, nephew, best friend and brother-in-law all possess.

1. Did you always want to be an engineer?

I took a test when I was in the third grade to see what I was going to be when I grew up, and it came down to a scientist, a superhero or an engineer. I decided I was going to be all three. When I was in high school, I built a radio telescope that won the state science fair and placed sixth in the nation. This led me to a job with the Army, and also led me to study electrical engineering and physics at Auburn. I went on to earn master's degrees in physics and aerospace engineering, as well as my doctorate in optical science and engineering, from the University of Alabama-Huntsville. I also earned a master's degree in astronomy from the University of Western Sydney in Australia. I'm currently completing a second Ph.D. in aerospace systems engineering from the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

2. How did "Rocket City Rednecks" evolve?

I contributed to other documentaries before starting to film "Rocket City Rednecks." I worked as a space warfare expert on the History Channel series "The Universe," which started out as a screen test and evolved into two episodes, then a dozen. Then I did another History Channel show called "Life After People." I always had the idea to do a science show that is exciting and fun, so one day I went out and bought a video camera. My wife was behind the camera filming me, my father, nephew, brother-in-law and middle school friend doing experiments, and we sent the tape off to a production company.

3. Is this when National Geographic became interested?

Later, National Geographic showed up with a camera crew. I had a spreadsheet of about 150 experiment ideas that I came up with for the show, and the network and I narrowed it down to 15 - 20. The National Geographic crew had its own ideas, too. They said, "Any way you can do an experiment where you blow up a truck?" I turned that idea into how to bombproof a pickup truck out of plywood and beer cans. My family and best friend on the show are all machinists and inventors. If I have an idea for an experiment, one of them always knows how to build it. My father Charles was a machinist for NASA and worked on Saturn V during the space race. My brother-in-law Pete is an optical scientist who works with the Department of Defense. My nephew Michael is 22 and studying tool and machine making, and my best friend Rog knows how to do everything that is mechanical. All together, we make a good team.

4. You have learned a lot about engineering and science from going out into the field and conducting experiments on your own. What lesson did you learn at Auburn that you have remembered throughout your career?

Auburn taught me how to do experiments the right way. I had professors at Auburn who were brilliant experimentalists. Professors Eugene Clothiaux (physics), Mike Baginski (electrical engineering) and David Irwin (electrical engineering) all inspired me. I also learned that no matter how hard things got in electrical engineering, it is important to stay with it to get to the end result you want. Auburn was tough, but it was a good tough. It made me resilient.

5. What is one piece of advice you want to give to current Auburn students?

I personally think co-oping is the best thing a student can do while in college. It is the implementation of what is learned in the classroom. It is the tightening of the bolts, the lighting of the fire. I want to encourage everyone to get up off the couch, put away the Xbox and start tinkering with something. Try and solve a problem, or at least take a stab at it. Even if you don't solve anything, you are still learning something.

Oct. 24, 2011