Just in time to offer a refreshing alternative to the slew of Honey Boo Boo type of “redneck” programming that tends to dumb down the American conversation, Rocket City Rednecks and its cast of brilliant — but still fun-loving — Alabama rocket scientists returns. As evidenced in the show’s successful first season last year, while the Rocket City Rednecks — engineer Travis Taylor; his father Charles Taylor (one of NASA’s original machinists); Rog Jones, who has a genius IQ; Michael Taylor, Travis’ brilliant nephew; and Pete Erbach, Travis’ physicist brother-in-law — all embrace their Southern lifestyle and enjoy living the redneck life, they also enjoy, and are proud of, their intelligence.
“We were talking to some junior high school kids,” Travis tells me, “and one of the parents came up and said, ‘We really appreciate the fact that you guys are showing that it’s cool to be smart and that you guys can build anything out of anything.’ … Hopefully ‘geek’ will become a more-loved term. Especially ‘redneck geeks.’”
In Season 2, Travis and his team will continue to put their smarts to the test as they build more “anything out of anything.”
“We’ve done a bunch of things,” Travis says, previewing some of the gadgets in store for the new season. “We built a huge 22-foot-tall rocket [pictured at bottom] and launched it. … We built a steam catapult dune buggy, and we launched the dune buggy off the catapult and we pulled over 6 Gs when we launched it — I actually chipped a tooth on the thing when we did it. … We built a survival pod to withstand a tsunami. … We did 16 new episodes.”
Among the most inspiring, and personal, of the redneck innovations is something they are calling the Full-body Armor Suit Test Unit #1 (FAST U1). It is a lightweight, full-body armor suit designed for soldiers. In late October, Travis tested the mobility of this suit by running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., while wearing it.
“My older brother is in the Air Force, and he’s about to go back for his fourth deployment in January,” says Travis. “And it’s always been near and dear to us about soldier safety. They’re surviving better and better because the body armor we have is amazing. But there’s also a much larger loss of limbs than ever before, because the body armor only covers their torso, and their head.
“So I was thinking that we needed to have full-body armor, like Iron Man, from head to toe. So we took it upon ourselves to design some body armor. One of the interesting things when I was talking to soldiers is that they wouldn’t wear leg and arm armor because it slows them down. So I thought, ‘Well, if we can build a test model and I’ll wear it, and let’s put it through the ringer.’ And if a 44-year-old engineering geek can run a marathon in it, then certainly Marines and extremely fit soldiers could.”
When I spoke to Travis in September, the team was focusing on the mobility of the suit. Travis was put through his paces by a Marine drill instructor in an obstacle course (“It was pretty tough,” Travis laughs, “I was worn out.”), which was filmed for Season 2. Travis was unsure if any of the marathon would be filmed in time for the series, but it was possible.
“I believe if we get footage of the marathon we might have somebody running it while the credits roll,” he says. “We’ll film two or three hundred hours of footage to make a 22-and-a-half-minute show.”
The suit was also tested under fire (not with Travis in it, of course), with much of the testing under the guidance of Charles (a.k.a. “Daddy”).
“We’ve fired a bunch of different rounds at it, a bunch of different types,” says Travis. “We’ve tested a bunch of different ideas to make the armor more indestructible and more mobile. And we’re learning. This is really the mobility test. It will stop 9mm pistols and .357 pistols. It will stop small rifle arms. But it likely won’t stop armor-piercing rounds. But we believe we could step it up and make it do that. But first we want to test if our idea on the mobility is right first. If we’re in the right direction and you can move around in this thing, then the next step is to figure out how to make it better.”
Another thing Travis would like to see done better is science education in America, and that is one of goals he had for the series.
“That’s one of the main reasons for doing the show,” Travis says. “We used to be the leader in everything in this country, and now we think it’s okay not to be number one, or it’s okay not to always be first in everything. And in my mind that’s absolutely horrific. And we want to inspire kids to go out and it ought to make everybody in this country mad that the U.S. isn’t No. 1 in education, science and mathematics. But we’re way behind. So I’m hoping that this will excite kids to put down the Xbox and go out in the garage and pick up a screwdriver and do some things.”
Season 2 of Rocket City Rednecks premieres Nov. 29 at 9pm and 9:30pm ET/PT on National Geographic Channel. The series airs Thursdays.
Top photo: © National Geographic Channels
Bottom photo: Flight 33/NGC