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EXCLUSIVE Interview with Travis Taylor of Nat Geo's ROCKET CITY REDNECKS

Mike Vicic - October 12, 2011


On ROCKET CITY REDNECKS, Travis Taylor and the boys use homemade moonshine, empty beer cans and redneck ingenuity to solve some of the world's toughest engineering problems. They're NASA scientists, expert machinists and PhDs who are trying to invent stuff and have fun -- one keg at a time. Travis recently took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with TV Tango to discuss their craziest inventions, relive their most spectacular explosions, reminisce about how he got his nickname "Mule," and laugh about having THE BIG BANG THEORY's Leonard and Sheldon work with him for a weekend.



ROCKET CITY REDNECKS airs on Nat Geo on Wednesdays at 9pm ET/PT, with back-to-back episodes.


TV Tango: You've used empty beer cans to make a Humvee more bomb resistant and beer kegs to build a submarine. For the series, what's the craziest contraption you've built using beer containers?

Travis Taylor: Wow, the craziest thing we've built so far using beer containers of any sort would probably be the submarine. The submarine is kind of crazy, and we ended up using six beer kegs on that thing.

We built a rocket this weekend [Oct 1 & 2] on the fly. We were out in the middle of a cornfield and we didn't have all the parts for a rocket. We found some beer cans in the back of one of the trucks, and cut them up and used the beer cans for rocket fins.


We do a lot of MacGyverin' of things, and beer cans turn out to be pretty useful items. [TV Tango: And always around.] Yeah, for some reason they seem to follow us around.

TV Tango: Other than the submarine, what's the scariest thing you've done for the TV show?

Travis Taylor: Scariest thing? Well, the submarine's the really only scary thing I guess.


I know when we built the moonshine rocket, I had a parachute charge go off in my hands. That scared me a little bit, but we were following safety procedures and it looks more dangerous on TV than it was because you don't realize that the charges were pointed completely away from me. It just scared the crap out of me.

I've not had anything really dangerous happen. We have had a couple of rockets misfire. We did have a really big rocket -- 22 foot tall, 800 pound rocket -- explode once it cleared the pad, and there was a big fire involved in that. I guess you could call that dangerous. We were all far away from it in safe locations, but it was a little bit spooky.

TV Tango: What's the most unusual sound you've captured using satellite dishes for the TV show?

Travis Taylor: Well, we actually captured a radio signal from the Crab Nebula, which was exciting. The Crab Nebula is a big supernova remnant, and there are a lot of radio waves being emanated from that -- an echo of a giant explosion of a star dying. We didn't realize what it was until we went back after filming and looked at the coordinates we were pointed at and all that, and what you're looking at are signals from the Crab Nebula. We were excited about that once I figured that out.

TV Tango: Are you going to commercialize any of your ideas from the TV series?

Travis Taylor: Wow, people ask us that a lot, but we're going from one weekend to the next, building the next thing and haven't had time to really sit down and reflect on what it is we did the previous week. We keep telling ourselves, "You know, we outta' patent that. We outta' sell these."


The closest thing we've come up with so far are "Safety Third" t-shirts that would be the most likely commercial product.

This weekend [Oct. 1 & 2] I invented -- I and one of the interns who was helping me -- a new rocket igniter. That's been our biggest problem in almost every episode -- commercial rocket igniters failing. We end up using four or five of 'em before we ever get a launch. We invented one that works every time, or at least its worked every time so far that we've used it. We're doing a patent search right now to see if anybody has come up with it before, but I don't believe they have.


We're pretty excited about it, but I don't know what the commercial market is for rocket igniters.

TV Tango: Are you trying to convey certain scientific concepts to viewers or just trying to show that anybody can have fun using science, engineering and ingenuity to solve interesting problems?

Travis Taylor: A little bit of all of that. There are two real purposes. Our main one is to get people to realize that you can get your butt off the couch and go out in the garage, you can start putting some things together and solve a problem. Whether it's a big problem or a little problem, it doesn't matter. You can get out and do stuff, and learn something or gain some insight about the universe.

The other thing is, at least with the majority of the projects we do, we like to have a bigger picture that we're trying to get some insight to, like the bombproofing a vehicle. Like this weekend [Oct 1 & 2] we did a stealth vehicle -- a stealth truck -- which would help in protecting humvees and radar-guided munitions. And also maybe help you keep from getting a speeding ticket in a speed trap.


We kind of have a big picture to it and a fun aspect to each one just because that's kind of the way we want people to see life and see the universe -- to realize you can have fun while solving some problems that need to be solved.

TV Tango: How did you get this series on Nat Geo?

Travis Taylor: I'm a science-fiction writer and had written a bunch of novels about alien invasion and space warfare and stuff. There was this production company that was doing a show called THE UNIVERSE for the History Channel, and they sent me an email -- they apparently Googled space warfare and my name came up -- because they were doing an episode on space warfare. So they flew me out to Hollywood for a screen test. I did the screen test, and that day they had me film two episodes of that show. And then they had me do some others; I ended up doing a half dozen or so.

So I told them, "Look, this is a great show and all, but it's for the science enthusiasts and stuff. The normal viewer is going to turn the channel in 10 minutes or go to sleep. We outta' find a fun way to do this." And they said, "Write up an idea and send it to us." I did, and nothing really came of it.


So I went and bought a video camera and gave it to my wife. Got the guys together and we got out and got my wife filming us doing stuff, and then I sent that back to that production company. Within a week they had a real film crew here filming a pilot; so then we sent that to Nat Geo. The day Nat Geo saw it, the next day we had a contract for the show.


The whole process, from the time I bought my wife the video camera to the time the show aired was about 18 months. It seemed to us like a million years.

TV Tango: What are your thoughts about the redneck reality movement with shows like SWAMP PEOPLE, HILLBILLY HANDFISHIN' and many others focused on the South and its unique culture?

Travis Taylor: I don't really have anything for or against it, except that I think the world needs a little more redneck attitude. If you look at some of the shows, they make fun of what rednecks are. What we're doing is...we're glorifying it.


The term [rednecks] actually came about in the 1800s, at least in this country. There's another origin of it, like in the 1600s in Scotland, but that's a completely separate origin.

The origin in 1800s America was that the individual sharecroppers that had everything they owned suck into the family farm, and if something went wrong, they had to solve the problem with the resources they had at hand. They were hard-working and so they were sunburned, and people starting referring to them as the farmers with the red necks or whatever. So in our minds, a redneck is a hard-working, resourceful, clever, family-centric individual. That's a highly exciting compliment if you ask me.


Rog is a big fan of SWAMP PEOPLE. I've only seen an episode since I don't have a lot of time to watch TV. He talks about that show a lot.


Another thing that we want to get across to folks too is that a lot of people think that the American space program is in Houston and Florida, but the rockets that went to the moon were built by a handful of Germans and a city full of Rocket City rednecks here in Huntsville, Alabama. A lot of people don't realize that.

TV Tango: You built your first rocket at age 6. When did you build your first satellite dish?

Travis Taylor: Well, I built a radio telescope when I was in the 11th grade. I took some old radio parts and a TV antenna, worked on them and picked up radio waves from outer space.


Then I built a bigger one as a senior in high school, and won the state science fair competition and came in like 6th in the nation. That's one of the things that got me started with my day job. I got a scholarship out of the deal and went from there.

TV Tango: What was your biggest science/engineering mishap growing up?

Travis Taylor: Wow, well you're going to see it. I don't know what episode it's going to be, but it will be in the last half of the season. We're building a man-capable rocket, and keep in mind that each of these show happens in a weekend with a budget of about $3000 or less. We build a man-capable rocket on that kind of budget and time pressure, and things went fairly well. There was a manufacturer's defect in one of the engines that if I had better inspected the thing, I would have figured it out before we launched. But, unfortunately, there's about a half-acre of cotton out in Lawrence County, Alabama that's not there anymore.

When I was in undergraduate school, I did get across a 20,000-volt capacitor bank, and it made me catatonic for a couple of hours. I learned the hard way to respect electricity. Fortunately, we lived to tell about it. Some people learned the hard way and didn't.

TV Tango: What nicknames have you been given?

Travis Taylor: Science-fiction fans call me "Doc."


On the show, a lot of times you'll hear Rog call me "Mule." A lot of people want to know what that's about. When I was in high school, everybody in my high school  had nicknames. They nicknamed me "Newly" after the character Newly on GUNSMOKE. The actor's name was Buck Taylor, and he had the same last name. Rog had a boss that was hard of hearing -- he was working at a gas station -- and he thought they were calling me "Mulee" and he start calling me "Mulee." They thought that was funny. It just evolved from there, and "Mule" is just short for "Mulee." And that's what they call me.

You know, by the way, Rog's name isn't Rog. His name is Greg. His nickname since the 7th grade has been "Rog." He had a brother that was a year older than him. He and Rog were my best friends, and they called each other Rog and Mickey -- names they called each other when they got mad at each other.  I don't know if this is necessarily a story that everybody wants to hear. [TV Tango: Is that because of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle?] That would've been nice...


I'll tell you what, the two of them were super athletes -- all-State in basketball; I watched Rog hit 132 free throws one day in a row -- but neither one of them played baseball.

TV Tango: How do you feel about being compared to the Professor on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND?

Travis Taylor: [Laughter] I gotta tell ya', the Professor was a brilliant man who could build phones and radios out of coconuts, but if he could do all of that, why couldn't he build a boat to get off that island.

TV Tango: We've all wondered the same thing, and here's my take: He didn't have beer cans.


Travis Taylor: That's right, he could drink pina coladas out of coconut shells. Thor Heyerdahl built a boat pretty much out of paper and sticks and went all the way from Egypt to South America; so I feel like the professor was lacking somewhere.


TV Tango: I think he actually liked being there.


Travis Taylor: You probably got a point. He was stranded on a deserted, tropical island with a movie star and a couple of other women and then a numskull, with people to take care of him. Maybe he didn't want to leave. Maybe smarter than what I gave him credit for.

TV Tango: What TV shows are on your DVR?

Travis Taylor: Right now the only one that is continuously on DVR is DOCTOR WHO. Before SMALLVILLE quit, SMALLVILLE was my favorite show. And before that it was STARGATE SG-1, which now is no longer on either. All my favorite shows keep getting canceled; I hope DOCTOR WHO sticks around.

TV Tango: What's your favorite TV show of all time?

Travis Taylor: It would probably be STAR TREK. Any iteration of them.

TV Tango: If you could score a guest role on any current TV series, which sitcom or drama series would you choose?

Travis Taylor: Wow, that's an interesting one. Well I kind of like one of my own. [Laughter].


I like THE BIG BANG THEORY. I'd like to show those idiots that you don't need to be an idiot to be smart. Smart guys don't have to be ridiculously stupid. It's a hilarious show, but none of those guys could be successful in real life because they're incapable of being in control of themselves, much less doing something important.

TV Tango: Would you like to have them with you for a weekend, trying to build a rocket?

Travis Taylor: You dang right, I would. That would be hilarious. I'd be all over them about not knowing what they crap they was doing.