Before Sputnik:
Rewriting the
History of the
Space Race and
JPL’s Frank Malina

Frank Malina next to a WAC Corporal missile, 1945. [Image courtesy NASA/JPL]

Before Sputnik:
Rewriting the
History of the
Space Race and
JPL’s Frank Malina

Published on Monday, November 14, 2022 | 6:59 am

August was the 81st anniversary of rocket tests in the Arroyo Seco that led to the establishment of JPL, changed the course of World War II and created a whole new scientific field: rocket science. The man who led that effort, Frank Malina—who was born last month in 1912 and died this month in 1981—was posthumously awarded a Medal for Merit by the president of the Czech Republic on Oct. 28.


On Oct. 28, Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman awarded a posthumous state Medal for Merit of the first degree in memoriam to Pasadena rocket engineer and inventor Dr. Frank J. Malina, who had Czech ancestry, for his contributions to science. Malina’s son Dr. Roger Malina was in Prague to receive the honor.

Frank Malina, who died 41 years ago this month on Nov. 9, 1981, was a co-founder and the second director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and helped launch the American rocketry program before, during and after World War II. But his life and career were upended in the 1940s and 50s as the FBI investigated him for ties to communism—which unfairly diminished his achievements and robbed him of the credit he deserves. He, in fact, played a key role in establishing rocketry as a science and developed the first high-altitude rockets.

Popular opinion has it that the Soviets’ Sputnik I and the Nazis’ V-2 rockets were the first achievements that launched the Space Age. But that interpretation of history ignores the reality of the American contribution to the development of space exploration. The first rocket to reach extremely high altitudes near the boundary of outer space was the WAC Corporal, developed and tested in 1943-45 by Malina.

In March, Caltech hosted a virtual talk with author Fraser MacDonald to discuss his 2019 book about Malina, Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket, which outlines this lesser known but factually accurate history.

“The WAC Corporal doesn’t get nearly enough attention in the history of astronautics,” MacDonald said. “It’s the world’s first sounding rocket; it’s the first rocket in the U.S. that achieves the success of extreme altitudes.”

On Nov. 14, LAist Studios is launching a new 12-episode podcast series about the early history of JPL called “LA Made: Blood, Sweat, & Rockets,” including the stories of Malina and his controversial partner, Jack Parsons.

Explosions on Caltech’s campus

It all began in the 1930s, when Malina—who was born Oct. 2, 1912, in Brenham, Texas, and got a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at Texas A&M—moved to Pasadena to study aeronautics at Caltech under Dr. Theodore von Kármán, one of the greatest scientific minds of the era and a brilliant Hungarian aerodynamicist who led the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech (GALCIT) starting in 1930.

Malina worked in Caltech’s 200-mile-per-hour wind tunnel, conducted wind and soil erosion research for Kármán and became a teaching fellow in 1934. He got two master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and aeronautical engineering, and eventually his doctorate in aeronautics in 1940. He became an assistant professor of aeronautics at Caltech in 1942.

In 1936, Malina teamed up with Parsons—rocketry pioneer, black magician, self-proclaimed Antichrist, disciple of the occultist Aleister Crowley and explosives expert—and his friend Ed Forman to study rockets, which were considered science fiction at the time. (Read this reporter’s 3-part series on Parsons: Part 1 explores the 70th anniversary of his explosive death; Part 2 outlines his partnership with Malina; and Part 3 looks at his occult beliefs and double life).

“One of the things my dad taught me as a young man is, you have to develop a high tolerance for strange people—and Jack was strange,” Roger Malina said. “But he tolerated him and they co-invented rocket fuel that led to one side of American rocketry.”

They became known as the GALCIT Rocket Research Group, the forerunner of JPL. Starting in 1936, they built and tested liquid and solid fuel rockets in the Arroyo Seco and on Caltech’s campus. Their rocket tests using methyl alcohol and gaseous oxygen on Halloween 1936 is considered the “Nativity Scene of JPL,” because their work eventually led to the lab’s founding eight years later.

Their group soon developed the moniker “Suicide Squad” because of the explosions they caused on campus, which is also why they were eventually banished to the Arroyo, on the spot where the massive JPL complex now stands. They leased six acres from the city of Pasadena and built a few wood and corrugated sheet metal buildings.

The Suicide Squad set out to design a high-altitude sounding rocket propelled by either solid or liquid fuel, a pipe dream at that time.

“It was certainly considered dubious,” Malina said in a 1978 Caltech oral history project interview. “Most of the so-called serious scientists and engineers were very skeptical about rocket propulsion. There was also a surprising lack of understanding among people that should have known better.”

In an attempt to raise money for their rocket tests, Malina and Parsons wrote a film proposal in the 1930s, which they planned to sell to a movie studio, about rocket scientists based on themselves. The plot, about right-wing capitalists stealing their rocket research, eerily predicted things which came to pass, such as the Nazis wielding a rocket weapon and even Parsons’ death by explosion. The manuscript is now housed in the Malina archive at Texas A&M and was made available by Malina’s son Roger, who had a career in astrophysics and space science at NASA and was the director of an astronomical observatory in the south of France.

“Somewhere, deep in their unconscious, Malina and Parsons had sensed what was ahead,” MacDonald wrote. “In general rather than specific terms, they predicted their marginalization in history and, more horribly, the cold-war-era ascendancy of the Nazis.”

Sometime before they wrote this treatment, Malina was hired as a technical advisor for an MGM “aerial adventure” movie called “Shadow of the Wing,” which was to star Clark Gable. Malina was brought on “to keep the writers from saying impossible things about [Royal Air Force] airplanes,” he wrote to his parents. “In the end,” MacDonald wrote, “the British Air Ministry refused to cooperate, leaving the film unfinished and preventing the writers from saying anything at all about airplanes.”

A wealthy communist

In 1939, World War II was ramping up and the Nazis were developing the V-1 rocket (and later the dreaded V-2) at Peenemünde. Because the word “rocket” was looked down upon, Malina and Kármán persuaded the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Army Air Corps Research to fund the development of “Jet-Assisted Take-Offs (JATOs),” small rockets to boost and shorten the take-off time of airplanes on the battlefield. The Suicide Squad became the first rocket research group sanctioned by the U.S. government.

In August 1941, the team first began testing their JATOs on a single-engine Ercoupe monoplane. August 12 of this year was the 81st anniversary of the tests that changed the course of the war and created a whole new scientific field: rocket science. 

The JATOs worked, but they needed a fuel that was less volatile than black powder and would fill the rocket motor casing without pockets of gas, a fuel that was both a solid and a liquid. Malina’s son Roger said Parsons came up with the solution: asphalt to bind potassium/ammonium perchlorate as solid fuel. Parsons also contributed to the new idea of using red fuming nitric acid as an oxidizer with benzine or gasoline as liquid fuel. Malina improved on this idea by replacing gasoline/benzene with aniline.

These were potentially lucrative innovations. But Caltech aeronautics professor Clark Millikan argued a university like Caltech wasn’t the place for private enterprise, so the growing GALCIT Rocket Research Group split into two: Aerojet and JPL. The Suicide Squad filed patents on their fuel inventions and formed a company in March 1942 that produced and sold JATOs to the military for use in the war. They called it the Aerojet Engineering Corporation and set up an office in an old juice cannery on E. Colorado St. in Pasadena. Meanwhile, the government-funded side of their research continued at JPL, which was officially established in 1944 with a budget of $650,000.

Parsons often gets credit for the establishment of JPL, but institutionally speaking he was never actually employed at the lab. Malina—along with his mentor Kármán, Chinese national and fellow Caltech graduate Hsue-Shen Tsien and a few others—was really the driving force behind the creation of JPL and the rocket weapons (which made him uncomfortable) that helped win World War II and launched the United States into the Space Age. It was Malina, Kármán and Tsien who on Nov. 20, 1943, proposed a long-range rocket missile research program in a report identified as JPL-1, the first use of the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“By the late 20th century, when the peculiarity of Parsons’ life and work had attracted a new interest, JPL would sometimes be jokingly referred to as the ‘Jack Parsons Laboratory,’” MacDonald wrote. “But the truth is that while Parsons was a founder of Aerojet, he had no discernible role in the institutional emergence of JPL. There were good reasons why not.”

He added during the Caltech event in March that Parsons’ contributions to JPL have been vastly exaggerated, likely because “people want to believe that rocket engineering could come from the wild card end of the spectrum rather than the disciplined, highly mathematical, slightly dull end of the spectrum.”

In 1944, General Tire purchased a majority share in Aerojet. Parsons, Forman and others were pushed out and urged to sell their shares of the company, which they did for $11,000 each, having invested $250 each originally. Had they held on, like Malina did, their shares would have been worth millions within a few years.

Malina was “rich overnight,” MacDonald wrote, but his “financial security was now founded on the military-industrial complex that he had disavowed upon leaving Caltech. The fact that this communist had done rather nicely out of a capitalist takeover was a point of family amusement.” Roger still has some of the Aerojet founders’ stock.

Malina, who was never part of Parsons’ occult world, was installed as the second director of JPL in late 1944 at age 31, after a short stint by Kármán. That year, Malina oversaw the development and testing of the WAC Corporal and later the BUMPER WAC Corporal, the first high-altitude sounding rockets and the first human made object to reach outer space, arguably launching the Space Race.

In 1946, Malina and Martin Summerfield wrote an important paper called “The Problem of Escape from the Earth by Rocket” which correctly argued satellites were possible. Malina’s work was clearly hugely influential on the U.S. rocketry and space programs, but as we’ll see in Part 2, his life and career were upended in the 1940s and 50s as the FBI investigated him for ties to communism, which unfairly diminished his achievements.

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