The life and career of JPL co-founder Dr. Frank Malina were upended in the 1940s and 50s as the FBI investigated him for ties to communism, which unfairly diminished his achievements. The Medal for Merit he received from the Czech Republic president in October and a new 12-part podcast from LAist Studios about early JPL history are perhaps indications that the rocketry pioneer is finally getting the recognition he deserves.
Dr. Frank Malina, a co-founder and the second director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena who helped launch the American rocketry program, was pushed out of JPL as the postwar Red Scare and Cold War heated up due to his affiliation with the Communist Party at Caltech in the 1930s. The third director of JPL on Malina’s recommendation, Dr. Louis Dunn, was an FBI informant against Malina, accusing him and others at JPL of espionage.
According to author Fraser MacDonald, Malina joined the Communist Party at Caltech in November 1938, the same month he went to Washington, D.C., and convinced the U.S. Army Air Corps to fund his rocket research. In Malina’s FBI file, which is more than 300 pages long, an informant told the FBI that Malina held communist meetings in his house every Tuesday night until June 1941.
In Escape from Earth, MacDonald explores in-depth Malina’s affiliation with communism and determines that he in fact he was a supporter but so were many others in the 1930s who cared about progressive issues.
“One of the things that really catalyzes his involvement in the Communist Party is the nature of segregation in Pasadena,” MacDonald said during a virtual Caltech event in March. “If you were serious about making change in the mid to late 1930s, then the Communist Party is probably the main vehicle to do that, particularly after Upton Sinclair’s EPIC campaign [End Poverty in California].”
Malina and others campaigned to end the racial segregation of a Pasadena swimming pool, which had a “Blacks only” session on Wednesday afternoon, after which the pool was drained before whites returned Thursday morning.
He and other scientific colleagues at Caltech, including Frank Oppenheimer (the brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer), Sidney Weinbaum, Martin Summerfield and biologists, engineers and physicists, met to discuss ideas, books they were reading and news of the day. That group eventually turned into a communist club called Unit 122.
“Of course, they didn’t necessarily realize 20 years later the FBI would come knocking at their laboratory doors concerned about their political affiliation,” MacDonald said. “It wasn’t that controversial to be politically involved in that way in the 30s, but by the late 40s, a totally different picture.”
Malina’s son Dr. Roger Malina said he thought MacDonald overemphasized the role of communism in his dad’s life in Escape from Earth.
“The father I grew up with was certainly not communist,” Roger said. “[He was] liberal, or whatever the American term might be. If you were in college in 1931, you probably would have been left wing, and the Communist Party was legal in LA.”
Many of Malina’s Caltech associates who were members of Unit 122 in the 30s got caught up in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 40s and 50s, were investigated by the FBI, got arrested, lost their jobs, friends and family and had their lives ruined. Meanwhile, Nazi scientists such as Wernher von Braun were welcomed with open arms in the United States because of their rocketry knowledge. Malina was aware of and lamented that double standard.
“He was very bitter about how he was treated,” said Norma Rannie, whose husband Duncan, the Robert H. Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion at Caltech, was a longtime friend of Malina’s.
Even Malina’s old friend and rocketry partner Jack Parsons informed on him to the FBI, gave agents a list of Unit 122 members and told them that Malina was “associated with groups of ‘pinks’ at Caltech.” He even said Malina’s loyalty “would be questionable if [Malina] had to decide between our form of government and that of Russia.” Roger said Parsons did this because he was upset Malina got rich from the Aerojet stock and he didn’t.
But Malina was more an advocate of international cooperation than he was a fellow traveler who towed the Party line. In 1936, Malina wrote in a letter, “Events in Europe are certainly heading to another war. There seems to be only one hope: overthrowing of the capitalist system in all countries and an economic union of nations.”
Other members of the Suicide Squad, Malina’s and Parsons’ group at Caltech that pioneered the study of rocketry, also got caught up in the Red Scare. One member, Chinese national and fellow Caltech graduate Hsue-Shen Tsien who worked closely with Kármán, Malina and Parsons at Caltech, JPL and Aerojet, was also investigated for his Unit 122 membership. He was held under house arrest for five years so that his scientific knowledge might expire before being deported back to China in 1955. He went on to build China’s nuclear weapons and space programs and is seen as a national hero there. He refused to speak to Western journalists for the rest of his life and died Oct. 31, 2009.
“They wouldn’t have gotten the bomb as soon without him,” Rannie said. “He was a great loss. He also got very bitter about the way he was treated.”
JPL historian Erik Conway said the evidence against both Tsien and Malina amounted to Unit 122 membership cards that the LAPD copied from originals obtained by undercover officers from their union-busting Red Squad.
“At Tsien’s immigration hearing after the war, Caltech hired an attorney to defend him, who pretty thoroughly discredited these cards,” Conway said during the Caltech event in March. “The provenance was in question, so this was pretty weak sauce. The question is not whether they were members of the party, because it’s arguable and it will always be, but whether there’s new evidence that they were actually traitors, sharing information they shouldn’t have. There’s just no evidence that they were.”
He added that when Tsien went back to China, he had to join the Communist Party in 1958 in order to have any power and possibly avoid jail.
An American in Paris
In late 1946 and early 1947, after divorcing his first wife Liljan, Malina left the United States and took a job at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.
At the end of the war, he lamented “seeing the things we had been developing for space exploration being used for military purposes,” he said in a 1978 Caltech oral history project interview. “I found that I was getting caught up more and more in trips to Washington in meetings with the Army, Navy and Air Force, planning the next war. I found in these meetings I was getting more and more disturbed and I would break into cold sweats. I just hated the idea of, say, planning to use all this for bombarding people.
“I felt that the Second World War was unavoidable and that Nazis and fascism and these crazy ideas of Hitler had to be defeated. But many of us hoped at the end of the Second World War that there was a chance, maybe through something like the United Nations, to put some kind of a control on the sovereign states to put a stop to war, at least between industrialized countries.”
In 1951, Malina became head of UNESCO’s Division of Scientific Research in Paris. The U.S. government put pressure on UNESCO to get rid of Malina, and they invalidated his passport. The FBI put pressure on a reluctant Assistant Attorney General Angus McEachen to indict Malina, which they eventually did in 1952.
“Frank Malina, the person who had arguably done more than anyone to initiate the U.S. space program, was now formally considered a fugitive,” MacDonald wrote.
Malina eventually left UNESCO in 1953 but continued to live in Paris for the rest of his life. As a result of his Aerojet shares, he was financially independent. So he decided to become a full-time artist.
“I was very interested in the possible relationships between art, science and technology,” he said in the Caltech oral history project. “In that period from ’53 to ’76 or so, I made something like 3,000 bits of art—all the way from little miniatures to rather large things.”
He became an influential lumino-kinetic artist building sculptures that incorporated motion, light, strings, grids, moiré and other elements from his engineering career.
His first luminous paintings “often illustrat[ed] cosmic themes: painted Plexiglas compositions, lit by light bulbs and animated by motors,” according to an exhibit of his work at the RCM Galerie in Paris. “He exhibited widely during the 1950s-70s, including at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, the Stedelijk Museum in the Netherlands, the Whipple Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.”
Malina’s work is currently part of an exhibition called “All Art Is Virtual” at the Art Vault in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It started in May and ends April 15.
“The exhibition ‘All Art Is Virtual’ proposes that all art can provide a virtual reality experience—no special goggles required,” reads the exhibit’s website. “The contemporary artworks on view use cutting-edge, creative technologies such as algorithmic content generation, video and LED sculpture, digital murals, augmented reality wallpaper, interactive video and sculpture, and internet-driven animation.”
In 1960, Malina got his passport back and was a founding member of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), of which he became president in 1963. In 1968, he founded and edited a journal called Leonardo about the intersection of art and science, which still publishes.
“Frank Malina was a co-initiator of very different organizations: Aerojet, JPL, UNESCO, IAA, Leonardo, in very different fields of activity, and all of these still function,” Roger said.
Malina also performed a one-man show at the Tehran Trade Fair in Iran. He wrote three memoirs, married twice and had two sons. Forty-one years ago this month, on Nov. 9, 1981, he died of a heart attack at his home in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, at age 69.
After he died, his second wife Marjorie went to great lengths to preserve his memory and legacy, according to Rannie. Most of his scientific papers were microfilmed by Caltech and donated to the Library of Congress. Roger is organizing his dad’s remaining archive related to his artwork and Leonardo.
In his honor, the Frank J. Malina Astronautics Medal is presented annually by the International Astronautical Federation to an educator who has demonstrated excellence in using their available resources to promote the study of astronautics and related space sciences. The 2022 recipient was announced in September: University of Tokyo Professor of Aeronautics Shinichi Nakasuka.
Malina certainly hasn’t received proper credit for his pioneering career. Roger said his dad used to say, “History is cruel. It remembers certain people because there were historians that wrote about them—and the people who actually did the work, nobody wrote about them. If you’re funded by the Smithsonian, you’re more likely to be remembered than if you’re self-funded.”
Roger added, “Some of that’s true, but I think it also reflected his professional anxiety that he nearly ended up in jail during the McCarthy period.”
Frank Malina was an internationalist through and through, especially when it came to science. He said his goal at UNESCO was to “break down the frontiers between countries to facilitate the movement of scientists and their equipment.”
George Pendle, author of a book about Parsons called Strange Angel, which was the basis for a 2018 TV show that changed Malina’s character’s name, said Malina had been dubbed Caltech’s “fantasy expert” in 1937, but by the end of the war he was “one of the most respected minds on rocketry in the country. Once scornful professors lined up to build rockets with him and Parsons.”
The Medal for Merit Malina received from the Czech Republic president in October is perhaps one sign that the rocketry pioneer is finally getting his due. A new 12-episode podcast series from LAist Studios called “LA Made: Blood, Sweat, & Rockets,” which launched Nov. 14, is also exploring Malina’s legacy.
“From NASA sending astronauts to the moon to billionaires launching themselves into space, there’s something about the cosmos that inspires people to attempt the impossible,” reads the show’s description. “But none of those things might have happened if it weren’t for a group of unsung engineers in Pasadena back in the 1930s. They risked it all for the sake of blowing stuff up and changing the world. The team’s road to triumph was fraught with controversies involving the occult, a suspected spy ring, unplanned explosions and a suspicious death. They were known as the ‘Suicide Squad.’ This is their story.”
“LA Made” is a new series “exploring stories of bold Californian innovators and how they forever changed the lives of millions all over the world. Each season will unpack the untold and surprising stories behind some of the most exciting innovations that continue to influence our lives today.”
“Blood, Sweat, & Rockets” is the first season of the new show. It will explore “the hidden story of the fearless, groundbreaking and ambitious crew who shaped our quest to outer space and ushered in the early days of space exploration at” JPL. “Join writer and life-long aerospace fanatic M.G. Lord as she uncovers their story and reveals the shocking origins of rocket science in this 12-episode season.”