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Escape from Earth
A Secret History of the Space Rocket
Read by Oliver Wyman
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Los Angeles, 1930s: Everyone knows that rockets are just toys, the stuff of cranks and pulp magazines. Nevertheless, an earnest engineering student named Frank Malina sets out to prove the doubters wrong. With the help of his friend Jack Parsons, a grandiose and occult-obsessed explosives enthusiast, Malina embarks on a journey that takes him from junk yards and desert lots to the heights of the military-industrial complex.
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SPACE FLIGHT MAY SEEM like a transcendent theme–the stuff of soaring visions and azure skies–but its history is grounded in the dirt. This book is the unearthing.
It is a story that I’ve reconstructed from archives buried in obscure places. Perhaps that’s why the research has so often felt like an exhumation. It’s not just that the principal characters in this book are dead, which they are, but that their reputations have followed them down to the grave. This is about people who have, for the most part, been forgotten, even though their lives are central to the achievements of the twentieth century. I only found out about them through an accident of geography.
In the closing years of the twentieth century, I was conducting some doctoral fieldwork on the island of North Uist, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. I didn’t go there to study rockets but my interest in the cultural landscape made me curious about the one place on the island to which I was denied access: a hilltop called Cleatrabhal, ‘hill of the ridge’ in Old Norse. Its militarised summit gives a commanding view over the irregular carpet of moor and loch; there are even traces of Neolithic and Iron Age communities. But it’s the Cold War infrastructure that still dominates Cleatrabhal, and it was there that I first started to dig into the story of the Space Age.
I learned that this site had been part of a rocket testing range built on the neighbouring island of South Uist in the late 1950s. The next time I was down in London, I dredged the National Archives to find declassified military files about the planning of the range. I discovered that it had been built to test a type of American rocket. And not just any rocket: the Corporal was the first guided missile authorised to carry a nuclear warhead. To my mild shame, I had never heard of it.
I wrote a few dry academic papers about missile testing and Cold War geopolitics, but the origins of this technology remained a bit hazy. I knew that the Corporal had been designed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and I knew, too, that JPL was at the forefront of space exploration today. But I thought it a bit odd that the key engineer behind both the rocket and the laboratory should be such a distant figure. His name was Frank J. Malina.
In 2006, I noticed a new Wikipedia article about Malina–a one-sentence entry that described him as an ‘aeronautical engineer and painter’. Ploughing through a few books and oral histories turned up more information. I read that when he was little more than a graduate student, with the help of friends whose credentials were even less impressive than his own, he developed the first US rocket to reach an extreme altitude. It’s called the WAC Corporal, the precursor to the Corporal. These days ‘rocket science’ is a cliché for complexity, a shorthand for engineering brilliance. In the 1930s, however, the opposite was the case: rocketry was so discredited that it didn’t belong anywhere near the word ‘science’. Yet it was Frank Malina, arguably more than anyone else in the United States, who made it respectable. Why then was his name absent from histories of space flight? There were rumours about his politics, and even more outlandish stories about his colleagues.
Years passed. I was invited to give a paper at the International Astronautical Congress, where by chance I ran into the astronomer Roger Malina, Frank’s son. I had no particular plans to write about his father but I was intrigued by why he wasn’t better known. Why did he walk away from practical rocketry? Why did he leave the United States? ‘You should come to our home in Paris,’ Roger suggested. ‘We have a family archive there.’
It took me a few more years–life happens; I wasn’t in a hurry–but eventually I made it to the Malina house. Roger opened the gate and welcomed me through the courtyard into the home where he grew up. Tucked away off a quiet back street in Boulogne-Billancourt, the house exudes a kind of homely modernism: simple concrete lines, a quirky spiral staircase, high ceilings and low furniture. In the study was a panorama of books, photographs and paintings, preserved in a state of lifelike disorder.
In the adjacent office I scanned the shelves. Each was laden with box files of letters, drawings, photos, sketches, more letters, magazines, exhibition catalogues, receipts, so many letters. There were documents of every conceivable kind–many of them intimate rather than institutional. Love letters. Letters to his mother. There were more formal papers too: a thick correspondence with lawyers, an archive box on which was written ‘Box V: Witchhunt file’. Frank’s life felt so close at hand, it was as if he had just stepped out to the patisserie. On his bedside table I spotted his wristwatch, a tiny calendar clipped to the strap: November 1981.
I had only been in Paris for a few hours when I realised that what had been an idle curiosity on Cleatrabhal, then an academic interest in London’s National Archives, was now something urgent and personal. Here was an extraordinary life. I didn’t know the full story then, not even half of it, but I felt certain that there was a story.
With Roger’s permission, I photographed everything I could find, page by page, and read the material back in Scotland. I filled notebooks with details of Malina’s friends and colleagues. I pieced together his relationships from the letters, working out who he trusted and who he didn’t. I started to find gaps: letters missing; things that didn’t add up. I found Frank Malina’s FBI file and blinked at some of the allegations it contained. I submitted my own Freedom of Information requests to declassify the FBI files on Malina’s friends. There were thousands of pages to examine in this house, but it was only a starting point; the search took me spiralling outwards, into other circuits of association.
The momentum I built up in Frank’s archive was dragged by the search for FBI files. First you have to prove that the subject is dead and provide enough information (social security number, dates of birth, death, marriage) to identify the relevant files. If any are found you then join the declassification queue; that can take five years. Released files have many of the names redacted–blacked out–so that although you have some idea of what has happened, it’s difficult to know who it happened to. It requires endless comparisons with other files and other archives. Much of this is repetitive and boring. Now and again, I’d find a little nugget. In the spring of 2016, a new file arrived. And with a single name on a single page, mistakenly left unredacted, I found the motherlode.
The trouble with FBI files as sources is that they’re only as reliable as the agents and their informants. They can be useful, but they aren’t the Truth. On reading them I still needed wider evidence–letters, diaries, oral histories–to give a more nuanced picture. Foremost here were the papers and journals kept by Frank’s first wife, Liljan. Even with all this material, getting the measure of this story depended on getting to know its characters; that in turn meant getting to know their children, even grandchildren. These conversations weren’t always relaxed. I was asking about past membership in the US Communist Party, not the kind of talk that puts anyone at ease. But in time, unseen and often unknown sources began to emerge, sometimes dramatically changing the story: the people who remembered FBI agents sitting in cars at the bottom of their driveway; or those who recalled the suited men watching as they bought ice cream as children; the family that came home one day to find a nail driven into a door frame, preventing its tight closure. Some of these recollections cut deep.
Half a century after the moon landings, we have inherited a particular image of America’s Space Age pioneers: the steely-eyed missile man facing the great unknown. In the mass of papers and testimonies piling up in my own study, I saw something else: something repressed and unspeakable, something hidden and shameful. Something secret.
This is the story of the birth of the space rocket. In the pages that follow, you’ll learn how humankind first reached beyond the atmosphere of Earth to worlds beyond. But it is more than that. It’s about what we will allow ourselves to know about the darker legacies of the twentieth century, and the dangerous ideas that won’t stay buried. I didn’t expect this story to turn out as it did. Then again, I didn’t think I’d be the one to uncover it.
IT TOOK TWO DAYS and two trains to get to Los Angeles, traversing the southern United States from east to west. The rail cars were busy. Frank slept for a bit and chatted to a few other passengers. His folksy politeness was part of the baggage he carried with him from Brenham, Texas, even as he pushed against the gravity of its conventions, its religion, its small-town politics. Most of the journey was spent staring out of the window, gazing at the subtle gradations of scenery as the railroad bisected the Panhandle, crossed through the sands and scrub of New Mexico and Arizona, where the scale of the desert was hard to take in. There was just so much space.1
At nearly 22 Frank Joseph Malina was slim, with close-set brown eyes, angled brows and swept-back hair that was just beginning to recede. He looked every inch an American youth, yet he was very proud of his Czech identity. Born in Brenham in 1912, Frank’s family had moved back to Moravia, Czechoslovakia, when he was seven, only to return to Brenham when Frank was 12. It was at school in Moravia that he had first read Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon–in Czech, of course. The range and seriousness of Frank’s present interests, from science and engineering to art and philosophy, reflected this eclectic gymnázium background. It felt to him as if ‘Czecho’ was as close as California. Even now, looking out of the window, he observed that the mountains of Arizona were slightly bigger than those of Rožnov.2
It was dark when he finally arrived at the station in Los Angeles. As he collected his luggage and stepped off the train, Frank found his path down the platform blocked by a lieutenant from the Los Angeles Police Department. That was unexpected. Frank’s frame stiffened until he recognised the cop as an older cousin. He simply wanted to welcome Frank and make sure that he settled into the big city.3
There was quite a clan of Malinas in the US and a few in LA, but mostly they had stayed in or around Brenham, where Frank’s father, Frank Malina Sr, was the Leader of Band Instruments at the local high school. Music tuition wasn’t well paid and the family had little money, but the house was a lively place for Frank and his younger sister Carolyn to grow up–a centre of Czech conversation, singing, four-handed piano-playing, philosophising and politicking, while their mother Caroline, and grandmother, Baba, would prepare elaborate lunches.4
Frank loved his family, but he was different from them. He was a confirmed atheist, which troubled his mother, who played the piano in the Lutheran church.5 Moving to Caltech, however, was the bigger rebellion: his father had wanted him to follow a military career, as much out of a commitment to music as to warfare. The brass instruments they all played had a martial provenance, and Frank had even paid his way through Texas A&M by playing trumpet in the college cadet band. But the unquestioning obedience to authority unsettled him. Frank’s insistence on civilian life became a raw family argument. ‘I follow the dictates of my own conscience,’ declared Frank in his high-school yearbook. His father was at times an adversary: ‘very impatient if I could not carry out his desires’. He ‘made cynical remarks that I bore very painfully… he was never really brutal about it explicitly, but I knew he carried many disappointments about his boy as he dreamt he should be’.6
His cousin drove him around the city, up to Hollywood, Beverly Hills and, of course, to Pasadena for his first look at Caltech. ‘It is a fine school,’ he reassured his parents in his regular letter home, ‘it is not as large as A&M but you can see that it has quality’.7 Even on this first visit to campus, before Frank had formally enrolled in his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering, his interest was piqued by the sights of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT), which housed the first wind tunnel in the United States.8 It looked like a rectilinear doughnut, consisting of a series of ten-foot diameter tubes that could give a controlled ‘return’ airflow, isolated from the fluctuations of the external atmosphere. The capacity and accuracy of this vast tool was unprecedented in the United States. It transformed airfoil design, and anyone who knew about aerodynamics regarded it as a kind of marvel. But as the months went by and Frank progressed through his degree he came to learn that GALCIT’s outstanding reputation was founded less on the wind tunnel than on its eccentric Hungarian designer, Professor Theodore von Kármán.
BY EARLY 1935, Frank had secured a job as a technical assistant on the wind tunnel. At just 25 cents an hour, it wasn’t well paid, but it was interesting to test new propeller designs, like that of Howard Hughes’ H-1 racer.9 Frank worked nearly every waking hour, yet somehow still convinced himself that he was lazy.10 ‘You probably gather I have done little but flit around,’ he wrote to his parents, before adding that ‘I worked a total of 90 or more hours during the holidays in the wind tunnel’.11 The fact that the theoretical work was so difficult was part of what made it interesting. Frank started to think that he could use a wind tunnel assistantship to fund another master’s degree, this time in aeronautical engineering, to work with the great Theodore von Kármán.
Though small in stature, the professor possessed a kind of patriarchal magnetism, a supreme confidence in his own ability that was inspiring, even contagious. Von Kármán ranked himself third in the pantheon of scientific greats, behind Isaac Newton and von Kármán’s friend Albert Einstein.12 Yet to his students, this sky-high self-esteem was almost justified by the relentless rigour of his mathematical approach to aerodynamic problems. Caltech President Robert A. Millikan, himself a Nobel laureate in physics, was certainly among those who believed in the genius of Theodore von Kármán.13 Millikan had sought him out as part of a wider recruitment of outstanding European scientists that already included Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg.14 Thanks to Millikan, even Einstein could be found bicycling around Caltech in the early 1930s. The appointment of von Kármán, however, was about more than prestige. Millikan knew that the United States was behind in airplane design. He figured that von Kármán, then at Aachen University in Germany, could help America catch up.15
Von Kármán fitted this role, and was perfectly comfortable as an applied aeronautical engineer. But he also felt that he was cut from a different cloth to his colleagues at GALCIT. Despite his unwavering commitment to mathematical theory, he had an appetite for ‘unconventional ideas’.16 Frank loved this combination of boldness and orthodoxy, and felt a sort of kinship with von Kármán’s broad interests across the arts. Not that it was easy to keep up with von Kármán in a lecture. The professor spoke in heavily accented English, such that students mystified by his emphasis on the physics of ‘cows’ were relieved to discover that he meant ‘chaos’.17 Those who could make out his emphatic diction still struggled to follow the train of equations that he’d chalk up on the board. Even Frank, who was plainly a gifted student, had to work hard. But the more he understood, the more it seemed that this kind of analysis could prise open the world.
It all started at an ordinary seminar in March 1935. As it happened, another of von Kármán’s graduate assistants, William Bollay, was presenting. Everyone knew that von Kármán, who was slightly deaf, would switch off his hearing aid if the speaker didn’t hold his attention.18 Bollay, however, had the advantage of speaking about rocket-powered aircraft, the sort of topic that was guaranteed to raise eyebrows. GALCIT might have been one of the world’s leading centres on the problems of high-speed flight, but most GALCIT faculty thought rockets were for cranks and fantasists. Frank listened intently as Bollay discussed the work of Eugen Sänger, an Austrian engineer who had witnessed Jewish colleagues like von Kármán flee Germany for the safety of the US, and then joined the Nazi Party anyway.
Bollay’s seminar caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times, which covered it under the headline: ‘Rocket Plane Visualised Flying 1,200 Miles an Hour’.19 People loved this stuff. Aviation and speed had become part of the metabolism of the city–why not rockets next? That was the view of two young amateur rocketeers from Pasadena who were so inspired by this news report that they turned up on the jasmine-scented campus, looking to tap some of Caltech’s famed expertise. Bill Bollay was either too busy to deal with these visitors or he didn’t take them seriously. ‘They were sent to me,’ recalled Frank Malina, ‘and then this story began.’20
JACK PARSONS STOOD TALL, rakish, with curly dark hair and, as von Kármán would later put it, ‘penetrating black eyes which appealed to the ladies’.21 It’s a description that would have pleased its subject. He sported the sort of thin moustache that might belong to a silver-screen cad; he invariably wore a full suit, tie and waistcoat, and his presence was announced by an eau de cologne that failed to mask his body odour.22 Born John Whiteside Parsons in Los Angeles on 2 October 1914–he and Malina would discover they shared a birthday–Jack was the son of an unhappy union between Ruth Whiteside and Marvel Parsons. After his parents divorced in an acrimonious dispute involving Marvel’s relationships with prostitutes, Jack was primarily raised by his mother and maternal grandparents, Walter and Carrie Whiteside.23 In 1916, the Whitesides moved west from Massachusetts to be closer to Ruth, settling in Pasadena, California, a growing city of panoramic views and enviable climate.24 Young Jack’s grandfather, automobile executive Walter Whiteside, was a man who believed wealth was there to be spent: he bought a rambling Italianate mansion on Orange Grove Avenue (Pasadena’s most affluent address), surrounded by one and a half acres of ornamental gardens. They all moved in together.
This Millionaires’ Row was home to some of the household names of American consumer culture. The chewing-gum industrialist William J. Wrigley had his mansion nearby; so did Adolphus Busch, the Budweiser baron. Keeping up with this company was an expensive affair. Young Jack was chauffeured to Washington Junior High School in a limousine, but this lordly treatment stopped at the gate. Inside, the environment was unforgiving and often violent, an experience that Parsons made part of his own personal mythology. In later life he would write a memoir in the second person: ‘your father separated from your mother in order that you might grow up with a hatred of authority and a spirit of revolution… your isolation as a child developed the necessary background of literature and scholarship.’25
When other people entered his life, Parsons sometimes gave the impression that they existed, much like his servants at home, in order to further his personal vocation. Foremost in the supporting cast from these early years was his friend Edward S. Forman, whose first acquaintance came when Parsons was being badly beaten by another student. The powerfully built Forman dragged off the aggressor, and deftly broke his nose, before turning to help the bloodied victim.26 By any measure this sort of introduction breeds loyalty, but Parsons and Forman also bonded over a love of science fiction and a shared curiosity about rockets. Parsons had money and a poetic inclination. Forman was good with his hands and respectful of his friend’s passions. If he had passions of his own, they tended to be eclipsed. He didn’t seem to mind. Together they became a couple of ‘powder monkeys’, initially messing around with fireworks bought with the $20 note that Walter Whiteside dished out daily to his only grandson.27 With this kind of support the ‘two fellows’ soon graduated to crude home-made rockets, which in 1928 pitted and scarred the lawns of the Whiteside mansion.28
Damage to the gardens was cosmetic, but the crises that engulfed the household at the end of the Roaring Twenties were far more existential. Walter Whiteside did not fare well in the Wall Street Crash. His prosperity and health ebbed in tandem, and his death in 1931 not only forced the sale of the house but also meant that its residents needed to find work: Ruth as a shop assistant, and Jack at the Hercules Powder Company, a job which he combined with trying to finish high school. It was a formative time: as Parsons would put it, ‘the loss of family fortune developed your sense of self-reliance at a critical period’.29 Forman had dropped out of school altogether, doing casual jobs until he, too, found work at the same Hercules Powder Company, an explosives manufacturer supplying the mining and construction industries.
In addition to a regular income, Hercules gave Parsons an education in practical chemistry–an introduction to the world of ammonium nitrate, nitroglycerin, ammonia dynamite and trinitrotoluene (TNT). Here was a whole new language for exploring order and its catastrophic breakdown. He soaked up the differences between high explosives and low explosives, between detonation and deflagration, between those reactions that occured faster than sound and those, like rocket propellants, that could be artfully slowed.
Forman, meanwhile, had become a machinist’s apprentice at Hercules, where he learned the craft of metal-working on a lathe, creating shells and repairing guns.30 When Parsons came up with a potential new rocket design, Forman could often manufacture it at work. Where before they had worked with cardboard and wood, now they graduated to metal. Parsons, too, was open to experimenting with company resources, improvising with different types of solid fuel. And yet despite their developing knowledge and ready access to materials, their ambitions were hampered by their inability to understand or measure the power output of their creations. It wasn’t just that they lacked the instruments to measure thrust. They also lacked the mathematics necessary to conceive of such an object of measurement in the first place. To their credit, they had learned that a viable rocket could not be a firework; they appreciated that it would have to be a complex system that exceeded the capacities of any individual. In the absence of textbooks, they did what they could in the circumstances, and tried to find someone with relevant expertise.
THEY FIRST MET MALINA in February 1935. All three of them could see that there were benefits to combining their expertise: Malina had the mathematical knowledge while Parsons had an uncommon feeling for explosives. Forman had practical skills as a machinist, but he bristled at the way conversation between Malina and Parsons so readily turned to topics outside his ken. There was something about Malina that amplified the differences between the two old high-school friends, feeding Parsons’ belief in himself as a man ‘of literature and scholarship’. Forman’s isolation was perhaps compounded by Parsons’ marriage just a few weeks later to Helen Northrup, a secretary four years his senior (Parsons’ engagement presents to Helen were a three-carat diamond ring and a .25 calibre pistol).31
Nothing between the aspirant rocketeers happened very quickly. By November 1935, having started his new aeronautics degree, Malina was considering whether he might pursue doctoral research at Caltech. But he also had a backup plan: ‘if I see that things are forcing me to do otherwise,’ he wrote to his parents, ‘I shall try and get an exchange scholarship to Russia. I feel fairly certain that I am not brilliant in research, but I do believe I have determination to succeed in that work.’32 It was nearly a year after the Bollay seminar when Malina admitted that he ‘wouldn’t be surprised if I got my fingers mixed into rocket propulsion’.33 But even in this letter there is a sense that he was keeping his options open, in part by learning Russian: ‘a few more months of study and I should be able to use the language for my purposes’.34
Part of the delay in getting a rocket research project off the ground was a difference in approach between himself and Parsons and Forman. It became apparent, for example, that Malina had no desire to start firing rockets just for the thrill of the launch. Under the influence of von Kármán’s theoretical aerodynamics course, Frank cautiously drew up a programme of work to design a high-altitude ‘sounding’ rocket, propelled by either liquid or solid fuel.35 A sounding rocket was a vehicle for scientific research, a bid to explore the outer boundary of Earth just as, on the same axis, nineteenth-century sounding voyages had ascertained the depths of its oceans. With existing balloon technology unable to exceed 100,000 feet, little was then known about conditions in the upper atmosphere. ‘If we could develop a rocket to go up and come down again safely,’ reasoned Malina, ‘we would be able to get much data useful to the weather men and also for cosmic ray study.’36
That, however, was a distant goal. In the meantime Malina proposed a purely theoretical enquiry into the ‘thermodynamic problems of the reaction principle and of flight performance requirements of a sounding rocket’.37 The reaction principle is enshrined in Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. At GALCIT this was well understood in relation to propeller dynamics but not in relation to rocketry. Only after this theoretical study was completed, insisted Malina, could experimental work begin; even then it would be static tests on a stationary rocket motor that would be facing the ‘wrong’ way. Even by Malina’s own admission this was ‘an austere program’, and Parsons and Forman were not happy. What was the point of research if it didn’t end up in a launch?38
‘They could not resist the temptation,’ Frank later complained, ‘of firing some models with black powder motors during the next three years. Their attitude is symptomatic of the anxiety of pioneers… in order to obtain support for their dreams, they are under pressure to demonstrate them before they can be technically accomplished.’39
- "Frank Malina, one of the most talented pioneers of American rocket science, flirted with communism and pacifism, and then gave it all up-rocketry included-to become a painter. History has in consequence all but erased his memory-except that now, thanks to Fraser MacDonald's fascination with his story and a dogged determination to write this riveting and important book, his legacy has been revived, and will surely long endure."—Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Perfectionists
- "Exquisitely researched, thoughtfully written, Escape from Earth is a fascinating exploration of an endlessly intriguing and remarkable subject. Fraser MacDonald has not only brought to life Frank Malina, he has captured perfectly the political and scientific contradictions of the dawn of the Space Age."—Henry Hemming, author of The Ingenious Mr. Pyke and Agents of Influence
- "A fascinating history of America's ascent into space that literally rewrites our understanding of the rocket age; a story that mixes sex, Nazis, Communists, the FBI, and rockets and along the way reminds us how complicated and untidy even celebrated history can be. Escape from Earth is an instant addition to the rocketry canon, right there with Operation Paperclip and Hidden Figures."—Garrett Graff, bestselling author of Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself-While the Rest of Us Die
- "Fraser MacDonald's taut, deeply researched account of Malina's career is packed with luminaries such as Theodore von Kármán, and insights into the zeitgeist of a fraught era."—Nature
- "Fraser MacDonald has crafted a compelling, authoritative, surprising, and beautifully written book about the dawn of the space age."—The New York Journal of Books
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- Jun 25, 2019
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