The Amnesia of American Astronautics: on the hundredth anniversary of Frank J. Malina’s birth

Yesterday, according to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum twitter feed, was the 99th anniversary of the day Robert Goddard filed his first patent for a ‘rocket apparatus’. I really hadn’t known that. As with many of their ‘This Day in History’ tweets – TDIH for short – it is the little details that are the most fun.

Goddard is plainly an important figure – a pioneer of early rocketry, and the first to experiment with liquid propulsion.  His meticulous paper on ‘A method of reaching extreme altitudes’, published by the Smithsonian Institute in 1919, earned him longstanding public ridicule from which he never really recovered.

At least Goddard would prove his critics wrong in the end. And he now has a lunar crater named in his honour as well, of course, as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. But let’s face it, he never got anywhere near space flight. His first liquid fuelled rocket reached 41 feet, landing in a nearby cabbage patch. Though he had some greater success with later experiments, none of them approached anything like ‘extreme altitudes’ – at least by his own definition.

Nor did he provide any theoretical foundation for modern astronautics. Theodore von Kármán’s judgement was pretty harsh but, as far as I can see, it is entirely accurate: ‘there is no direct line from Goddard to present day rocketry’, recalled von Kármán in his memoir – ‘he is on a branch that died’.

Sometime in 1937, von Kármán and Goddard’s patron Harry Guggenheim tried to encourage Goddard to collaborate with a young Caltech PhD student called Frank J. Malina. The reclusive Goddard was having none of it, and Malina – together with his colleagues in ‘the Suicide Squad’ – followed a very different engineering path.

Where Goddard favoured obsessive secrecy, Malina believed in collaboration and scientific dissemination. Goddard filed patents and got nowhere. Malina and his fellow Caltech researchers openly published their work, encouraged teamwork and made astonishing progress.

One month after Goddard’s death, and just a few miles away across the desert, Malina and his team made the first successful flight of their rocket, the WAC Corporal. It reached 45 miles.

Should we know about this? Yes.

This was America’s first successful high altitude rocket, that is to say, it could travel higher than balloon technology at the time – important if you wanted to study the upper atmosphere.

It was also the world’s first successful sounding rocket. Admittedly, Wernher von Braun’s V-2 preceded the WAC Corporal but then the V-2 wasn’t designed as a research vehicle – its aim was to terrorise civilians. (Von Braun was born a few months before Malina. His recent centenary was hard to miss.)

In 1949, the WAC Corporal was placed on top of a V-2, to become the second stage of the world’s first viable staged rocket – the BUMPER WAC Corporal. On 24th February 1949, it reached the incredible altitude of 244 miles becoming the first human object to reach into extra-terrestrial space – eight years before Sputnik.

Later the WAC Corporal was refined and weaponised as the Corporal – the first rocket authorized to carry a nuclear warhead. It became, in other words, the progenitor of contemporary weapons of mass destruction.

America’s first successful rocket brings with it a mixed heritage, though one common to the later history of astronautics – caught, as it is, between the transcendent ideals of exploration on the one hand, and the hard-nosed architects of death on the other.

But, still, it seems impossible to ignore this astonishing success and the engineering genius of its chief designer, Frank Malina.

Does Malina have other claims to recognition from America’s space establishment? Only that, along with von Kármán, he founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And Aerojet.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of Frank Malina’s birth. So how is this being commemorated at JPL, the institution he founded? I don’t know. There is nothing on their website or, thus far, on their twitter feed. Maybe they have plans, as yet unannounced, to give commemorate him with a small piece of Martian topography. This would be welcome but a little surprising.

I still hope that the NASA History Office may yet mark the occasion. An earlier tweet, however, was not encouraging: “today is singer-songwriter Sting’s birthday who produced the song “Walking on the Moon”.

No matter. I join with those who admire Frank Malina’s extraordinary achievements: in rocketry, in kinetic art, in international scientific cooperation and in arts-science dialogue (for which purpose he founded the journal Leonardo). With them, I raise a glass to his memory.

The Earth from the International Space Station

I couldn’t resist this classic piece of HD time-lapse planet porn, as shot from the International Space Station.

What really strikes me is how close Earth appears from Low Earth Orbit. The ISS has a similar orbital altitude to that achieved by JPL/Frank Malina’s WAC Corporal when it was part of the BUMPER WAC. That flight in 1949 has been hailed, rightly in my view, as a landmark achievement – the first human object in extraterrestrial space.

And yet from this perspective, it doesn’t exactly seem like slipping the surly bonds of Earth. One thing is clear, though – no-one can escape the reach of The XX, probably not even on the ISS.

On playing with rockets

Last week Edinburgh hosted the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers, at which I was co-organising a session on ‘Ludic Geographies’ with Tara Woodyer.

My own paper on rocket toys is something I dusted down from two previous presentations some years ago.  It will comprise only a page or two of my rocket book, but the material is interesting because – as with some of the academic literature on popular geopolitics – it re-orientates geopolitical agency from statecraft to everyday life.

Rocket toys, I argue, were part of the means by which weapons of mass destruction were rendered intelligible in, and transposable to, domestic contexts.

Moreover, certain aspects of play – technical improvisation, making, collecting, ordering, strategizing – are seen to be at work in both playroom and stateroom, toybox and silo.

My interest, unsurprisingly, lies in those toys which replicate JPL’s Corporal missile, the weaponised version of Frank Malina’s WAC Corporal. You can see some of the adverts for these here.


The indistinction between military hardware and its analogue plaything is nicely illustrated in these two sets of instructions, one from the Corgi’s Corporal missile and the other from preliminary operating procedures from now declassified British Army files.

One is formal, earnest and technical; the other is … well … a bit rubbish.

The academic argument of my paper – no need to thank me – goes something like this:

  • That play is constitutive of the Cold War.
  • That we can think of sovereign nation states, like all subjects, as the ontological effects of practices that are performatively enacted – in this case, through object play.
  • That play is not something that happens on the surface of geopolitics, far less as a response to it; geopolitics is itself, in part, a ludic enterprise.
  • That there is no meaningful distinction between missiles and their toy correlates: the rocket is entrained in the ludic activities of both children and adults.

All I need to do now is buff up these bullet points into 8000 words of persuasive argument in academic prose with appropriate citations. Oh dear.



Ray Bradbury and the pioneers of American rocketry

Ray Bradbury died today. He may well have been the greatest sci-fi writer of the twentieth century.  I really can’t say as I haven’t read his work. You read that right; and it is an ignorance that also extends to the rest of science fiction. I do at least have the decency to recognise this as a failing. Despite my interest in rocketry, sci-fi is just not a genre that moves me. I have resolved however that the next time I’m in the National Library of Scotland, I will dig out Bradbury’s ‘R is for rocket’. The title alone is a triumph.

My passing interest in Bradbury was kindled a few weeks ago coming across a letter that he wrote to Frank Malina, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who remains the primary focus of my own book. Malina is not exactly a household name but he certainly should be: he designed and oversaw the construction of the world’s first successful sounding rocket, the WAC Corporal.

Robert Goddard has carried the acclaim for the first liquid fuelled rocket. It rose to a height of 41 feet. Malina’s rocket, by contrast, was the first American rocket to reach space. And when it was grafted on to a V-2 to form the BUMPER WAC Corporal, it became, in 1949, the first human artefact to reach into extra-terrestrial space – an astonishing altitude of 244 miles, eight years before Sputnik.

Bradbury knew all this. He visited Malina in Paris in 1980, just a year before he died. They must have been reminiscing about the early days at JPL in Pasadena, and certainly talking about Malina’s colleague Jack Parsons. (A self-taught chemist who perfected a castable solid rocket fuel, Parsons is perhaps better known for his libertarian writings and devotion to the Thelema occultism of Alesteir Crowley).

In Bradbury’s letter, he writes that on returning to his hotel he had a sudden memory of being at a Los Angeles Science Fiction Society meeting in 1939 or 1940 listening to a young scientist talk of rockets and the future. In an instant he realized that this young man was in fact Parsons. ‘I was stunned and touched’ wrote Bradbury, ‘to think our lives almost touched, so long ago’.

In closing he wrote to Malina that

There is a ‘long and glorious history behind you, one that will have changed the destiny of people on Earth forever, and this is not said idly. A million years from tonight, when future historians speak of the most important years in the history of the thinking beasts, your name will be there with von Karman’s and the rest. What a glad knowledge to have of yourself’.

In the intervening thirty years, Malina is known to a comparatively small community, mostly historians of science and – given Malina’s art practice – historians of art.  But Bradbury’s prediction may yet be proved correct.