JPL celebrates 75th anniversary with new documentary 'The American Rocketeer'

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NASA

An aerial view of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California and the surrounding San Gabriel Mountains.

This fall, Pasadena's NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory observes the 75th anniversary of the first rocket experiments in the Arroyo Seco, the site that later became its home. The first experiments were 75 years ago this Halloween.

In 1936, a group of Caltech students pulled off the first successful homemade rocket test launch at the site where NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab stands today.

They started their experiments at dawn. "The first test failed. The second test failed. The third test failed," said JPL spokesman Blaine Baggett, who produced the new documentary "The American Rocketeer." With fuel leaking all around, Baggett said that a hose caught fire. "They run scampering around the Arroyo trying to save themselves."

Those Caltech students were led by Frank Malina. "People don't know his story," Baggett said. "Part of what we're trying to do here is tell this story of a person who's been forgotten." According to Baggett, Malina is "one of the most important people in the history of American rocketry."

Malina grew up in Texas. His parents were from Czechoslovakia. Malina was a brilliant student at Texas A&M, Baggett said, and his professors told him "You need to go to one of the smartest universities in the world to study aviation."

That university was Caltech. Those same professors pitched in to buy him a train ticket, Baggett said.

A group of Caltech students gathered around their interest in rockets. "This was Buck Rogers stuff," said Baggett. "The word 'rocket' and 'science' had yet to be joined together." No one who wanted a serious academic career would be involved with rockets, Baggett said. One professor had written that the laws of physics made space travel impossible.

One Caltech professor liked what the students were doing and, while unable to offer money, gave them a lab to work out of, Baggett said.

"Before too long, there were explosions going on in the building," Baggett said. The students became known as "the Suicide Squad." The professor told them that they needed to move off campus at that point. They began receiving money from the U.S. Army for their rocket research.

Malina, like many others during the Great Depression, was looking for a way to solve the nation's problems, Baggett said. Along with other scientists like Robert and Frank Oppenheimer, Malina went to meetings of the Communist Party.

"When [World War II] came, nobody worried about what had happened during the 1930s, what meetings anyone had gone to," Baggett said. When the war was over, the FBI began to investigate Malina during "the Red Scare." The FBI's files on Malina would measure around 6 feet high, according to Baggett.

Malina left the country in 1947, deciding that he would live in France. The FBI declared him an international fugitive, though the case was eventually dropped. Malina dropped his rocketry work and became an artist, using his engineering background to become a pioneer in kinetic art.

Baggett pointed out some of the ironies of Malina's life: being a pacifist who built weapons during the war, an engineer who became an artist and a socialist who ultimately became a millionaire.

Baggett said that they tried finding film footage in the vault at JPL, and eventually found enough to start telling these stories. He's also producing other documentaries on the origins of JPL.

One documentary looks at the early days of the space race and how JPL was built. "We could have beaten the Russians into space first," Baggett said; one of the documentaries looks at why the Russians got to go into space first instead of the United States.

A third program, "Destination Moon," looks at what happened after JPL became part of NASA in 1958. Instead of building rockets, they began focusing on the "smart part" on top of the rocket, Baggett said. JPL told NASA "We're really interested in going to the planets," rather than the moon, Baggett said.

They began converting intercontinental ballistic missiles from the U.S. military to be used for space exploration instead, but they weren't able to build rockets powerful enough to go to the planets and instead defaulted to the Moon. President John F. Kennedy's speech about the moon also played a role in that.

"Going to the Moon was a lot harder than JPL thought it was going to be," Baggett said. It took them seven attempts to even crash land something on the Moon. "It was the worst time in the history of the laboratory," Baggett said.

“The American Rocketeer” screens Tuesday night at 8 p.m. at Caltech’s Beckman auditorium; admission is free. Public television station KCET plans to run the documentary on Nov. 3 at 9 p.m.

Audio: KPCC’s Susanne Whatley spoke with JPL spokesman Blaine Baggett about his documentary "The American Rocketeer."

This story includes contributions by KPCC's Mike Roe.

Correction: This story originally stated the wrong time for when KCET was planning to run the documentary.

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