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From Rocketeers to Solar Sailors

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Scientists Are Building Robots to Explore the Solar System--and Even Making Plans to Sail to the Stars.

November 14, 1999|MARVIN J. WOLF | Marvin J. Wolf's last piece for the magazine was about his father, a junkman in Los Angeles

So here's young Frank Malina out of East Texas, slim and dark, mind quick as a prairie twister, studies engineering at Texas A&M and makes ends meet playing fiddle in his daddy's band for hick-town dung-stompers, and graduates in 1934, a Depression year.

When Caltech offers him a scholarship, his family is busted so flat that he's got no way to Pasadena. So his college teachers pass the hat and durn near the whole town of Brenham, mostly Czech immigrants like the Malinas, scrapes together $300. Comes 1936 and Frank, after earning two Caltech master's degrees--you ready for this?--decides that he wants to build a rocket. Not a spaceship to reach the moon--that might come later--Malina's modest missile would merely haul instruments to plumb Earth's upper atmosphere and measure cosmic rays at the edge of space. But when he tells his professor, Clark Millikan, son of Nobel laureate and Caltech president Robert Millikan, that he wants to write a doctoral dissertation on rocket propulsion and high-altitude rocket characteristics, the prof tartly suggests that Malina leave academia and find a job in the aircraft industry.

Forgive that man. It was 1936, only nine years since Lucky Lindy hopped the Atlantic, and those who set America's science agenda saw rocketry as pulp fiction. Certainly no one would expect that fiddle-playing Frank Malina out of East Texas was destined to cross paths with three hugely eccentric characters--a Hungarian Jew, a

Chinese mandarin and a self-taught chemist --to give birth to the institution that has become mankind's window for exploring the universe.

Malina, who had gulped down Jules Verne in Czech and had big dreams, did not give up. He went to Theodore von Karman, director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and one of the world's leading scientists. Sharp-featured and elfin, irresistibly charming, a confirmed bachelor perpetually suspected of seducing colleagues' wives, amusing in half a dozen tongues, intellectually fearless, terminally curious, Von Karman liked to lie in wind tunnels to feel the air rushing over his body. A Hungarian descendant of Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th century Prague mystic who is said to have created the Golem, a mechanical man brought to life with sacred writings, Von Karman was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. There he devised a tethered helicopter to replace observation balloons and redesigned Anthony Hermann Gerhard Fokker's device so Austrian machine guns could fire through aircraft propellers. After earning wide recognition for pioneering the physics of flight turbulence, he came to Caltech during Hitler's rise. Von Karman knew that German scientists were interested in rockets; he gave Malina a green light. In this uncharacteristically unwitting fashion, he ensured his own legacy.

Word of Malina's project got around town, and Pasadenan John W. Parsons offered help. Parsons, unencumbered by knowledge of higher math or molecular processes, was a cookbook chemist obsessed with things that go bang. Tall, beefy, insouciantly handsome, he was a mama's boy who hated authority and detested societal mores but gave no outward hint of the inner stirrings that soon would propel him to leadership of an unlikely cult.

Parsons and a childhood sidekick, mechanic Ed Forman, had tinkered with black powder rockets, and had backyards littered with craters to prove it. With Von Karman's blessing--but no school funds--Parsons joined Malina's project. Forman helped by turning Malina's designs into hardware. Between jobs and studies, for months the trio prowled junkyards and used machinery shops, trying to patch together test equipment. Desperate for funding, Malina and Parsons set out to write a movie script about mad scientists building a moon rocket; they hoped to sell it to a film studio. They worked in Parsons' kitchen until Malina realized that the bags, boxes, bottles, cartons, jugs, tubes and vials piled everywhere were filled with assorted explosives, combustibles and chemical accelerators.

Malina began designing a firing chamber and exhaust nozzles--tasks that, before computers, required laborious hand calculations. In October 1936, the first motor was tested in the Arroyo Seco, three miles north of the Rose Bowl. Fueled by a brew of gaseous oxygen and methyl alcohol, after a few false starts it burned for three seconds, until an oxygen hose burst into flame and began snaking across the rocky ground. The rocketeers scattered in panic. They returned to the arroyo on Nov. 28 and got the motor to run for 15 seconds.

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