Heroes of Space: Frank J Malina

The rocketeer who laid the foundations for the space program

Malina was awarded the Order of Merit from the French Society for the Encouragement of Research and Invention

Malina was awarded the Order of Merit from the French Society for the Encouragement of Research and Invention. Image Credit: NASA

From an early age Frank J Malina was driven by the pursuit of knowledge in the face of adversity. Born in 1912 in Brenham, Texas, Malina’s interest in the world of science led him to a degree in mechanical engineering from Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University. But what really piqued his interest was space travel and rockets, something that was scoffed at in the 1930s as belonging to the realm of science fiction.

Regardless of the critics, Malina followed his dreams and achieved a PhD in Aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology, focussing on rocket flight and propulsion. However, this did not come easily and Malina had to use all his intelligence and skill to persuade Theodore von Kármán, the professor of Aeronautics, to allow him to focus on such outlandish areas of study. The main focus of Malina’s study was to produce a sounding rocket, one that carries instruments to space in order to conduct different scientific experiments.

Malina’s pursuit of knowledge and drive to succeed soon attracted a group of like-minded students. The group of six became known around Cal Tech as the ‘suicide squad’ due to the dangerous lengths they went to and terrible failures they experienced while testing the designs of their rockets. Regardless, Malina and his group kept pushing their research forward and eventually moved their operations into what would later become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The group attracted the attention of the US Army Air Corps who agreed to fund the project.

With funds and support behind him, Malina was free to develop and explore the realms of rocket technology to his heart’s content. In October 1945 Malina was finally able to witness one of his dreams become a reality when his WAC Corporal sounding rocket became the first US rocket to reach more than an 80-kilometre (50-mile) altitude and the first to reach the edge of space.

Malina was also a pacifist and artist at heart. Image Credit: NASA

Malina was also a pacifist and artist at heart. Image Credit: NASA

Although he had achieved a feat many told him was impossible, not everything was smooth sailing for Malina. Growing up during the Great Depression had caused Malina to have a negative view of capitalism, which he believed had failed. In his early student days he had expressed a passing interest in communism and labour activism. Throughout World War II Malina found himself under heavy criticism by the Federal Bureau of Investigation due to his communist sympathies and in 1946 bureau agents raided his house. Malina had also watched while his rocket development was instead being utilised for nuclear weapons and war.

By 1947 he’d had enough and moved to France, where he joined the fledgling United Nations as secretariat of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) working under the biologist Julian Huxley. By 1951 he was the head of UNESCO’s division of scientific research. However, even though he had moved countries, Malina still found himself pursued by the FBI. America was determined to track down and condemn anyone who showed even the slightest of communist sympathies. Because Malina had not listed his Communist Party membership on a questionnaire while at Caltech he was declared a fugitive. Malina and his lofty dreams helped to lay the foundations for the US space program, but now if he returned to the country he would be arrested immediately.

A pacifist and artist at heart, Malina quit his position at UNESCO and instead decided to focus on his kinetic art. His art career was groundbreaking, with revolutionary work in the realm of light and motion. Perhaps most significant however was his founding of Leonardo, a research journal that combined his two greatest loves, art and science. Leonardo is still being published to this day, bringing together the talents of artists, students and scientists.

Malina enjoyed one final foray into the world of rocketry in the late 1950s when he helped found the International Academy of Astronautics. In 1963 he was elected president of the academy and, finally comfortable to return to his first love, drafted a plan for a Lunar International Laboratory where the greatest minds in science would work together for peaceful purposes in space.

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