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"Frank J. Malina's Memoirs" (3 volumes)]



Frank J. Malina


6 June 1967





The following recollections are based on memory, on unpublished documents, and on published material available to me. I present them fully recognizing the fallibility of memory, and the unavoidable injection of personal evaluations and judgments. Although already in 1936, in our youthful enthusiasm, we were convinced that rocket research for space exploration was important, we made no systematic effort to preserve our papers and photographic records.


My interest in space exploration was first aroused when I read Jules Vernes De la terre à la lune in the Czech language as a boy of twelve in Czechoslovakia where my family lived from 1920-1925. On our return to Texas I followed reports on rocket work which appeared from time to time in popular magazines. In 1933, I wrote the following paragraph for a Technical English course at Texas A&M College :


" Can man do what he can imagine ? " - Now that man has conquered travel through the air his imagination has turned to inter-planetary travel. Many prominent scientists of today say that travel through space to the Moon or to Mars is impossible. Others say, " What man can imagine he can do. " Many difficulties present themselves to interplanetary travel. The great distance separating the heavenly bodies would require machines of tremendous speeds, if the distances are to be traversed during the life-time of one man. Upon arrival at one of these planets the traveller would require breathing apparatus, for the astronomers do not believe the atmosphere on these planets will support human life as our atmosphere does. If a machine left the earth, its return would be practically impossible, and those on the earth would never know if the machine reached its destination. "



In 1934, I received a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. Before the end of my first year there I began part-time work as a member of the crew of the GALCIT (Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology) ten-foot wind tunnel. This led to my appointment in 1935 as a Graduate Assistant in GALCIT.


The Guggenheim Laboratory, at this time, a few years after its founding, was recognized as one of the world’s centers of aeronautical instruction and research. Under the leadership of Theodore von Karman (1881-1963), GALCIT specialized in aerodynamics, fluid mechanics, and structures 2. Von Karman’s senior staff included Clark B. Millikan (1903-1966), Ernest E. Sechler, and Arthur L. Klein.


The laboratory , already at this time, was carrying out studies on the problems of high speed flight, and the limits of the propeller-engine propulsion system for aircraft were beginning to be clearly recognized.


In 1935-36, William W. Jenney and I conducted experiments with model propellers in the wind tunnel for our master’s theses. My mind turned more and more to the possibilities of rocket propulsion while we analysed the characteristics of propellers.


In March, 1935, at one of the weekly GALCIT seminars, William Bollay (then a graduate assistant to von Karman) reviewed the possibilities of a rocket-powered aircraft based upon a paper published in December, 1934, by Eugen Sänger (1905-1964), who was then working in Vienna 3). The following October Bollay gave a lecture before the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences in Los Angeles on the subject, which he concluded by saying :


"  The present calculations show that we can achieve - by means of rocket planes - higher velocities and reach greater heights than by any other method known so far. The high velocities should prove an attraction to the sportsman, to the military authorities, and perhaps to a few commercial enterprises. The high ceiling is of great interest to the meteorologist and the physicist. There are thus potent reasons for the further development of the rocket plane. I hope I have shown by these calculations that the idea of the rocket plane is not so fantastic as that it appears and that at present it appears just at the border of the practically attainable and is certainly worthwhile working for. On the other hand, it seems improbable that the rocket plane will be a very hopeful contender with the airplane in ordinary air passenger transportation. For this purpose, the stratosphere plane seems eminently more suitable. "


Local newspapers reported on Bollays lecture which resulted in attracting to GALCIT two rocket enthusiasts - John W. Parsons (19 - 1952) and Edward S. Forman. Parsons was a self-trained chemist who, although he lacked the discipline of a formal higher education, had an uninhibited fruitful imagination. He loved poetry and the exotic aspects of life. Forman, a skilled mechanic, had been working with Parsons for some time on powder rockets. They wished to build a liquid-propellant rocket motor, but found that they lacked adequate technical and financial resources for the task.They hoped to find help at Caltech. They were sent to me, and then this story began, leading to the establishment of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory 4






After discussion with Bollay, Parsons, and Forman, I prepared in February, 1936, a program of work whose objective was the design of a high-altitude sounding rocket propelled by either a solid- or liquid-propellant rocket engine.


We reviewed the literature published by the first generation of space flight pioneers -Ziolkowsky (1852-1935), Goddard (1882-1945), Esnault-Pelterie (1881-1957) and Oberth 5. In scientific circles, this literature was generally regarded more in the nature of science fiction, primarily because the gap between the experimental demonstration of rocket-engine capabilities and the actual requirements of rocket propulsion for space flight was so fantastically great. This negative attitude extended to rocket propulsion itself, in spite of the fact that Goddard realistically faced the situation by deciding to apply this type of propulsion to a vehicle for carrying instruments to altitudes in excess of those that can be reached by balloons - an application for an engine of much more modest performance.


We were especially impressed by Sängers report of having achieved an exhaust velocity of 10,000 ft/sec. (specific impulse of 310) with light fuel oil and gaseous oxygen 6. Unfortunately, we were never able to understand the method Sänger used for presenting his experimental results.


We concluded from our review of the existing information on rocket engine design, including the results of the experiments of the American Rocket Society, that it was not possible to design an engine to meet specified performance requirements for a sounding rocket, which would surpass the altitudes attainable with balloons. It appeared evident to us, after much argument, that until one could design a workable engine with a reasonable specific impulse there was no point in devoting effort to the design of the rocket shell, propellant supply, stabilizer, launching method, payload parachute, etc.


We therefore set as our initial program the following : (a) theoretical studies of the thermodynamical problems of the reaction principle and of the flight performance requirements of a sounding rocket ; and (b) elementary experiments of liquid-and solid-propellant rocket engines to determine the problems to be met in making accurate static tests. This approach was in the spirit of von Karman’s teaching. He always stressed the importance of the spirit of von Karman’s teaching. He always stressed the importance of getting as clear as possible an understanding of the fundamental physical principles of a problem before initiating experiments in a purely empirical manner, which can be very expensive in both time and money.


Parsons and Forman were not too pleased with an austere program that did not include the launching, at least, of model rockets. They could not resist the temptation of firing some models with black powder motors during the next three years. Their attitude is symptomatic of the anxiety of pioneers of new technological developments. In order to obtain support for their dreams, they are under pressure to demonstrate them before they can be technically accomplished. Thus one finds during this period attempts to make rocket flights, which, doomed to be disappointing, made support even more difficult to obtain.


The undertaking we had set for ourselves required, at a minimum, informal permission from Caltech and from the Guggenheim Laboratory before we could begin. In March I proposed to C.B. Millikan that I continue my studies leading to a doctorate and that my thesis be devoted to studies of the problems of rocket propulsion and of sounding rocket flight performance. He was, however, dubious about the future of rocket propulsion, and suggested I should, instead, take one of many engineering positions available in the aircraft industry at that time. His advice was, no doubt, also influenced by the fact that GALCIT was then carrying out no research on aircraft power plants. I would like to add that later he actively supported our work.


I knew that my hopes rested finally with von Karman, the director of GALCIT. Only much later did I learn that already in the 1920s, in Germany, he had given a sympathetic hearing to discussions of the possibilities of rocket propulsion, and that in 1927 he had included in his lectures in Japan a reference to the problems needing solution before space flight became possible. He was at this time studying the aero-dynamics of aircraft at high speeds, and was well aware of the need for a propulsion system which would surmount the limitations of the engine-propeller combination.


After considering my proposals for a few days, he agreed to them. He also gave permission for Parsons and Forman to work with me, even though they were neither students nor on the staff at Caltech. This decision was typical of his unorthodox attitude within the academic world. He pointed out, however, that he could not find funds in the budget of the Laboratory for the construction of experimental apparatus.


At Caltech we were given further moral support by Robert A. Millikan (1868-1953), then head of the Institute, who was interested in the possibilities of using sounding rockets in his cosmic ray research, and by Irving P. Krick, then head of meteorological research and instruction.


During the next three years we received no pay for our work, and during the first year we bought equipment, some secondhand, with whatever money we could pool together. Most of our work was done on week-ends or at night.


We began for our first experiments the construction of auruncooled rocket motor similar in design to one that had been previously tried by the American Rocket Society. For propellants we chose gaseous oxygen and methyl alcohol.


Our work in the spring of 1936 attracted to our group two GALCIT graduate students, A.M.O. Smith and Hsue Shen Tsien. Smith was working on his master’s degree in aeronautics. Tsien, who became one of the outstanding pupils of von Karman was working on his doctorate. Smith and I began a theoretical analysis of flight performance of a sounding rocket, while Tsien and I began studies of the thermodynamic problems of the rocket motor.


The work of our group, once it was approved by von Karman, had the benefit of advice from von Karman himself, C.B. Millikan, and other GALCIT staff members. We realized from the start that rocket research would require the ideas of many brains in many fields of applied science.


I was very fortunate at this time to enter von Karman’s inner circle of associates because he needed someone to prepare illustrations for the textbook " Mathematical Methods in Engineering", which he was writing with Maurice A. Biot. Bollay had been assisting von Karman with the manuscript of the book, and introduced me to him. When Bollay left for Harvard University in 1937, I also inherited his job of " caretaker " of the manuscript.


Thereafter, I worked with von Karman on many projects until his death on 1963. In a way he became my second father. We worked so closely together during the formative years of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, until he went to Washington in 1944, that it is not always possible to separate the contribution either of us made to technical and organizational developments during the period 1939-1944.


It is necessary to point out, however, that during the period of the GALCIT Rocket Research Project the initiative rested with our group, and it fell to me to hold the group together.







The group heard with excitement in the summer of 1936 that Robert H. Goddard would come to Caltech in August to visit R.A. Millikan. Millikan was a member of a committee appointed by the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation to advise on the support given by the Foundation to Goddard for the development of a sounding rocket. Millikan arranged for me to have a short discussion with Goddard on 28 August, during which I told him of our hopes and research plans. I also arranged to visit him at Roswell, New Mexico, the next month, when I was going for a holiday to my parents’ home in Brenham, Texas 7. I believe it was before Goddard’s arrival in Pasadena that Millikan had already written for me a letter of introduction to him in connection with the possibility of my visiting his Roswell station.


In Milton Lehman’s biography of Goddard This High Man 8 there is a rather strange account of my visit to Roswell. No mention is made of the fact that R.A. Millikan had arranged for me to meet with Goddard during his visit to Caltech. Part of the account by Lehman reads :


" The Californian (R.A.Millikan) was not so easily sidetracked. The Goddards had no sooner returned to Mescalero Ranch at the end of August than they found one of Caltech’s graduate students waiting to see the professor. The same day Goddard received a note from Millikan asking him to extend " all possible courtesies " to the young student, Frank J. Malina "


My recollections of my visit to Roswell are that both Dr. and Mrs. Goddard received me cordially. My day with him consisted of a tour of his shop (where I was not shown any components of his sounding rocket), of a drive to his launching range to see his launching tower and 200 llb. thrust static test stand, and of a general discussion during and after lunch. He did not wish to give any technical details of his current work beyond that which he had published in his 1936 Smithsonian Institution report, with which I was already familiar. This report was of a very general nature, and of limited usefulness to serious students of the subject 9.


On 1 October 1936, I wrote to Goddard :


"  I have just returned to the Institute after several weeks in Texas. I wish to thank you and your wife for the hospitality shown me and you for your kindness in allowing me to inspect that part of your work which you considered permissible under the circumstances ".


I recall two special impressions he made on me. The first was a bitterness towards the press. He showed me a clipping of an editorial that had appeared in the New York Times several years earlier which ridiculed him, saying that a professor of physics should know better than to make space flight proposals as they violated Einstein’s laws ! He appeared to suffer keenly from such nonsense directed at him.


The second impression I obtained was that he felt that rockets were his private preserve, so that any others working on them took on the aspect of intruders. He did not appear to realize that in other countries there were men who had arrived independently of him at the same basic ideas for rocket propulsion, as so frequently happens in the history of technology. His attitude caused him to turn his back on the scientific tradition of communication of results through established scientific journals, and instead he spent much time on patents, especially after he published his classic Smithsonian Institution report of 1919 on " A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes ".


As I departed, Goddard suggested that I come to work with him at Roswell when I completed my studies at Caltech. This was intriguing to me ; however, by the time I completed my doctorate in 1940, we had obtained governmental support for rocket research and were building an effective research establishment.


A year later I wrote to Goddard in connection with an analysis of the flight performance of a sounding rocket with a constant thrust, which Smith and I were carrying out. He answered on 19 October 1937, as follows :


" I have your letter of the fourteenth relative to data for your study of vertical rocket flight.


" The gyroscopically stabilized flights described in the report to which you refer were, as therein stated, for stabilization during the period of propulsion, and not thereafter, and the trajectories were accordingly not vertical throughout the flights. The data regarding heights and speeds, while sufficiently accurate to describe the performance in general terms, would therefore hardly be satisfactory for exact calculations made under the assumption that the flights were vertical. Further, thrusts were not measured when the rockets were used for flights, and I have reason to believe that we did not always have the high efficiencies, in flight, that we obtained in certain of the static tests.


" As stated in the paper, the main object was to obtain stabilization and satisfactory performance in flight, and I should prefer to have any analysis of performance made for flights in which height was the main consideration. We have had further stabilized flights since the paper was written, but the work is not yet sufficiently complete for publication.


" The rockets used in the flights described were all 9 inches in diameter, and the initial altitude was about 4000 feet. "


In a letter home dated 23 October, I wrote :


" Smith and I are working on the performance paper sporadically. I wrote to Goddard for some data not long ago ; an answer arrived during the week. He wrote that he did not have the data desired. We have some data on his flights we want to use in our paper ; now we are in a quandary over its use. We may write the paper as originally planned and let Goddard read it before publishing.


On 7 June 1938, I wrote home as follows :


" Had lunch at the Athenaeum with the head of the A.P. science news service last Wednesday. He is making a trip across the country looking for the spectacular. He saw Goddard and was impressed. Judging by his write-up of what he saw, Goddard is almost at the same place he was 2 years ago. We find it difficult to understand Goddard "s method of attack of the whole research. Don’t think it is the result of personal jealousy on our part. It would be to our benefit if he did get something significant. 10"


On 26 September 1938, I wrote as follows :


" The research is bogged down ; however, some interesting news was brought by Karman from New York. (By the way, for some reason he thought I was going to be at the meeting in Boston). While in New York Karman and Clark Millikan had a conference with Guggenheim and Goddard upon the latter’s invitation. It seems Goddard is beginning to believe that perhaps our groups may be of some use to him. Karman told him that we would be glad to co-operate with him if he kept no secrets from us. Don’t know what will develop. Goddard may come to Pasadena in a couple of months."


Von Karman in his autobiography The Wind and Beyond writes :


" The trouble with secrecy is that one can easily go in the wrong direction and never know it. I heard, for instance, that Goddard spent three or four years developing a gyroscope for his sounding rocket. This is a waste of time, because a high-altitude rocket does not need a complex tool like a gyroscope for stabilization in flight. At the start the rocket can be stabilized by a launching tower somewhat taller than the one Goddard actually used. After emerging from the tower, if it has been boosted to enough speed, it can be stabilized accurately enough with fixed fins. Malina and his Jet Propulsion Laboratory team demonstrated this in 1945 when they launched the WAC Corporal, America’s first successful high-altitude rocket, to a height of 250,000 feet.


" I believe Goddard became bitter in his later years because he had had no real success with rockets, while Aerojet-General Corporation and other organizations were making an industry out of them. There is no direct line from Goddard to present-day rocketry. He is on a branch that died. He was an inventive man and had a good scientific foundation ; but he was not a creator of science, and he took himself too seriously. If we had taken others into his confidence, I think he would have developed workable high-altitude rockets and his achievements would have been greater than they were. But not listening to, or communicating with, other qualified people hindered his accomplishments 11".


With this background to the relations between Goddard and the Project, a summary of his effect on our work can be made. This appears needed, for erroneous impressions exist as to his influence on rocket research at Caltech.


As I pointed out earlier, the stimulus leading to the formation of the GALCIT Rocket Research Project was Sänger’s work in Vienna. Like Goddard, our group at first believed that the most promising practical application of rocket propulsion would be a sounding rocket for research of the upper atmosphere, which was of interest at Caltech in connection with cosmic ray studies and with meteorology requirements. Actually it did not turn out this way, for the first application of rocket power we successfully made was in assisting the take-off of aircrafts.


Our group studied and repeated some of Goddard’s work with smokeless powder, impulse-time motors, upon which he reported in his Smithsonian report of 1910 12.Work on this type of solid-propellant rocket motor was, however, dropped by the group in 1939 in favor of developing one of constant-pressure, constant-thrust type. Goddard’s smokeless powder rocket engine did, however, find application in armament rockets during World War II.


To the best of my recollection, we studied only a few of the patents he had made up to that time. Patents, as is well known, are not equivalent to know-how, and rarely provide the analytical basis for engineering design. His publications, together with those of Tsiolkowsky, Esnault-Pelterie, Oberth, and Sänger, provided important leads, but much work remained to be done before rocket engines became a useful reality.


There is no doubt that had Goddard been willing to co-operate with our Caltech group, his many years of experience would have had a strong influence on our work. As it happened, our group independently initiated the development of different liquid and solid propellents from those that Goddard studied. When finally in 1944 I initiated the construction of the WAC CORPORAL sounding rocket at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it bore little technical relation to Goddard’s sounding rocket of 1936, about which we still did not have any detailed information.









On 29 October, 1936, the first try of the portable test equipment was made for the gaseous oxygen - methyl alcohol rocket motor in the area of the Arroyo Seco back of Devil’s Gate Dam on the western edge of Pasadena California - a stone’s throw from the present-day Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I learned several years later from Clarence N. Hickman that he and Goddard had conducted smokeless-powder armament rocket experiments at this same location during World War I.


On 1 November, I wrote home as follows :


" This has been a very busy week . We made our first test on the rocket motor yesterday. It is almost inconceivable how much there is to be done and thought of to make as simple a test as we made. We have been thinking about it for about 6 months now, although we had to get all the equipment together in two days, not by choice, but because there are classes, and hours in the wind tunnel to be spent. Friday we drove back and forth to Los Angles picking up pressure tanks, fittings and instruments. Saturday morning at 3.30 a.m. we felt the setup was along far enough to go home and snatch 3 hours of sleep. At 9 a.m. an Institute truck took our heaviest parts to the Arroyo, about 3 miles above the Rose Bowl, where we found an ideal location. Besides Parsons and me, there were two students working in the N.Y.A. working for us. It was 1 p.m. before all our holes were dug, sand bags filled, and equipment minutely checked. By then Carlos Wood and Rockefeller had arrived with two of the box type movie cameras for recording the action of the motor. Bill Bollay and his wife also came to watch from behind the dump.


" Very many things happened that will teach us what to do next time. The most excitement took place on the last " shot " when the oxygen hose for some reason ignited and swung around on the ground, 40 feet from us. We all tore out across the country wondering if our check valves would work. Unfortunately Carlos and Rocky had to leave just before this " shot " so that we have no record on film of what happened. As a whole the test was successful " 13.


A number of tests were made with this transportable experimental setup ; the last one on 16 January 1937 when the motor ran for 44 seconds at a chamber pressure of 75 lb/sq.in 14.


In March 1937, Smith and I completed our analysis of the flight performance of a constant-thrust sounding rocket. The results were so encouraging that our Project obtained from von Karman the continued moral support of GALCIT. We were authorized to conduct small-scale rocket motor tests in the laboratory. This permitted us to reduce the time we wasted putting up and taking down the transportable equipment we had used in the Arroyo Seco. Von Karman also asked me to give a report on the results of our first years work at the GALCIT seminar at the end of April.


The unexpected result of the seminar was the offer of the first financial support four our Project. Weld Arnold (1895-1962), then an assistant in the Astrophysical Laboratory at Caltech, came to me and said than in return for his being permitted to work with our group as a photographer he would make a contribution of $1,000 for our work. His offer was accepted with alacrity, for our Project was destitute.


This enabled Parsons and me to give up our effort to write an anti-war novel with a plot, of course, revolving around the work of a group of rocket engineers. We had hoped to sell it for a large sum to a Hollywood studio as a basis for a movie script to support the work of the project! This was of some relief to me, for I could then spend less time in Parsons house, where he was accumulating tetranitromethane in his kitchen.


Arnold, who commuted the 5 miles between Glendale and Caltech by bicycle, brought the first $100 for our project in one and five dollar bills in a bundle wrapped in newspaper ! We never learned how he had accumulated them. When I placed the bundle on the desk of C.B. Millikan with the question " How do we open a fund at Caltech for our project ? " he was flabbergasted.


What has been called the original GALCIT rocket research group was now complete. It consisted of Parsons, Forman, Smith, Tsien, Arnold and myself. In June 1937, studies made by the group up to that time, including Bollay’s paper of 1935, were collected together into what our group called its " bible " 15.


The " bible " contained the following papers :


a. " Proposed Investigations of the GALCIT Rocket Research Project ; Discussions of Laboratory for Conducting Tests, and Reports of Experiments Conducted during the Fall of 1936 " by F.J. Malina, 10 April 1937.


b. " Analysis of the Rocket Motor ", by F.J. Malina, 10 April 1937.


c. " The Effect of Angle of Divergence of Nozzle on the Thrust of a Rocket Motor ; Ideal Cycle of a Rocket Motor ; Ideal Rocket Efficiency and Ideal Thrust ; Calculation of Chamber Temperature with Dissociation " by H.S.Tsien, 29 May 1937


d. " A Consideration of the Applicability of Various Substances as Fuels for Jet Propulsion " J.W. Parsons, 10 June 1937.


e. " Rocket Performance " (Rocket Shell as a Body of Revolution), F.J. Malina and A.M.O. Smith, 15 April 1937.


f. " Performance of the Rocket Plane " W. Bollay (1935).




The paper on the performance of a sounding rocket by Smith and myself became in 1938 the first paper published by the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences (now American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) in the field of rocket flight 16. Smith and I had worked on this paper for many days and nights. On 13 December 1937, I wrote home :


" Smith and I were much disappointed last week when we found a French paper with a study similar to ours. Have decided not to send our paper to France (REP-Hirsch Prize competition). The finding does not affect the N.Y. presentation.


" Caltech has been rather unlucky in having other men beat them to publications. My room-mate also has the same misfortune. 17"


The French paper referred to above was " Les Fusées Volantes Météorologiques " published in October 1936 by Willy Ley and Herbert Schaefer in L’Aerophile 18. Smith’s and my paper was, however, more general in discussing the influence of design parameters and more suitable for application to particular cases of a sounding rocket propelled by a constant thrust rocket engine.


My paper on the analysis of the rocket motor, including Tsien’s calculation of the effect of the angle of divergence of the exhaust nozzle on the thrust of a rocket motor, was published by the Journal of the Franklin Institute in 1940 19.


The paper by Parsons led eventually to the development of red fuming nitric acid as a storable oxidizer, and he also anticipated the use of boron hybrid as a fuel. Many of his suggestions were incorporated in patents which he and I prepared in 1943 and assigned to the Aerojet General Corporation of which we were co-founders in 1942 20 .


When von Karman gave the group permission to make small scale experiments of rocket motors at GALCIT, we decided to mount a motor and propellant supply on a bob of a 50-feet ballistic pendulum, using the deflection of the pendulum to measure thrust. The pendulum was suspended from the third floor of the Laboratory with the bob in the basement. It was planned to make tests with various oxidizer-fuel combinations.


We selected the combination of methyl alcohol and nitrogen dioxide for our initial try. Our first mishap occurred when Smith and I were trying to get a quantity of the nitrogen dioxide from a cylinder that we had placed on the lawn in front of the Caltech Gates Chemistry Building. The valve on the cylinder jammed, causing a fountain of the corrosive liquid to erupt from the cylinder all over the lawn. This left a brown patch there for several weeks, to the irritation of the gardener.


When we finally tried an experiment with the motor on the pendulum, there was a misfire, with the result that a cloud of NO2-alcohol mixture permeated most of GALCIT, leaving behind a thin layer of rust on much of the permanent equipment of the Laboratory. We were told to move our apparatus outside the building at once. We also were thereafter known at Caltech as the

" Suicide Squad ".


We remounted the pendulum in the open from the roof of the building and obtained a limited amount of useful information. We made the first, or one of the first, experiments in America with a rocket motor using a storable liquid oxidizer. On the basis of this experience with nitrogen dioxide, Parsons later developed red-fuming nitric acid as a storable oxidizer which is still being used today.


Although rocket research unavoidably involves experimentation of a dangerous nature, to my knowledge no one has suffered a fatal injury up to the present day at JPL. Unfortunately, Parson’s familiarity with explosives led to contempt, and in 1952, when moving his Pasadena home laboratory to Mexico, he dropped a fulminate of mercury cap which exploded and killed him. I wish to take this occasion to express my appreciation for his work, which was of great significance in the history of the development of American rocket technology, both as regards storable liquid propellants and composite solid propellants 21.


During this period Tsien and I continued our theoretical studies of the Thermodynamic characteristics of a rocket motor. To check our results, steps were taken to design and construct a test stand for a small rocket motor burning gaseous oxygen and ethylene gas. Von Karman reviewed our plans and agreed that we could build the apparatus on a platform on the eastern side of GALCIT. (In 1939 this apparatus exploded. I escaped serious injury only because von Karman called me to bring him a typewriter at his home. Parsons and Forman were shaken up but unhurt.)


Smith made simple experiments to determine the material from which we should make the exhaust nozzle of the motor. He describes these experiments as follows in a recent letter to me:


" Sometime, perhaps in the 1937-38 school year, perhaps before ( it was in the spring of 1938), we began investigation of materials - ceramics, metals, carborundum, etc. I developed a standard-simple test. I would use the largest tip (n°10, I believe) on an oxy-acetylene torch and play it over a specimen for one minute. Some super refractors spalled and popped like a pan of popcorn and some just melted. You obtained a 1/2 " cube of molydenum and I tested that. It did not melt, but when I removed the neutral protecting atmosphere of the torch, before my very eyes I watched it literally go up in smoke. While cooling, it dwindled from about a 1/2" cube to a 1/4 " cube giving off a dense white smoke. As part of this phase you and I visited the Vitrefax Corporation in Huntington Park to get help from them about super refractories. One important refractory was forcefully brought to our attention. We watched them make mullite and saw large graphite electrodes working unscathed in large pots of boiling super refractory. This opened our eyes to the possibilities of graphite. It tested well under the torch. Later, shortly before I left Caltech in June, 1938, I happened to try the torch on a 1/2 " x 2 " x 12 " long piece of copper bar stock. The torch could not hurt this piece at all and this test opened our eyes to the possibilities of massive copper for resisting heat. 22"


The first combustion chamber liner and exhaust nozzle of the motor were made of electrode graphite. Later the exhaust nozzle was made of copper. An experiment made in May 1938 at 300 lb. per sq. in. chamber pressure for a period of one minute showed that the graphite had withstood the temperature, and the exhaust nozzle throat, which was 0.138 in. diameter, suffered only an enlargement of 0.015 in. 23. The motor delivered a thrust of the order of 5 pounds.


In March 1938,  A. Bartocci in Italy published the results of his extensive experiments of a rocket motor of similar dimensions to ours with cold oxygen gas 24. His results were in close agreement with the theoretical analysis which Tsien and I had made. A report of the first series of experiments with our apparatus is contained in my doctorate thesis of 1940 25.


In the winter of 1938, Tsien and I also extended Smith’s and my study of the performance of a sounding rocket to the case of propulsion by successive impulses from a constant volume solid propellant rocket engine 26. We had reviewed Goddard’s 1919 paper on " A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes 27" and decided to find a mathematical solution for the flight calculation problem, which Goddard had not carried out. We did this in spite of the difficult practical problem of devising a reloading mechanism for such a rocket engine, for at that time no propulsion method could be discounted.


Parsons and Forman built a smokeless powder constant-volume combustion rocket motor similar to the one tested by Goddard. With it they extended Goddard’s results 28. To my knowledge, no practical solution has ever been found for a long-duration solid-propellant rocket engine using the impulse technique ; The use of impulses from small atomic explosions has been considered ; however, no actual tests of such a system have been as yet reported.


The negative conclusions we reached as regards the practicability of devising an impulse-system rocket engine for long duration propulsion made us turn to the study of the possibility of developing a composite solid propellant which would burn in a combustion chamber in cigarette fashion. Parsons decided first to try extending the burning time of the black powder pyrotechnic sky rocket. He finally constructed a modified black powder 12 second, 28 lb., thrust rocket unit in 1941 29. The results of L. Damblanc of France with black powder rockets published in 1935 were known to us 30 .


During the summer of 1938, Smith began working in the engineering department of the Douglas Aircraft Co. where he is still employed. Arnold left Caltech for New York, and completely vanished as far as we were concerned. It was not until 1959 that I learned that he was a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Nevada. We then corresponded until his death in 1962. Tsien was able to devote less time to the work of the project, as he was completing his doctorate under von Karman. I struggled on with Parsons and Forman, little suspecting that in the next few months, the project would become a full-fledged GALCIT activity supported financially by the Federal Government.


We also had less time to devote to rocket research, for we had to support ourselves. Parsons and Forman took part-time jobs with the Halifax Powder Co. In the California Mojave Desert, and I began to do some work on problems of wind erosion of soil with von Karman for the Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


The work of the Group on rocket research at GALCIT, from the beginning, attracted the attention of newspapers and popular scientific journals. Since our work was not then classified as " secret ", we were not averse to discussing with journalists our plans and results. There were times that we were abashed by the sensational interpretations given of our work, for we tended to be, if anything, too conservative in our estimates of its implications.


The fact that our work was having real impact in America come from two sources. In May, 1938, von Karman had received an inkling that the U.S. Army Air Corps (now the U.S.Air Force) was getting interested in rocket propulsion ; however, as I will indicate later, it was only at the end of the year that we learned what it was.


Then, in August, 1938, Ruben Fleet, the president of Consolidated Aircrafts Co. of San Diego, California, approached GALCIT for information on the possibility of using rockets for assisting the take-off of large aircraft, especially flying boats. I went to San Diego to discuss the matter, and prepared a report entitled " The Rocket Motor and its application as an auxiliary to the Power Plants of Conventional Aircraft " 31. I concluded that the rocket engine was particularly adaptable for assisting the take-off of aircraft, ascending to operating altitude and reaching high speeds. The Consolidated Aircraft Co. appears to have been the first American commercial organization to recognize the potential importance of rocket assisted aircraft take-off. It was not, however, until 1943 that liquid-propellant rocket engines, constructed by the Aerojet general Corporation, were tested in a Consolidated Aircraft Co. flying boat on San Diego Bay.


In October, 1938, a senior officer of the U.S. Army Ordnance Division paid a visit to Caltech, and informed our group that on the basis of the Army’s experience with rockets he thought there was little possibility of using for military purposes !


I had learned during the year of the REP-Hirsch International Astronautical Prize, which was administered by the Astronautics Comittee of the Société Astronomique de France. The Prize was named for the French astronautical pioneer Robert Esnault-Pelterie (REP) and the banker rocket-enthusiast of Paris, André-Louis Hirsch (1900-1962). The prize consisted of a medal and a cash sum of 1000 francs.


The money contributed by Arnold was rapidly being used up. Therefore I decided to enter the competition by sending a paper on some of my work in the hope of augmenting the funds of the Project. I did not learn until 1946, when in Prague, that the prize had been awarded to me in 1939 32. The outbreak of the Second World War in Europe had prevented the Astronautics Committee from notifying me. In 1958, Andrew G. Haley (1904-1966), then President of the International Astronautical Federation, arranged for the medal to be presented to me by André-Louis Hirsch at the IX Th. International Astronautical Congress at Amsterdam. The prize was then worth a fraction of its former value. (It turned out that government support of our rocket research was forthcoming before the contribution of Arnold was spent. When I left JPL to work at Unesco in Paris in 1946, there were still $300 of the Arnold fund unspent.)


In December, 1938, after giving a talk entitled " Facts and Fancies of Rockets " at a luncheon of the Society of the Sigma XI, I was informed by von Karman, R.A. Millikan and Max Mason that I was to go to Washington D.C. to give expert information to the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Army Air Corps Research. R.A. Millikan and von Karman were members of this Committee.


One of the subjects on which Gen. H.A. Arnold, then Commanding General of the Army Air Corps, asked the Academy to give advice was the possible use of rockets for the assisted take-off of heavily loaded aircraft. I prepared a report entitled " Report on Jet Propulsion for the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Air Corps Research ", which contained the Following Parts : (1) Fundamental concepts, (2) Classification of types of jet propulsors, (3) Possible applications of jet propulsion in connection with heavier-than-air craft, (4) Present state of development of jet propulsion, and (5) Research program for developing jet propulsion 33.


The word " rocket " was still in such bad repute in " serious " scientific circles at this time that it was felt advisable by von Karman and myself to follow the precedent of the Air Corps of dropping the use of the word. It did not return to our vocabulary until several years later, by which time the word " jet " had become part of the name of our laboratory (JPL) and of the Aerojet General Corporation.


I presented my report to the Committee on 28 December, 1938, and shortly thereafter the Academy accepted von Karman’s offer to study with our GALCIT Rocket Research Group the problem of the the assisted take-off of aircraft, on the basis of the available information, and to prepare a proposal for a research program. A sum of $1,000 was provided for this work.


It is interesting to note that when Caltech obtained the first governmental support for rocket research, Jerome C. Hunsaker of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, who offered to study the de-icing problem of windshields,which was then a serious aircraft problem, told von Karman, " You can have the Buck Rogers’ job ".


Parsons and Forman were delighted when I retruned from Washington with the news that the work we had done during the past three years was to be rewarded by being given governemnt financial support, and that von Karman would join us as director of the program. We could even expect to be paid for doing our rocket research !


Thus in 1939 the GALCIT Rocket Research Project became the Air Corps Jet Propulsion Research Project. In 1944 I prepared a proposal for the creation of a section of jet propulsion within the Division of Engineering at Caltech. It was decided that it would be premature to do so. Instead, von Karman and I founded JPL. Of the original GALCIT Rocket Research Group only I remained at Caltech during the whole period, although Tsien had returned from M.I.T. in 1943 to work with us again. Parsons and Forman were employed beginning in 1942 by the Aerojet General Corporation ; Smith was at the Douglas Aircraft Co. ; and Arnold’s whereabouts were then unknown to us.


In conclusion, I wish to express my appreciation to William Bollay and A.M.O. Smith for their help to me during the preparation of this memoir, to Mrs Robert H. Goddard for granting me permission to quote from my correspondence with her husband and to Lee Edson for providing me with text from Th.von Karman’s autobiography before its publication.




1. Prepared for the First International Symposium on the History of Astronautics, " PRE-1939 MEMOIRS OF ASTRONAUTICS ", organized by the International Academy of Astronautics with the cooperation of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science at Belgrade on 25-26 September, 1967.

2. Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory- The First Twenty-Five Years, Calif. Inst. Of Tech. , Pasadena, 1954 ;
Th. Von Karman (with Lee Edson), The Wind and Beyond, Little, Brown and Co. Boston, 1967 ; F.L. Wattendorf and F.J. Malina, " Theodore von Karman, 1881-1963 ; Astraonautica Acta, 10, 81 (1964)

3. E. Sänger, " Neuere Ergebnisse der Rakenflugtechnik ", Flug-Sonderheft I, H. Pittner, Vienna, 1934

4. F.J. Malina, " Origins and First Decade of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ", Ch. 3 in : The History of Rocket technology , Ed. E.M. Emme, Wayne State Univ. Press, Detroit, 1964.

5. Th. Von Karman and F.J. Malina, " Los Comienzos de la Astronautica ", Ch.1 in : Ciencia y Tecnologia del Espacio, I.N.T.A.E.T., Madrid, 1967.

6. E. Sänger, " Neuere Ergebnisse der Rakenflugtechnik ", Flug-Sonderheft I, H. Pittner, Vienna, 1934

7. " Excerpts from Letters Written Home by Frank J. Malina between 1936 and 1946 ", (unpublished).

8. M. Lehman, This High Man, Farrar, Straus and Co. , New York, 1963. p.234

9. R.H. Goddard, " Liquid Propellant Rocket Developemnt ", Smithsonian Misc. Collections, Vol.XCV, n°2, 1919.

10. " Excerpts from Letters Written Home by Frank J. Malina between 1936 and 1946 ", (unpublished).

11. Th. Von Karman (with Lee Edson), The Wind and Beyond, Little, Brown and Co. Boston, 1967.

12. R.H. Goddard, " A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes ", Smithsonian Misc. Collections, Vol.LXXI, n°2, 1919.

13. " Excerpts from Letters Written Home by Frank J. Malina between 1936 and 1946 ", (unpublished).

14. F.J. Malina, Rocketry in California- Plans and Progress of the GALCIT Rocket Research Group ", Astronautics, n°42, July, 1938, p.3 ; F.J. Malina, H.S. Tsien,J.W. Parsons, A.M.O. Smith and W. Bollay, " Report of the GALCIT Rocket Research Project ", Guggenheim Aeronautical Lab., Calif. Inst. Of Tech., 1937 (unpublished).

15. F.J. Malina, H.S. Tsien, J.W. Parsons, A.M.O. Smith and W. Bollay, " Report of the GALCIT Rocket Research Project ", Guggenheim Aeronautical Lab., Calif. Inst. Of Tech., 1937 (unpublished).

16. F.J. Malina and A.M.O. Smith, " Flight Analysis of a Sounding Rocket ", J.Aero Sc., Vol.5, 1938, pp. 199-202.

17. " Excerpts from Letters Written Home by Frank J. Malina between 1936 and 1946 ", (unpublished).

18. W.Ley and H. Schaefer, " Les Fusées Volantes Météorologiques ", L'Aérophile, Vol.44, 1936, pp. 228-232.

19. F.J. Malina, " Characteristics of the Rocket Motor Unit Based on the Theory of Perfect Gases ", J. Franklin Institute, Vol. 230, 1940, pp. 433-454.

20. F.J. Malina and J.W. Parsons, U.S. Patents 2,573,471 : 2,693,077 ; and 2,774,214. Originally filed 8 May 1943

21. F.J. Malina, " Origins and First Decade of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ", Ch. 3 in : The History of Rocket technology , Ed. E.M. Emme, Wayne State Univ. Press, Detroit, 1964.

22. A.M.O. Smith, Letter of the author dated 29 December 1966.

23. F.J. Malina, Rocketry in California- Plans and Progress of the GALCIT Rocket Research Group ", Astronautics, n°42, July, 1938, p.3 ; F.J. Malina, H.S. Tsien,J.W. Parsons, A.M.O. Smith and W. Bollay, " Report of the GALCIT Rocket Research Project ", Guggenheim Aeronautical Lab., Calif. Inst. Of Tech., 1937 (unpublished).

24. A. Bartocci, " La Forza di Reazioni Nell' Efflusso di Gas ", L'Aerotecnica, March, 1938.

25. F.J. Malina, Doctor's Thesis, California Institute of Technology, 1940.

26. H.S.Tsien and F.J. Malina, " Flight Analysis of a Sounding Rocket with Special Reference to Propulsion by Successive Impulses " J. Aero Sc. Vol. 6, 1938, pp. 50-58.

27. R.H. Goddard, " A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes ", Smithsonian Misc. Collections, Vol.LXXI, n°2, 1919.

28. F.J. Malina, Rocketry in California- Plans and Progress of the GALCIT Rocket Research Group ", Astronautics, n°42, July, 1938, p.3 ; F.J. Malina, H.S. Tsien,J.W. Parsons, A.M.O. Smith and W. Bollay, " Report of the GALCIT Rocket Research Project ", Guggenheim Aeronautical Lab., Calif. Inst. Of Tech., 1937 (unpublished).

29. F.J. Malina, " Origins and First Decade of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ", Ch. 3 in : The History of Rocket technology , Ed. E.M. Emme, Wayne State Univ. Press, Detroit, 1964.

30. L. Damblanc " Les Fusées Autopropulsives à Explosifs ", L'Aérophile, Vol. 43, 1935, pp. 205-209 and 241-247.

31. F.J.Malina, " The Rocket Motor and its Application as an Auxiliary to the Power Plants of Conventional Aircraft ", GALCIT Rocket Res. Proj. Rep., n°2, 24 August 1938 (unpublished).

32 . Prix et Médailles décernés par la Société, Bull. Soc. Astronomique de France, p. 296, 1939.

33. F.J. Malina, " Report on Jet Propulsion for the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Air Corps Research ", (JPL Rep., Misc. N°1), 21 December 1938 (unpublished).

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