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How The Red Scare Shook Up Rocket Research And Led One Pioneering Scientist To A Life Of Art

This black-and-white image features a group of men surrounding rocket parts, one of which is being held above them by chains and a pulley system.
A test of a WAC Corporal rocket, an early rocket that was the first to reach hypersonic speed.
(Archival image courtesy M.G. Lord)
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In a two-part arc on our podcast LA Made: Blood, Sweat & Rockets we explore how members of the Suicide Squad, the name given to the early rocket pioneers at JPL, find themselves under scrutiny for alleged Communist ties.

Frank Malina, a pivotal figure in this early and dangerous research, questions the warmongering results of his intellectual labor. And then, we delve into how the Suicide Squad fell under Joseph McCarthy’s microscope, and how Malina eluded consequences to become a political refugee and artist in France.

What to expect in these episodes

Two men in white button-down shirts stand in an open area next to a standing rocket in a black and white shot.
This photo, taken in 1945, shows Frank Malina and WAC Corporal Project Coordinator P.J. Meeks standing with an early JPL rocket.
(Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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In Seeing Red, government paranoia over communist espionage is ratcheting up. The FBI bears down on U.S. citizens perceived to be “security risks” — people like Malina and his fellow Suicide Squad members. At the same time, Malina has mounting doubts about the military’s intended use of his scientific research. He leaves for Paris, but will he be safe there?

Listen: Frank Malina flees to Paris with the FBI hot on his trail

In Lucky Break, as McCarthyism cracks down on prominent figures with communist ties, Malina is no longer in the U.S. How did he manage to avoid incarceration when so many of his colleagues were being convicted for their own communist affiliations?

Listen: Frank Malina finds work with UNESCO but the FBI isn't giving up

Why you should listen

These are the first two episodes in a trilogy about the Red Scare. They outline the story about how the U.S. government — looking to root out potential spy rings within its ranks — found a willing informant in one of Malina’s former colleagues. Find out who had an ax to grind. Also, discover how Malina lost the battle to remain a U.S. scientist but won the war of finding the freedom to innovate for himself and not the military.

What other themes will you cover?

Political witch hunts, government surveillance, intrigue, and finding out who your true allies are when the government stops being polite.

That sounds great! How do I find the whole podcast?

It's available now from LAist Studios. Check it out wherever you get your podcasts! And you can also listen to these episode in the players above.

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