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Blood, Sweat & Rockets: Cred
LA Made Season 1: Blood, Sweat & Rockets Square
Episode 2
26:29
Blood, Sweat & Rockets: Cred
The semi-successful Halloween test earns the squad some legitimacy and some money. Without consistent funding, though, the Suicide Squad breaks up before they've really gotten started. Until the U.S. government is caught off guard by the Nazis’ technological advancements and decides it needs to accelerate its own rocketry production — fast. This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Save 10% off your first month at BetterHelp.com/ROCKETS

M. G. Lord  00:00

[music in] When I was about nine years old, my family went on summer vacation. It was 1965 or six. In those days, I could spend all day reading. To be honest, I can still spend whole days reading. But this was special. This was the summer I discovered Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein was a science fiction writer, one of the greats, and one of the first to aim for scientific accuracy in his work. Heinlein was also one of the first to write three dimensional female characters. A lot of early science fiction, like early aerospace, was extremely male-oriented and sexist. In Heinlein's stories, however, women were smart and educated. They were sexy. One story, "Let There Be Light," had a character named M. L. Martin. She had enough academic degrees, Heinlein wrote, for six men, and the "M. L." in her name stood for Mary Lou. Well, by the end of that summer, when I went back to school, I ditched Mary Grace, the name my parents had given me, and became M. G. and I've been M. G. ever since. In our last episode, we talked a lot about Frank Malina and Jack Parsons, two key members of the Suicide Squad, and in certain ways, polar opposites, despite their common interest in rocketry. But what also bound them together was a love for science fiction. From a young age, Parsons and his buddy Ed Forman were deeply interested in speculative fiction. As adults, they attended sci-fi literary societies in Los Angeles. Born of Czech immigrants, Malina split his childhood between a small Texas town called Brenham, and the Moravia region of Czechoslovakia. He wasn't as obsessed as Parsons was with science fiction, but both Malina and Parsons had a common text that sparked their imaginations when they were kids: Jules Verne's 1865 fantasy From the Earth to the Moon. It's about a group of people trying to reach the moon via an enormous space gun. I mean, probably not the safest means of transportation. But the story excited a lot of readers. [music out]

 

Fraser MacDonald  02:35

Well certainly, Malina expresses an interest in space from quite an early age. He reads Jules Verne, of course, in Czech.

 

M. G. Lord  02:42

That's Fraser MacDonald. He's a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and the author of Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket.

 

Fraser MacDonald  02:53

I definitely think he combines an interest in all sorts of things. Science and art and music and literature, and in particular, in, in [music in] philosophy and the realm of ideas. And, and that, that kind of background, I think really informs the purpose of space exploration and how it might improve the ordinary, you know, everyday lives of ordinary people.

 

M. G. Lord  03:16

For me, science fiction at its best, opens the mind to what's possible in ways that other stories just can't. Remember, at the time, 1920s, early 30s, there's no such thing as quote unquote rocket science. Malina and Parsons and the rest of the Suicide Squad are creating a discipline where none exists. But why that field should exist turns out to be a question that different parties have different answers to, especially when one of them is the US military. I'm M. G. Lord. This is LA Made: Blood, Sweat, and Rockets. [music swells] [music out]

 

M. G. Lord  04:15

[music in] In the last episode, we talked about how the Suicide Squad got its start. They earn the support of Theodore von Kármán, who at the time, is director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech, aka GALCIT. And they have their mostly successful Halloween test, where yes, they accidentally set things on fire, but they collect valuable data in the process. But rocket science is still uncharted territory. They need someone to work out the theoretical problems of launching an object into space. Enter Tsien Hsue-shen, a brilliant mathematician from China, who studied engineering at MIT on a scholarship.

 

Zuoyue Wang  05:02

The way that von Kármán told the story of how he first met Tsien was that one day Tsien just turned up in his office at Caltech, inquiring about uh, the possibility of future graduate studies.

 

M. G. Lord  05:18

That's Zuoyue Wang, Professor of History at California State Polytechnic University [music out] at Pomona.

 

Zuoyue Wang  05:25

And so von Kármán asked him some technical questions, and Tsien answer those questions with um, his usual precision, I think was the, the description by von Kármán so, which impressed von Kármán great deal and von Kármán right away, offered him admission to the graduate program at Caltech in Aeronautical Studies. And so, Tsien immediately uh, accepted that offer. So he co-authored several pathbreaking papers with Theodore von Kármán.

 

M. G. Lord  06:00

Now, Tsien adores von Kármán. His brilliant mind, his European style. At the time, von Kármán and his sister are known in [music in] Pasadena for their lavish dinner parties. Guests include world-class scientists side by side with Hollywood stars like Bela Lugosi. And what Tsien admires is that both he and some of the other PhD students like Frank Malina, find knowledge and inspiration in many things outside engineering. It's a combination Tsien finds enticing. It's also one that will in part, be his utter ruin. You'll hear what I mean in later episodes. The point is, in short order Tsien joins Malina and Parsons and Forman in their rocketry quest. One trouble is, they have no money, and research isn't cheap. [music out] So in 1937, Malina gives a talk on their findings at Caltech's weekly seminar for engineers and science students. It captures the attention of Weld Arnold, an assistant from Caltech's astrophysical laboratory, who eventually gives them $1,000 in exchange for becoming their photographer. It's a windfall. It means they're able to create the Weld Arnold Rocket Research Fund and get officially recognized by GALCIT. The group becomes well, an actual group and proceeds to nearly kill themselves and lots of other people on campus. [music in] To describe these mishaps, I am happy to bring you the voice of Frank Malina himself. We dug deep into the Caltech archives and found this oral history.

 

Frank Malina  07:48

[audio clip- Oral History Part 1] On the campus, of course uh, we had some misfires and whatnot. We uh, tried to make an experiment on a little motor in the Guggenheim building. And um, so we suspended a 50 foot pendulum from the top floor to the basement. And on the bob, we had a little motor with some uh, nitrogen tetroxide and alcohol and that misfired. And so we sent a tremendous cloud of this corrosive nitrogen tetroxide all through the building. And we were thrown out of the building the next day, of course. Uh, then we built what we call the gas apparatus on the outside of Guggenheim. That blew up and it's quite possible that I might have been done in on that explosion, but uh, Kármán had called his secretary and asked if I would bring him a typewriter at home. So I, I hopped in my model 8 Ford or whatever I had at that time, put a typewriter in and drove it to his house. Then I came back. When I came back, I saw many people around and as I came closer and closer to the end of the building, I began to see bits of, pieces of the apparatus on the ground. So I realized something terrible happened. Um, but fortunately, neither Parsons or Forman were uh, were really hurt. They were shaken up a bit. But where I had been sitting before I left, a piece of a pressure gauge had blown right across I think, where my head was and buried itself at a piece of wood. So if I'd have been there, I don't know, maybe I wouldn't be here. Uh, what, it was sometime around there that we got, began to be known on the campus as a suicide squad.

 

M. G. Lord  09:28

The name was given to them by other Caltech students, who probably were scared for their own lives as well.

 

Mory Gharib  09:35

And that's where, you know, basically von Kármán, you know, [laughs] decided that maybe enough is enough. [music out]

 

M. G. Lord  09:41

That's Mory Gharib, the Chair of the Aerospace Department at Caltech.

 

Mory Gharib  09:46

And actually, uh it, this is again, one of the amazing characteristics of the, von Kármán himself, that instead of uh you know, kicking them uh, eh, out of the department, has actually offered them looking off of, they actually obtained a new land uh a little bit far away from here that you can do all your tests, make all your mess and uh, nobody going to ever see it. And that's uh, gonna be the l- the uh, the location of the JPL Jet Propulsion Lab that actually grew around Flint- Flintridge, La Canada area.

 

M. G. Lord  10:17

The Weld Arnold Fund also freed Parsons and Malina from working on another last-ditch fundraising attempt. [music in] They had written a sketch for a screenplay, hoping for a big Hollywood payday. I actually found the screenplay during research for my book. It was in Malina's study. He kept it in a folder marked "MGM," the movie studio. Here's the first sentence: "This story is to be built on the present stage of rocketry as the foundation, with a superstructure of the dynamic social problems now existing." [music out] It's not exactly gripping stuff. [music in] Characters are based on Tsien, Parsons, and Forman. The plot's about an airplane manufacturer who wants to sell their rocket secrets to the Nazis. Like most projects in Hollywood, nothing happens. MGM isn't interested and soon the Weld Arnold Fund dries up entirely. The Squad can no longer pay for its experiments. So Malina takes a job with the U.S. Agriculture Department. Parsons and Forman go back to their old jobs at an explosives factory. Tsien goes back to his PhD. Almost as soon as they'd formed the Suicide Squad, they go their separate ways. [music swells] [music out]

 

Michael Neufeld  11:55

[music in] Well, the United States was really uh, behind the curve of the European powers at the beginning of World War II in Europe in 1939 because of the traditional American attitude to the military, which was we don't mobilize unless there's a war and not beforehand, and there's no standing army. The United States was really a second rate power at the beginning of World War II.

 

M. G. Lord  12:12

Here's something not a lot of people know: At the outset of World War II, the United States military was seriously behind the times.

 

Michael Neufeld  12:29

They had, you know, essentially had to have fake tanks and uh, a lot of the cavalry was still using horses.

 

M. G. Lord  12:35

This is Michael Neufeld, Senior Curator at the Department of Space History, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

 

Michael Neufeld  12:45

It was part of this general problem that the United States had wanted to stay out of the war, was determinedly neutral and had not mobilized significantly at all until just before the eve of World War II.

 

M. G. Lord  13:01

When it comes to rocketry, it's the Germans who are ahead, [music out] and the Allies far behind.

 

Michael Neufeld  13:08

It's only in Nazi Germany where they spent a huge sum of money on, in the German army on liquid repellent rocketry that they made a breakthrough at the end of the 1930s, the beginning of the 1940s that led to the V-2 missile.

 

M. G. Lord  13:24

Let's pause for a second. [music in] If only because the V-2 and its predecessor, the V-1, really are signature pieces of technology, both in terms of the horrible destruction the V-1 caused, but also for their role in aerospace history.

 

Michael Neufeld  13:43

So the V-2 was a revolutionary new weapon because it was the world's first ballistic missile. It could launch a one ton high explosive warhead about 200 miles in five minutes. [music out] And so [music in] that seemed like a huge advance that could change the course of the war.

 

M. G. Lord  14:08

But creating our own V-2 wasn't the American military's first idea for rockets. What interested them were [music out] JATOs- jet-assisted-takeoffs. Here's Neufeld:

 

Michael Neufeld  14:18

In the early part of the war, the U.S. Army Air Forces and the Navy to a certain extent were interested in so-called rocket-assisted takeoff, or what they called at that time jet-assisted takeoff. Jet-assisted takeoff was this idea that you strap rockets onto the wings of a, a propeller engine, heavy bombers, or sea planes, to get them off the runway heavily loaded.

 

M. G. Lord  14:44

[music in] Let's bring it back to the Suicide Squad. With von Kármán looking over their shoulders, they're testing rocket motors at Caltech, also up in the wilderness above Pasadena to keep from setting Caltech on fire. Funds run dry and the guys go their separate ways. Then some months later, Malina saves the Squad again, by doing what he apparently does best. Giving a talk. Here's Malina:

 

Frank Malina  15:14

[audio clip- 1978 Oral History Part 1] So I was sort of holding the fort here, and getting rather discouraged in 1938 when the National Academy of Sciences had set up a committee for their Army Air Corps. And one of the problems that they were interested in was the use of rocket propulsion for the aux- auxiliary propulsion of aircraft. And I gave a talk here at the Athenaeum in autumn of 1938. And I called it "The Facts and Fancies of Rockets."

 

M. G. Lord  15:40

His talk impresses one of the higher-ups at Caltech, who asks Malina to share his findings with the U.S. military.

 

Frank Malina  15:47

[audio clip continues] So at the, by the end of the year, I went to Washington, gave this report, and then we received the first government funds from, through the National Academy. And then we were off. [music swells]

 

M. G. Lord  16:01

The band is back together. Bear in mind, a thousand bucks is big money at the time. Two years earlier, Malina almost gave up rocketry because he and Parsons lacked 120 bucks to buy a pair of instruments. In return for the investment, the Army Air Corps wants to see jet-assisted takeoff, or JATO, become a reality. The JATO is meant to solve the huge problem of getting a very large, very heavy aircraft off the ground when you don't have miles of runway to work with.

 

Erik Conway  16:40

It mostly wound up being used in the Pacific theater, because you had to build those runways.

 

M. G. Lord  16:46

Erik Conway, resident historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

 

Erik Conway  16:51

And so they needed the jet-assisted takeoffs to get off these, these primitive short runways that, that once upon a time no one would have, would have thought of building [___] runway on.

 

M. G. Lord  17:03

Basically, this war was gonna be fought by hopping giant bombers from island to island from short, hastily built runway to short, hastily built runway. The Squad gives the army some early proofs of concept and an additional $10,000 appears. They keep at it. Explosions in the Arroyo Seco become frequent occurrences. Meanwhile, the [music out] war in Europe was never far from their minds, especially Malina's. In a later interview, he recalled quote, "Kármán, of course, with a Jewish background, was extremely sensitive to the Nazi developments in Germany, and since I had been spending so much time with him, no doubt I had an input from that direction." Soon von Kármán and Malina figure out a way for a rocket [music in] engine to burn solid propellant for an extended duration. Solid fuel is desired by the army because it was easier to store. Von Kármán and Malina want the propellant to burn like a cigarette from one end to the other, not all at once like a firework. Within a year, Parsons implements their designs using compressed black powder to create a fuel called "Galcit 27." Cut to August 1941. Test time. The Squad gathers at an airfield near Riverside, California. A former student of von Kármán, Homer Boushey, a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, climbs into a monoplane called an Ercoupe. A JATO assembly is installed under each wing. If they work, the plane will leap off the ground. If they don't, they may explode and tear the plane apart. Something similar happened about a week earlier. Boushey had watched a technical rehearsal without a pilot. Parsons pressed the firing button. Explosions went off, nozzles whirling in all directions. Von Kármán said, "It couldn't have been any worse." And now in Riverside, they've got a living, breathing pilot. A life is literally on the line. Boushey taxis down the runway. The plane accelerates. He hits the ignition switch. There's a huge plume of smoke. A moment later, the plane jumps into the sky like it's been launched with a catapult. It's the first jet-assisted takeoff in the United States. The first takeoff aided by rocket power, a success without incident. So that's August. Fast forward to December. Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. The United States joins the war. The army soon tells the Suicide Squad it wants to use rockets to get a 14,000 pound Douglas bomber off the ground. And they need a more reliable fuel. [music out]

 

Erik Conway  20:04

The initial JATOs developed by the JPL guys were solid fuel. And that was what was done with the Ercoupe. Pretty quickly thereafter, Malina had hired a guy who used to be his roommate by the name of Martin Summerfield, and Martin Summerfield developed a liquid fuel JATO, and that liquid fuel JATO kind of became the, the basic one for the larger aircraft during the war. It was literally a couple of fixed pods on the aircraft and some fuel tanks inside. Um, those propellants are known as hypergolic now. Um, they're chemicals that react instantaneously on contact with each other so the, you don't need an ignition system, um which further simplified it. Good for the war.

 

M. G. Lord  20:46

[music in] This could give the rockets extraordinary thrust. A test date is set for April. A big bomber, a Douglas A-20A bomber, rolls down a runway in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It's fitted with a pair of liquid-fuel rockets, each able to put out 1000 pounds of thrust over 25 seconds. The rockets ignite. The bomber shoots forward flying up into the air. They've shortened the plane's takeoff time and distance by a third. Around that time, Malina writes in a letter to his parents, "We now have something that really works. We will be able to give the fascists hell." Basically, jet-assisted takeoff is the idea that gives the Suicide Squad its first big wins and even bigger rewards. It's the beginning of practical rocketry in the United States. Now, Malina and Parsons and the rest need to figure out how to manufacture what they've devised and manufacture a lot of them because the army puts in an order for 60 more, and the fascists are hatching JATOs of their own. March 1942, the group forms Aerojet Engineering Corporation. [music out] Von Kármán becomes president. Malina is treasurer. Parsons, Forman, and Martin Summerfield, vice presidents.

 

Justin Chapman  22:16

They are still affiliated- The Suicide Squad is still affiliated with a university and so there was a debate about, "Does this really belong at a university or is this like a military project or uh, should it be a private uh, enterprise?"

 

M. G. Lord  22:32

This is Justin Chapman, a journalist based in Pasadena, who has spent a lot of time trying to demystify the Suicide Squad.

 

Justin Chapman  22:41

And so they created a private company called Aerojet, and they started mass producing these JATOs and, and sold them to the military primarily. So Aerojet went the private route. GALCIT with Caltech, went the JPL route and established JPL in 1944. It's run by Caltech, run by the university, but funded by the military.

 

M. G. Lord  23:04

[music in] Jack Parsons is likely elated with all the cash on hand. He gets to attempt to blast rockets toward the moon, just like in the science fiction he grew up reading. For Malina though, it's different.

 

Justin Chapman  23:22

They really wanted to develop rockets as missiles and weapons, and Frank Malina had a real problem with that. He wanted it to be a, a civilian-led international scientific cooperation, reaching space for the betterment of humankind, not to destroy other people and, and kill people.

 

M. G. Lord  23:43

To my mind, this is a puzzling contradiction in Frank Malina. On the one hand, you have a man who wants to "give the fascists hell" and on the other hand, you have an idealist who sees rocketry as humanity's saving grace. This contradiction enticed me to look closer at Frank Malina, a man seemingly overlooked by history. How would the idealist react when one of these missiles, an entity he helped bring into the world, was equipped with a nuclear warhead? That's next time on Blood, Sweat, and Rockets. [music swells] [music out]

 

M. G. Lord  24:31

[credits music in] LA Made: Blood, Sweat, and Rockets is hosted by me, M. G. Lord. The show is a production of LAist Studios in collaboration with Western Sound. Shana Naomi Krochmal is our Vice President of Podcasts, and Antonia Cereijido is the executive producer for LAist Studios. Ben Adair is the executive producer for Western Sound. Dan Leone as the showrunner. Producers are Savannah Wright, Tyler Hill, Caitlin Parker, and Becky Nicolaides. The show is written by Rachel Knowles, Rosecrans Baldwin, and me, M. G. Lord. It was edited by Savannah Wright. Sound design by Tyler Hill. Mixing and mastering by Tom MacLean. Research and consulting by History Studio. Our website at LAist.com is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Leo G. LA Made: Blood, Sweat, and Rockets is a production of LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. [music out]