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Blood, Sweat & Rockets: The Suicide Squad
LA Made Season 1: Blood, Sweat & Rockets Square
Episode 1
25:43
Blood, Sweat & Rockets: The Suicide Squad
Meet the Suicide Squad: Jack Parsons, Frank Malina, and their crew. They're a band of young engineers, chemists, and mathematicians who saw the limitless potential of aerospace before the field was even a field. In an effort to earn credibility, the squad plans a dramatic experiment — a critical proof of concept — to showcase a technology they believe could be the future of humanity. Will it succeed — or fail spectacularly? This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Save 10% off your first month at BetterHelp.com/ROCKETS

Suzanne Dodd  00:00

[audio clip] I want to thank everybody [music in] for coming. It's a wonderful occasion, Voyager's 45th launch anniversary. Let's do this! [applause] [duck under]

 

M. G. Lord  00:11

Right now, at this very moment, wherever you're listening to this, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft are exploring places no humans have ever been. They've explored Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 went to Uranus and Neptune, the only spacecraft ever to make a visit. NASA launched these probes nearly 50 years ago, in 1977. The probes are identical down to the smallest detail, which I find weirdly adorable. These twins are still traveling today, exploring the outermost edge of the solar system and beyond. All my life, I've followed space missions the way other people follow sports, and it's still hard for me to wrap my head around that. And I'm not alone.

 

Ann Druyan  01:03

[audio clip] I've been thinking about Voyager for those 45 years and so it'll be difficult to compress all of the thoughts and feelings I have about this epic mission of exploration. [duck under]

 

M. G. Lord  01:17

That's Ann Druyan. Ann co-wrote Cosmos, the 1980 PBS documentary series hosted by Carl Sagan. She and Sagan married in 1981. I made this recording of her in 2022, [music changes] at NASA's celebration of Voyager's 45th anniversary. I was surrounded by people who were amazed and joyful. It was nice being around that. [music swells] I'm M. G. Lord. I am, you could say, a touch interested in space exploration, specifically the engineering behind it. I published a book about it in 2005, called Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science. Aerospace has been a major part of my life, for my entire life. And therefore, it's striking to me that when you hear about space today, it's not usually as let's say, romantic as the Voyager mission celebration. I'm not saying the tone now is bad. It's just different.

 

Making History: NASA and SpaceX Launch Astronauts to Space!  02:21

[audio clip] [music changes] SpaceX Dragon, we're go for launch. Let's light this candle.

 

M. G. Lord  02:28

Space Exploration today, when you hear about it on the news, is likely to be a story about a rich white man building himself well, an enormous shiny phallus.

 

Making History: NASA and SpaceX Launch Astronauts to Space!  02:42

[audio clip] Ignition. Lift off! [___] ...Dragon, go NASA, go SpaceX, godspeed Bob and Doug!

 

M. G. Lord  02:51

Why does it seem like once you become a billionaire, the only thing left to do to test your genius, is to build yourself a rocket ship?

 

Announcer  02:59

[audio clip- NASA Liftoff of SpaceX CRS-9] …one. Main engines up and running and lift off of the Falcon 9 to the Space Station.

 

M. G. Lord  03:07

There's Elon Musk, the world's richest man who not only oversees SpaceX, but who also has a plan to build 1000 "starships" to schlep humanity to Mars.

 

Elon Musk  03:19

[audio clip] I cannot emphasize this enough. This is the thing that we need to do. We must make life sustainably multi-planetary.

 

M. G. Lord  03:26

There's just something about outer space, the cosmos, that inspires people to attempt the impossible. But the Voyager mission, the peak of nobility in my mind, and then the fantasies of the billionaire boys club- they do have things in common. Perhaps one thing most importantly. [music changes] None of these missions would be possible if it weren't for a different crew of maverick dreamers, ones you may never have heard of. They built rockets in the 1930s and 40s, way before rocket science was even a field. When everyone thought they were nuts, they relied on their genius, on each other, and on nerves of steel. One of them also relied on drugs and sorcery and something called "sex magick." We'll go into that later. They started a little thing called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, at Caltech in Pasadena, California. And without JPL, there's no NASA, no Voyager, no moon landing. No Jeff Bezos sending William Shatner to the edge of space. They were called the Suicide Squad. This is their story. This is Season One of LA Made: Blood, Sweat and Rockets. [music out] [break]

 

M. G. Lord  04:59

I'm M. G. Lord. [music in] For a long time heading for outer space was wild fantasy, science fiction, Jules Verne, and Buck Rogers. We've all heard the phrase, "It's not rocket science" to imply rocket science is a field reserved for smarter minds. Well, for a long time, rocket science wasn't rocket science either. A rocket is basically a bomb that explodes in one direction, a bomb you're trying to use to propel something else in a controlled enough fashion that it doesn't blow your face off. When the fuel ignites, a bunch of hot gas is produced, rushing out, creating what's called "thrust." Gas streams backward, rocket flies forward. That's the simple version. Humanity's had rockets for hundreds of years, mainly as weapons. But just because we had rockets doesn't mean there was much science behind them. For engineers working in the early 20th century, the field lacked a foundation of research. The field wasn't so much a field as career suicide. The press ruthlessly mocked scientists who pursued rocketry. Even the New York Times joined the frenzy, suggesting that one early rocket pioneer lacked, quote, the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools, close quote. The public scorn was so great that this same pioneer fled to the desert [music out] to do his work in secret.

 

M. G. Lord  06:35

[music in] So how does rocketry go from medieval weapons and public shaming to the cosmos? Who the hell was nutty enough to take it there? Well, the Suicide Squad. Frank Malina, Jack Parsons, Ed Forman, and Tsien Hsue-Shen. That's who. Young men hanging around Caltech in the 1930s, who were inclined to laboratory pyrotechnics and singe-ing their eyebrows. And yes, like much involving aerospace, especially in those days, it's almost always about men, white men in particular. We'll get into that. But here's our crew. First off, Frank Malina, the Renaissance Man.

 

Fraser MacDonald  07:27

Malina kind of slightly thinks of himself as being something of a polymath, somebody who's interested in arts as well as science.

 

M. G. Lord  07:34

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  07:45

That much more rounded education, I think, is partly what Malina brings ultimately, to rocketry and helps them think about not just how to make a rocket but why to make a rocket. He wanted to make a rocket in order to improve the ordinary lives of people, whether that's through uh, better understanding of the Earth atmosphere, or whether it's applications like weather forecasting.

 

M. G. Lord  08:09

Next up: Jack Parsons. He is a kind of half genius-amateur-chemist, half unhinged-mystic. And let me get something out of the way. I have some serious reservations about Parsons, especially compared to Malina, but I'll bite my tongue for now.

 

Erik Conway  08:31

He was from a broken family really, and became a self-taught chemist. He uh, liked to keep explosives at home and he mixed them under, shall we say, without adequate safety protections.

 

M. G. Lord  08:44

Parsons is a rich kid, at least until his family goes broke in the Depression. He's from Pasadena. He's tall and in one photo, he appears as though he has a spray tan, an unusual effect for the time. In addition to being a good enough chemist to fall in with Malina, Parsons dabbles in some pretty risqué hobbies and beliefs on the side. He's been drawn to the occult since childhood. As the Suicide Squad starts to make its mark, he develops a side hustle as one of Southern California's most well-known satanic orgy-organizers. Number three: Ed Forman. The Tinkerer, who could build almost anything out of junk yard finds, yet another self-taught rocketeer.

 

Fraser MacDonald  09:31

Forman is really a machinist, right? He's very practical, hands-on guy. I think it's fair to say that he is best described as Parson's sidekick.

 

M. G. Lord  09:42

Forman and Parsons were childhood friends, and they both loved science fiction. Starting to work with Frank Malina must have felt like the first step toward realizing their childhood motto: per aspera ad astra or, "through hardship, to the stars."

 

Fraser MacDonald  09:59

He and Parsons met at school. Parsons being beaten by another kid. Forman dragged him off. And I think that is really important for their relationship because they've got this absolute early loyalty from the beginning. So Parsons and Forman are always a kind of a unit, if you like, uh, a kind of an engineering couple.

 

M. G. Lord  10:19

They're later joined by Tsien Hsue-Shen, The Math Wiz, an immigrant from China, who becomes fast friends with Malina.

 

Fraser MacDonald  10:27

Tsien is, I think it's fair to say, he was quite academically arrogant. Um, he was known to be absolutely brilliant. Those who were taught by him said that he had the attitude that if you couldn't keep up, then too bad. That was your problem, not his. But very, very gifted and, and able to bring to the Suicide Squad, a much greater degree of mathematical training and insight that really, really kind of helped them out. [music swells] [music out]

 

M. G. Lord  11:02

So there's the setup. Caltech grad student Malina is hell bent on pursuing research into rocket propulsion no matter if people think his thesis is a waste of his talents. [music in] And then Parsons and Forman, who've been blowing things up together since they were kids, volunteer to help. Soon the three of them are driving around Los Angeles, canvassing the region, asking for cheap parts to build a theoretical rocket motor.

 

Fraser MacDonald  11:29

At the very beginning of this relationship, I think the credit can reasonably be thought as being evenly distributed. Th- they're all doing important work. They're all bringing different things.

 

M. G. Lord  11:41

So Malina has his band, and he has an overflow of idealism. But he's frustrated because what he doesn't have is resources or money. And that's an existential threat to his progress. If he's going to get this thing off the ground, excuse the terrible pun, this trio is gonna need a backer. [music out] [break]

 

M. G. Lord  12:16

[music in] What is it about Southern California, the greater Los Angeles area, that's made it such fertile ground over time for blowing stuff up?

 

Peter Westwick  12:26

Peter Westwick. I'm a research professor of history at USC.

 

M. G. Lord  12:30

Peter Westwick has written extensively on the topic.

 

Peter Westwick  12:34

A lot of people just say it was the weather. Um, you know, blue skies. You can fly year-round. But there were several other reasons that made LA especially attractive. Um, one is research universities like Caltech and Berkeley and Stanford. Uh, also, open shop labor. LA was notorious as an anti-union town. Presence of venture capital from other industries like the oil industry. So all this explains why aerospace really turned Southern California from what was really kind of a dusty, agricultural backwater, into this high-tech metropolis that we know today.

 

M. G. Lord  13:08

Southern California was attractive to Frank Malina too, because of Caltech. The university was home to the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, GALCIT for short. It had a 10-foot wind tunnel, the only one in the region, which students could use to test airplane designs. And at the time, airplanes were about as close as you could get to rockets. Plus, the director of GALCIT had a reputation for being interested in [music out] unconventional ideas. His name was Theodore von Kármán.

 

Mory Gharib  13:41

Theodore von Kármán was a very charismatic eh, person. And he had this ability to visualize the future of technology based on solid science. And in that respect, he was very, I would say, adventurist, risk taking, and allowing that younger students and postdoctoral uh, fellows to follow their dreams and ideas. My name is Mory Gharib. I'm the Chair of Aerospace Department at Caltech, and also Director of the Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies.

 

M. G. Lord  14:17

While von Kármán is idealistic about rockets and space travel, there's another more utilitarian use [music in] for rockets that he envisions.

 

Peter Westwick  14:26

Von Kármán has served in the Austria Hungarian military during World War I, you know, to help its army air corps uh, develop. So, von Kármán is very aware of kind of military problems um, and has a similar vision for you know, bringing university R&D to bear on industry and/or military problems.

 

M. G. Lord  14:48

In fact, as we're gonna see, Caltech and GALCIT are gonna establish a lot of ties between the academic side of rocketry and the field's military applications, which have huge ramifications down the road, particularly for our Squad members. But at this point in 1936, the military is far from their minds. Malina, Parsons, and Forman are just trying to develop a working rocket motor. They're scouring junkyards for scrap metal, and Malina is failing to get anyone to buy into his PhD project.

 

Fraser MacDonald  15:25

Malina, first of all, approached um, another engineer much more straight, um, an American called Clark Milliken.

 

M. G. Lord  15:33

Author Fraser MacDonald again.

 

Fraser MacDonald  15:35

And Milliken just said, "Look, don't be ridiculous. You can't do a PhD on, on rocketry. Rocketry is not even a thing."

 

M. G. Lord  15:42

But when Malina speaks with von Kármán, things go differently in that von Kármán doesn't laugh in Malina's face.

 

Fraser MacDonald  15:50

And that's the thing about von Kármán is that he is a quirky guy. He's not like lots of other scientists. He's quite open minded.

 

M. G. Lord  16:00

Von Kármán gives Malina the thing no one else would. A shot.

 

Fraser MacDonald  16:05

Von Kármán said, "Yeah, no, well, let's let's think about this. Well, maybe if you can get some data on making a rocket motor, maybe we can- maybe there's potential here."

 

M. G. Lord  16:15

Getting von Kármán's support means Malina can study rocketry for his PhD thesis and use GALCIT's resources to perform tests. So Malina sets out to collect the data von Kármán wants to prove that making a rocket motor is possible. [music out] But Malina doesn't have to do it alone, and according to JPL historian Erik Conway, he knows he can't.

 

Erik Conway  16:40

And I think what's important about Malina and von Kármán is that they understood that they needed different skills. They wanted, they needed different skills to achieve this.

 

M. G. Lord  16:51

So the Squad resolves to work together. But collaboration between big personalities presents its own challenges. While planning their first rocket motor test, a critical proof of concept, some differences in style reveal themselves.

 

Fraser MacDonald  17:08

So there's tension between them, which is- Parsons and Forman, they just like shooting rockets, like they love the charisma of it. But Malina was not interested in that at all. He wanted to build a rocket motor, and he realized that the only way to do that was to approach it with a degree of mathematical seriousness, right? So, actually firing rockets he felt was a very, very distant kind of prospect. He just wanted to do static tests. He wanted to measure things. And that led to all sorts of tensions between them because for, this was a very dry, austere program of work that Malina was outlining to Parsons and Forman.

 

M. G. Lord  17:47

After much back and forth, the crew schedules their test, and they schedule it [music in] on Halloween night. Points for theatricality. Just north of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, there's a rock formation called Devil's Gate, because people say the rocks there look like the face of a demon. If you see it from the side, there's an outcropping that looks like horns. On Halloween 1936, Malina, Parsons, and Forman drive up to the Devil's Gate in a dry riverbed called the Arroyo Seco to test their homemade rocket motor.

 

Fraser MacDonald  18:23

They're not firing anything. They're not firing anything into space. This is a, a m- rocket motor that's essentially pointing downwards, and they're using a combination of liquid propellants, um, um, methyl alcohol and uh, gaseous oxygen.

 

M. G. Lord  18:37

A photograph is taken before ignition. The Squad is sprawled in the dirt, wearing slacks and button up shirts. They're resting close to a weird metal contraption. It looks like a bicycle pump surrounded by sandbags. The sandbags are there to absorb a blast if anything explodes. As I look at the photo, one thing stands out. Parsons and Forman are grinning, smirking, but Malina's countenance is grim, burdened, concerned maybe. Soon after the photo is taken, the test begins, and Malina may have had reasons to be concerned.

 

Fraser MacDonald  19:18

Lots of things go wrong. The fuse keeps blowing out.

 

M. G. Lord  19:22

Then, once Parsons finally gets the fuse to light, a massive flame erupts from the motor. An oxygen hose that was once connected breaks free, swinging around wildly, which causes the fuel spills from earlier tests to catch fire, too. In the face of calamity, the Squad does what any rational scientist would do. They each run like hell in the other direction. But despite these hiccups...

 

Fraser MacDonald  19:50

They learn what not to do. And it, it starts this constant shuttling back and forth between experiment and analysis, between generating data and the theoretical dimensions of a- analyzing that data. And that really, that's where it starts, that that that relationship between uh, a kind of practice and theory.

 

M. G. Lord  20:16

The Squad got the kind of data von Kármán was looking for. And for that reason, for Malina, Halloween is successful.

 

Fraser MacDonald  20:24

There's something very particular that happens at this moment. So we're talking kind of mid to late 1930s, which is that rocketry doesn't exist as a scientifically respectable field. It just doesn't. It's, it's a ridiculous notion to think that a scientist, a serious scientist, far less a PhD student at Caltech, would bother risking their reputation in anything as outlandish as a rocket. The words rocket and science did not belong in the same sentence. What's interesting here is that it's Malina first, that makes rocketry respectable as a, a scientific domain. And JPL use it as a sort of charismatic myth of origin. [music out]

 

M. G. Lord  21:12

Only a couple months later, their motor works without [music in] the hiccups. In January, the engine runs for 44 seconds straight. It means rocket propulsion is acquiring a scientific basis. It means an extraordinary idea, space travel, thought to be ludicrous by most people, may just have a shot. The story you're about to hear is about a group of unsung engineers who shaped our quest to get off this planet and set up today's billionaires to cram us into arks when the time comes. But it's also about people who didn't get to play in the sandbox, who were excluded from aerospace for really, really bad reasons. There will be satanic ceremonies. There will be drugs and sex, and some practices known as sex magick. Also, a wannabe screenwriter named L. Ron Hubbard. Yes, that L. Ron Hubbard, the guy who created Scientology, who was befriended by Jack Parsons. There will be a profoundly disruptive communist scare. And ultimately, there will be a suspicious death. Long before Musk, Bezos and Branson, there was Forman, Tsien, Malina, and Parsons. And if it weren't for them, today's eccentric billionaires likely wouldn't be boarding spaceships anytime soon. The real question though, is why these guys, the Suicide Squad, were able to be so successful together at something the world thought was a joke. And why, despite their success, did they face ruin in the process? That's next time on Blood, Sweat, and Rockets. [music out]

 

M. G. Lord  23:09

[music in] LA Made: Blood, Sweat and Rockets is hosted by me, M. G. Lord. This 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 is the showrunner. Producers are Savannah Wright, Tyler Hill, Becky Nicolaides, and Caitlin Parker. 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. Fact checking by Becky Nicolaides and Caitlin Parker. 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 and 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]