The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's history reaches back to the tumultuous years leading up to World War II. Rockets were perceived as devices of fantasy, seen only in movie serials and comic strips like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Despite rocket pioneer Robert Goddard’s successful development of early rockets, he was publicly ridiculed for his work. But in the fall of 1936, a group of enterprising young men in Pasadena, Calif., decided to risk their reputations and give engineering substance to rocket fantasy.
The "rocket boys" were an unusual bunch. Frank Malina was studying aerodynamics at Caltech's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, known as GALCIT. Jack Parsons was a self-taught chemist, and Ed Forman was an excellent mechanic. They scraped together cheap engine parts, and on Oct. 31, 1936, drove to an isolated area called the Arroyo Seco at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Four times that day they tried to test fire their small rocket motor. On the last attempt, they accidentally set fire to their oxygen line, which whipped around shooting fire! These were the first rocket experiments in the history of JPL. They tried again on Nov. 15, 1936, and their experiment finally worked.