Podcast: The American Rocketeer

October 19, 2011

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Open with music and voice track from "The American Rocketeer":
This is the story of one man's reach for the stars. And how his ideas and idealism put him on a collision course with the world. It is the story of the American Rocketeer.

Music fades
Narrator: I'm Jane Platt with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. At this site 75 years ago on Halloween Day, October 31, 1936, a group of Caltech students tested the first rockets in what was then just an open field with scruffy vegetation.

Music, with Clayton Koppes: There was a widely used astronomy textbook published in the early 1930s which said that rocket flight was impossible. It was something that was really not even on the fringes, even beyond the fringes of respectable science.

Music fades
Narrator: Clayton Koppes is the author of "JPL and The American Space Program" and one of the people interviewed in a new documentary produced by Blaine Baggett of JPL's Office of Communications and Education. The documentary, called "The American Rocketeer," focuses on one of the first rocket testers, Frank Malina. Blaine, for people who might not be familiar with the history, exactly what happened on October 31, 1936?

Baggett: After a number of months of trying to scrape together enough equipment to actually have an experiment, several Caltech students and some rocket enthusiasts piled their equipment, sand bags, shovels into a Caltech truck and drove over here to a deserted area of Pasadena and put their sand bags up, put a rocket engine upside down because of the thrust...they were just measuring the thrust and conducted a rocket experiment that actually didn't go so well. The hose came loose, it caught fire. You've got these young rocketeers running for their lives , scampering about all over the Arroyo.

Narrator: So that didn't go so well but they didn't give up, they kept at it.

Baggett: They did indeed. It was a great dream of these young twenty-something year olds to actually reach space at a time when "rocket science" were two words that were not even joined together yet.

Narrator: For purposes of this documentary, you chose to focus on Frank Malina specifically, one of the rocketeers. Why did you choose him?

Baggett: I just simply thought that his personal story was so incredible. The dilemmas that he faced. The fact that he was a pacifist who built weapons, despite his really strong feelings. That he had international leanings, that despite all he had done as a patriot, found at the end of the war that he would be labeled a fugitive by his own country. That he was a socialist who became a millionaire, an engineer who became an artist. His life plays out against the backdrop of the Great Depression, against the backdrop of World War II, against the Red Scare and really the early days of the Space Age, as well. And he's very much involved in all these areas in a sizable way that made a difference in the turning of history, but no one knows who he is. Now why is that? I think it's because of his political leanings, having to actually abandon the United States. He was forgotten when we embraced particularly the Germans who came over after World War II, who we actually came to be household names, like Wernher von Braun, for the United States space program. And it was just too big of an irony to not go and tell that story.

Narrator: While "The American Rocketeer" is focusing on Frank Malina, there is a lot in there about Theodore von Karman, who was a Caltech professor, and we actually right now are doing the interview in the back of the von Karman auditorium at JPL. And I guess we could best sum up von Karman as a mentor to Frank Malina?

Baggett: A tremendous mentor. He had this incredible ability to seek out people who had exceptional talent, tremendous passion and soaring imaginations, and say, "You're special, I'm going to give you my time and my resources that I can to help you reach for your dreams." Imagine just saying, "Here are the keys to the lab, don't blow anything up," although they almost did. And they were called, by the way, the Suicide Squad, because of all the explosions that were going off on campus, and finally von Karman had to say, "Enough's enough, you folks have got to move up where it's a little deserted, and that's how JPL came to be where it is.

Narrator: Later on, von Karman and, by extension, the work of all the rocketeers, was honored by President John Kennedy.

President Kennedy over music background:
It is hard to visualize what the world would be like without aircraft and jet propulsion. Without the vision we have just entering the realm of reality of exploring space. I'm especially glad to present this first National Medal of Science to one of the pioneers who has helped make all of this new and exciting age possible.
Applause fades.

Baggett: Von Karman was important not only in terms of what happened with the founding of JPL, but really went on to be a major figure advising the Pentagon in the Cold War period.

Narrator: And you alluded to this, that Frank Malina, again the focus of "The American Rocketeer," he was a little conflicted because he was sort of a pacifist, and his technologies as they evolved ended up being used for not so peaceful purposes.

Baggett: Malina saw what was happening in Germany and realized the Nazi machine had to be stopped. And he chose to help build a weapon system that actually was never deployed during his time, but to work on it because he saw it as the far larger threat. But as soon as the war was over he was done, he wanted nothing more with building weapon systems. He chose, like very few others, to turn a whole other direction and work for peace, working for the United Nations. Also I think what's interesting that happens in the midst of the war is that he ends up in a situation of where his personal life is crumbling, that his wife leaves. He finds out that the FBI has been looking into his past way back in the thirties when handing out a few pamphlets maybe or going to a couple of meetings of the Communist party would get you in huge, huge trouble, and that's what happened to him.

Narrator: Fast forwarding to where we are now at JPL, it's kind of amazing to think of all that has happened since then in the 75 years.

Baggett: It is, I think not only that it's been 75 years. As I've been thinking about it more recently, that JPL is actually an accident of history, that it just happens to be here up against the San Gabriel beautiful mountains because of this experiment that happened 75 years ago. And that these characters were interested in reaching for space, and what happened? This has become the place, the premiere center in all of the world for exploring the solar system and beyond.

Narrator: And locally, there is a free public screening of "The American Rocketeer"at Caltech's Beckman auditorium on October 25th at 8 p.m. And the program will also air on KCET Los Angeles on November 3, part of a three-part series of documentaries-all produced by Blaine Baggett-called "The Beginnings of the Space Age." More information is online at www.jpl.nasa.gov/rocketeer . Thanks for joining us for this JPL podcast.