Transcript:

Narration: Since Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been a pioneer in America's space age. Its robotic spacecraft and rovers have explored the solar system from Mercury to Neptune, and looked out into the universe beyond anything seen before. The beginnings of JPL can be found right on its doorstep, just north of the Pasadena Rose Bowl. Gay Yee Hill : …in this dry riverbed called the Arroyo Seco. Turn back time 70 years to Halloween 1936. That's when a group from Caltech and their friends came out here to test an idea –a tiny rocket motor that would eventually evolve into the tools of spaceflight. Narration: They were an odd mix. Caltech student Frank Malina, who later became the first director of JPL, was interested in aerodynamics. Jack Parsons was a chemist. His buddy, Ed Foreman, was a talented machinist. Rudolph Schott and Caltech's Apollo Smith also helped, as Malina described in this 1968 interview. Voice of Frank Malina Recorded in 1968: The first test was made on the 31st of October in 1936. We had no money except our own pocket money, so we went around looking for second hand stuff all over the area. Narration: The group had the backing of famed professor Theodore von Karman of Caltech's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, but most everyone else scoffed at rocketeers. Erik Conway : People associated rockets in these days with we would consider bad science fiction films now. Erik Conway: They tried three times to fire the thing and the fuse they were using, just split powder fuse, just kept blowing out, so nothing happened. On the 4th try, they ignited the motor and the oxygen line came off, whipped around, started shooting fire, and they all ran away. Narration: The first day was a bust, but in this letter to his parents in Texas, Malina called it a success. Erik Conway: He considered it a success anyway, simply because they learned a number of things not to do. Narration: Tests in November 1936 proved to be little better, except perhaps to produce this now classic photo. Narration: Malina believed rockets could be the ticket to the high altitudes he needed for science research. Frank Malina: No one knew how to build a rocket motor, either liquid or solid, really that was very effective or very satisfactory. So it meant that actually the people, those of us here were really thrown upon our own resources. Narration: Finally on January 16th 1937 – success. Erik Conway: The white smoke you're seeing coming up is the motor running. Narration: The motor fired long enough to heat its metal nozzle red. Frank Malina: The work of the group all these years put rocket propulsion and rocket flight on a real sound scientific and technical basis. Narration: From those early days in the arroyo-- to military work--to space exploration. A wild experiment 70 years ago set the tone for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a place where extraordinary ideas become reality.
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