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  Frank Malina banner

JPL Director, 1944 - 1946   

Born October 2, 1912, in Brenham, Texas, Frank Malina was one of the United States' first rocket engineers. He graduated from Texas A&M University in 1934, then moved to the California Institute of Technology on a fellowship. He earned masters' degrees in mechanical and aeronautical engineering at Caltech before beginning his doctoral work on rocket propulsion. In 1936, with help from Caltech professor Theodore von Kármán, Malina formed the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory's Rocket Research Project. His research with this group led to his 1940 Ph.D. thesis on rocket propulsion theory. In 1940, Malina's group received its first funds from the U.S. Army Air Corps. They started construction of some research and testing facilities in the Arroyo Seco, and in 1944 the site was formally constituted as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

One of JPL's early successes for the Army was a technique named jet-assisted takeoff, or "jato." Malina, von Kármán and their colleagues decided to create a separate organization to manufacture these rockets, and founded the Aerojet General Engineering Corporation. JPL remained a research organization, and Malina became its director in December 1944. Late that same year, Malina and his associates carried out their first test launches with the Private A, an experimental unguided rocket. Malina's successor to Private was the Wac Corporal, which set an altitude record October 11, 1945. The Wac Corporal represented the fulfillment of the dream Malina and his associates had of reaching high altitudes back in the mid-1930s.

As a graduate student in the 1930s, Malina, like many other intellectuals at this time, believed that capitalism had essentially failed. The United States was experiencing the Great Depression, and similar severe and long-running economic problems had afflicted Europe as well. In a November 1936 letter, he told his parents that he hoped a "farmer-labor party with some power" would emerge by the next election. He seems to have attended a few meetings of a Communist party group in Pasadena in the late 1930s, but that group dissolved in 1939, apparently in disgust over the Soviet Union's non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. In 1942, believing that he might be a Communist spy, the FBI began an investigation and in 1946 raided his house. Finding no evidence, the agency continued surveillance of him well into the 1950s. It pressured a judge into granting a classified indictment and arrest warrant in 1952, only to have them rescinded in 1954. But Malina was long gone by then.

In 1945, Malina and William Pickering, a member of the Caltech faculty, had proposed to the Institute's Board of Directors that JPL set up an unclassified high-altitude scientific research group built around the Wac Corporal rocket—and been turned down. Deprived of scientific research as justification for the rocket work, and increasingly tired of weapons research, Malina resigned from JPL in 1947. The biologist Julian Huxley offered him a position with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. In 1953, by now independently wealthy from his Aerojet General stock holdings, he quit and became a kinetic artist. He helped found the International Academy of Astronautics in 1960, and founded the journal Leonardo in 1968. He died in Paris in 1981.

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