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  Frank Malina banner

JPL Director, 1944 - 1946   

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 master’s degrees in mechanical and aeronautical engineering at Caltech before beginning his Ph.D. work on rocket propulsion. In 1936, with help from Caltech professor Theodore von Kármán, Malina formed the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (known as GALCIT) 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 “JATO,” for “Jet Assisted Take-off.” 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 in the midst of 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. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s California office persecuted him throughout World War II as well, believing that he had been an active Communist Party member and had failed to mention it on a security questionnaire.

In 1947, unhappy with both his political persecution and with the fact that his rocket work for the Army was increasingly being tied to nuclear weapons, Malina resigned from JPL and moved to France. The biologist Julian Huxley offered him a position with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris (UNESCO). In 1953, still pursued by the FBI, and by now very wealthy from his Aerojet General stock holdings, he quit and became a kinetic artist. He returned only partly to rocketry in the late 1950s, helping to found the International Academy of Astronautics. He died in Paris in 1981.

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