By Matthew H. Hersch
The motley assortment of graduate students and amateur rocket enthusiasts looked like it came straight out of central casting: Texas-born mechanical engineer and socialist Frank Malina, imaginative Chinese émigré Hsue-Shen Tsien, enterprising undergraduate Apollo Smith, self-taught chemist and occult enthusiast Jack Parsons, along with his childhood friend and protector Edward Forman, among others. Their obsession was space travel, and particularly the liquid-fuel rocket, which Robert Goddard had invented only ten years earlier.
After the first members of the group were chased out of the laboratories of the California Institute of Technology when their rocket experiments became too explosive, they found slightly more success, and even more explosions, in a remote patch of the San Gabriel Mountains, where they tested a small rocket motor on Halloween, 1936. The men called themselves the “Suicide Club,” but Malina’s faculty advisor, leading aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, suggested they find a different name. Eighty-one years ago, the institution now known as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory formed out of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech. Incorporated into NASA in 1958, JPL continues to do pioneering work in space exploration, which wouldn’t have surprised Frank Malina at all.
Matthew H. Hersch is an Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.