The Rocket Scientist Who Had to Elude the FBI Before He Could Escape Earth

Frank Malina's Scientific Dreams Were as Radical as His Politics

The phone rang. The caller didn’t identify herself; she just began speaking. At first Liljan Malina was too busy trying to absorb the information to recognize the voice. Then it clicked: this was Katja Liepmann. She could tell from the German accent. Not a close friend—their husbands had worked together at Caltech—but she knew Katja understood political danger. Katja had twice fled from the Nazis. And, yes, it was definitely Katja who was saying that the FBI were on their way to the Malinas’ house, that they’d be there within the hour.

Liljan snapped into alertness. It was a scenario she and her husband Frank had feared; they’d half planned for it, though neither of them quite expected it would happen like this. Katja, in a matter-of-fact tone, said that other homes were being raided even as they spoke, although she gave no clue as to how she knew that the Malinas were next. She calmly instructed Liljan to grab and destroy anything that might incriminate them.

After Liljan hung up she tried the office number at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. No answer. She started to panic. She ran through the house from room to room scanning for books, pamphlets, fliers, magazines. There didn’t seem to be much lying around, but then they’d both become a bit more careful recently. Earlier that year, in April 1945, Frank had told her about a long train journey during which he found himself chatting to another passenger who, it turned out, worked for the FBI. “His ideas were most discouraging,” Frank wrote; he “said he would like Southern California if there weren’t so many radical inhabitants.” The whole episode had seemed quite funny, inconsequential.

Liljan calmed herself down and remembered the spring clean that Frank had undertaken months before. He had burned a lot of material. What was left he had placed in two cartons, which were put out of the way in the attic. Sure enough, behind some old furniture, Liljan found the cartons. It took two trips to heave them to the car, racing up and down steps two at a time, after which she carefully locked the front door of their Pasadena house.

Liljan drove towards Los Angeles—in the 1940s it was still quite separate from Pasadena—and at a quiet stretch she pulled off the road to call a friend, Saki Dikran, from a payphone. Saki’s mother, Helen Blair, was part of the scene, and so was Helen’s partner, Jack Frankel, an attorney to a number of beleaguered leftists. He would soon be handling Liljan and Frank’s divorce. Liljan skirted LA and drove west, winding her way up to Saki’s Spanish-style villa in Laurel Canyon, high in the Hollywood Hills. It was a steep, narrow road with houses dug right into the hillside, all steps and walls and terraces. The place was tucked back from the road and nestled in greenery. On the horizon, Italian cypress trees pointed skywards. When the car pulled in to the house, Saki was standing in the driveway. Liljan motioned to the garage. Saki opened it without a word. Once inside, Liljan spilled out everything that had happened. Saki poured her a drink and in her usual quiet way said, “Well … we’ll simply burn the whole damned mess.” Together they collected a few leaves and twigs from the back yard and started a fire that would consume, page by page, the contents of the two cartons, until nothing but white ash remained.

Early that evening, Liljan returned to Pasadena feeling as though she had disposed of a body. It was dark by the time she got back, and she was concerned to the see the house bright against the evening sky, a light on in every room. She found Frank in his study. The posture of his slight frame was tense, his face pale and angry.

They had interrogated him in his office. Books, paper and files were strewn about the floor. It was the same in Liljan’s studio, and in their bedroom. Frank’s only crumb of comfort was that it was Liljan, not the FBI, who had removed the two cartons from the attic.

The institutions Frank Malina founded have been crucial to human achievements in space for over 70 years.

You might not have recognized his name, but Frank J. Malina is among the most important figures in 20th-century science. His life is central to the bigger story of how humans first reached beyond the boundary of Earth, yet it has been obscured by the politics of the mid-20th century. In part because of a decades-long campaign of surveillance and harassment, both Malina and the pioneering rocket he created have vanished from the pages of history.

Malina was the first US rocketeer to achieve the main purpose of rocketry—high-altitude flight. Of course, building such a complex system is never the work of just one individual, but Malina was the architect of America’s first successful liquid-propellant rocket, the WAC Corporal. The reclusive Clark University physicist Robert Goddard is known as an early pioneer with liquid fuel, but he never came close to the “extreme altitudes” that were his own stated aim. Malina’s WAC Corporal rocket owed no design debt to Goddard’s, and it soared 27 times higher. In collaboration with the self-taught chemist and occultist Jack Parsons and aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, Malina also helped develop solid-fuel rocketry, another mainstay of contemporary space flight. If we put aside the Nazi engineering team that built Hitler’s V-2 (many of whom became born-again Americans), it was Malina’s initiative and leadership that transformed early rocketry in the United States from fantasy to science.

Malina occasionally turns up as a bit-part player in other people’s histories—not least those of the charismatic Parsons. But he is weirdly absent from so many accounts of the Space Age. Take, for instance, Walter A. McDougall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. It is one of the most authoritative histories of space exploration and yet, across 500 pages, it has more references to Bob Dylan than to Frank Malina. This is very strange. The institutions Malina founded have been crucial to human achievements in space for over 70 years. His Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), for instance, is now a NASA research center with 6,000 employees that daily pushes back the frontiers of autonomous space exploration. Those amazing hi-res pictures of Martian terrain? Many are from JPL’s Curiosity rover; by 2020 a new JPL mission will assess the habitability of the red planet. It’s precisely because these institutional legacies are so enduring that our curiosity might usefully explore the secret struggles that were part of their genesis.

One of Frank Malina’s most important contributions was a paper he published in the Journal of Aeronautical Sciences with his colleague Martin Summerfield. “The Problem of Escape from the Earth by Rocket” detailed for the first time the mathematical criteria for “multi-staged rocketry,” a strategy by which a rocket achieves high altitude by dropping pieces once it has finished with them, so that it gets lighter as it ascends. Though the efficiency of rockets has since improved immeasurably, staged rocketry has remained the standard means of reaching orbit for over half a century.

But the problem of escape from Earth turned out to be as much political as mathematical. For Malina and Summerfield, it was the problem of how to make the rocket the bearer of hope rather than fear, and how their bid for the stars could be part of a progressive politics here on Earth. Closer to home, it was the problem of how to maintain a personal and professional life in the face of suspicion that reached the highest levels of America’s security apparatus.

Malina didn’t especially like to put a name on his politics. He thought of his views as being common sense, even “scientific.” During the early years of his work at Caltech, he campaigned against racial segregation and raised money for the republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Some called him a radical, a socialist and a communist. These labels aren’t wrong. Nevertheless, after years examining his private archive, it’s clear to me that the core of his politics was anti-fascist.

That was enough to put him in a difficult position.

As his rocket work became more successful in the interregnum between World War and Cold War, a refined version of his WAC Corporal was anointed as the Corporal missile, the first rocket authorized to carry a nuclear warhead. “Four battalions of Corporal missiles alone are equivalent in fire power to all the artillery used in World War II,” boasted President Eisenhower. The Corporal offered what US Secretary of Defence Charles Erwin Wilson memorably called “a bigger bang for the buck.” In other words, the rocket that Malina developed as a vessel for scientific exploration became the progenitor of contemporary weapons of mass destruction. He found himself making instruments of terror that were intended to destroy the very political movement he believed in.

Around the time that Malina’s WAC Corporal was soaring into the upper atmosphere, another group of rocketeers were settling into a new life in America. Wernher von Braun, Arthur Rudolph and Walter Dornberger had been the driving forces behind the V-2 that terrorised London and Antwerp in the final year of World War II. Their rocket wasn’t much of a killing machine: the 3,000 or so British victims can be contrasted with the 43,000 that died in the German Blitz four years earlier. The real horrors of the V-2 were located at the production sites rather than at the targets. An assembly line, latterly housed in deep tunnels of the Mittelwerk factory on the outskirts of Nordhausen, used prisoners from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, drawn from among Jews, Roma and Sinti, as well as French resistance fighters. Even the more conservative estimate puts the number of deaths at Mittelbau-Dora at around 20,000, of which about half can be attributed to V-2 production. Words cannot describe the suffering. Yet this was the reality of fascism. It’s what Malina and his friends were fighting while von Braun was trying not to notice the executions of enslaved prisoners who were deemed a threat to output or quality.

Wernher von Braun, whose smiling face would personify the Space Age to millions of Disney viewers, was not what you’d call a career Nazi. He was happy to work with whoever could propel his engineering ambitions, including the SS. Eventually, as the Third Reich disintegrated, he and his colleagues would seek a new sponsor. There was only one state that really fitted the bill. As another German engineer put it, “we despise the French; we are mortally afraid of the Soviets; we do not believe that the British can afford us, so that leaves the Americans.”

Under the auspices of “Operation Paperclip,” 1,600 German engineers, including von Braun, Dornberger and Rudolph, transferred to the United States, many with laundered war records. Wernher von Braun wasn’t the worst; he was not among the architects of Nazi death. But while the extent of his culpability for war crimes was never tested in court, survivor accounts indicate he wasn’t above dishing out a bit of his own personal brutality. When he got to America, he would still use anti-Semitic slurs for his military minder, Arno J. Mayer, later a Princeton historian. Even with all this political baggage, von Braun had nothing like the difficulty in the US that Frank Malina encountered. Then again, Hitler’s Boy Wonder had the advantage that he was a fervent anti-communist.

Perhaps this comparison of Malina and von Braun is a little too neat. Still, we lose a great deal if don’t attend to the Cold War political circumstances that have allowed von Braun’s story to prosper while the legacies of Frank Malina have been obscured.

Malina found himself making instruments of terror that were intended to destroy the very political movement he believed in.

Here’s one example. In 1958, when the United States launched its first satellite, a beaming Wernher von Braun was pictured at JPL holding aloft the successful Explorer 1. We might have expected Malina to share the limelight, not only as JPL’s founder, but as the proponent of an earlier satellite that the US chose not to fund. Then again, he received no plaudits when, back in February 1949, his WAC Corporal reached the record altitude of 244 miles as the second stage on top of a captured V-2—the so-called BUMPER WAC Corporal. Though it lasted just 390 seconds, that flight completed a voyage as remarkable in its own way as those of Columbus, Magellan and Cook. It was the first human object to reach into extraterrestrial space as it was then understood, and the first vehicle to achieve hypersonic flight (Mach 5).

“If those who publicize such matters had not been asleep in our country,” Malina later complained, then “a reasonable claim could have been made … that the Bumper WAC project opened up the Space Age well before the Sputnik.” But when Explorer 1 orbited the Earth, the US had rescinded Malina’s passport and FBI agents sat in a car outside his house. By the time their interest in him finally waned, humans would be walking on the moon.

This is the story of how Malina and a close circle of friends pursued two strains of 20th-century optimism: space flight and socialism. These were connected in remarkable ways, not least in that the purposes of both movements became corrupted, and many of their advocates were persecuted and forgotten. If this has been a largely hidden story, the responsibility for its concealment lies as much with the radical rocketeers as with the US space and security establishment. It has taken time for the truth to emerge from the fabric of finely woven secrets, accusations, denials and evasions.

At the dark heart of the Red Scare lay a straightforward question—”the question that we have for so long been worried about,” as Malina once put it. Malina avoided it where he could, but he could not escape it forever. In 1958, he faced it directly on Form DSP-11, which he was completing in the hope that the US might eventually return his passport. It was the question that made the full rights of citizenship dependent on one’s political thought being acceptable to the government—a question that negated any kind of achievement, no matter how far out of this world.

“Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Lest this question seem open, Form DSP-11 followed it up with a binary instruction: “(WRITE YES OR NO).”

Malina filled the box with his clear capitals: “NOT TO MY KNOWLEDGE.”

The evasion in these four words is at the core of Malina’s adult life, of how his life has been elided from the history of the 20th century, and of what, finally, we can know about our escape from Earth.


This excerpt has been adapted from Escape From Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket by Fraser MacDonald. Copyright © 2019. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Fraser MacDonald
Fraser MacDonald
Fraser MacDonald is a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches historical geography and the history of science. He has a regular by-line at The Guardian and has also written for Aeon Magazine, The Herald, The Age, The Australian, the LRB Books blog, among others publications.

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