The Surprising Origins of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

A Halloween experiment more than 80 years ago became the beginning of JPL, which has helped America lead the way in space exploration.

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It was Halloween 1936 in the wilds of the Arroyo Seco, beneath the towering San Gabriel Mountains. Seven young men — Jack Parsons, Ed Forman, Frank Malina, A.O. Smith, William Bollay, Carlos Woods and William Rockefeller — were up to no good, testing a homemade rocket motor of their own design.

Top Image: From left to right: Rudolph Schott, Apollo Milton Olin Smith, Frank Malina, Ed Forman and Jack Parsons at First Rocket Motor Firing at JPL in 1936. | Flickr/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
From left to right: Rudolph Schott, Apollo Milton Olin Smith, Frank Malina, Ed Forman and Jack Parsons at First Rocket Motor Firing at JPL in 1936. | Flickr/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“On the last attempt,” a JPL history attests, “they accidentally set fire to their oxygen line, which whipped around shooting fire!”Although the tests failed, the day would be remembered in history. A photographer was there, capturing the “rocket boys’” every experimental move, cementing their image as the bad boys of space exploration.

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Today, the legendary Jet Propulsion Laboratory considers this All Hallows’ Eve its “Nativity Scene,” the DIY beginnings of a national research facility that has helped America lead the way in space exploration for decades.

Then: JPL entrance in 1957. Since then, the official lab sign has been moved south.
Then: JPL entrance in 1957. Since then, the official lab sign has been moved south. | NASA/JPL-Caltech
Now: JPL entrance in 2016.
Now: JPL entrance in 2016. | NASA/JPL-Caltech

In reality, that Halloween in the Arroyo Seco was just another day for the three main “rocket boys,” who had grown up obsessed with the new genre of science fiction, like Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon.”  Art and music lover Frank Malina, a graduate student in aerodynamics at Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, was the theoretician and mathematician of the group. Mechanic and machinist Ed Forman who, according to historian M.G. Lord, “could cobble together almost any device out of junkyard finds.”

And then there was Ed Forman’s best friend from high school, Marvel “Jack” Whiteside Parsons, a self-taught theoretician and chemist who was a whiz at mixing rocket fuels. Since high school, Forman and the handsome, charismatic Parsons, who Malina claimed “lacked the discipline of formal training, [but] had an uninhibited fruitful imagination,” had been experimenting with rockets in their backyards.”It was our desire and intent,” Forman said, “to develop the ability to rocket to the moon.”

According to John Carter, author of “Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons,” Malina (who had met the high school chums at a Caltech lecture) introduced Parsons and Forman to Theodore von Kármán, the benevolent director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT). Von Kármán was captivated by the quirky trio, who called themselves “the group,” and their novel ideas on rocketry. He was particularly captivated by “delightful screwball” Parsons, who “loved to recite pagan poetry to the sky while stamping his feet.” Carter writes:

“The group decided that their first goal would be to develop a working motor. Stationary tests of motors, rather than launching test rockets, was the first priority …. Von Kármán persuaded GALCIT to lease three acres of land from the city of Pasadena in the area known as the Arroyo Seco, which exists in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, just above the dam called Devil’s Gate. The acreage was the site of the new group’s experiments. Today, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is situated there.”

Von Kármán instilled discipline in the group, forcing them to study scientific principles and theories. The boys also continued their experiments at Caltech, where they soon earned a new nickname — “the suicide squad.” Explosions caused by their tests of fuels and starters rocked the Caltech Campus, terrifying other academics going about their day.

Their attitude,” Malina wrote, “is symptomatic of the anxiety of pioneers of new technological developments. In order to obtain support for their dreams, they are under pressure to demonstrate them before they can be technically accomplished.”

With scant funding, the rocket boys found themselves the beneficiaries of largess from strange places.  “Weld Arnold,” Carter writes, “a meteorology student, contributed by presenting the group with $1,000 in small bills wrapped in a newspaper. No one dared ask where he got them. A small fund was opened at Caltech, and the money deposited.”

Then: JPL from above in 1950. | NASA/JPL-Caltech
Then: JPL from above in 1950. | NASA/JPL-Caltech
JPL from above in 2005.
Now: JPL from above in 2005. | NASA/JPL-Caltech

As the “suicide squad’s” experiments progressed, the danger increased. One time, Carter writes, “a piece of steel was hurled into the wall where Malina had been standing just minutes earlier. Fortunately, he had been called away by von Kármán’s secretary on some mundane matter concerning a typewriter. After this dangerous incident, back to the Arroyo the group went.”

By the late 1930s, Malina, Parsons and Forman’s experiments with rocketry had caught the attention of the national press. In April of 1938, the Associated Press reported:

“Frank J. Molina [sic] and three student-scientists are working on a motor from which they hope to develop another which will take a rocket nearly 100 miles above the Earth’s surface. They see it carrying instruments to obtain data useful in weather forecasting, records on cosmic radiation, facts valuable to astronomers and information for other scientific purposes. This motor, set up at the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics, California Institute of Technology, is a combustion chamber which mixes and burns gaseous oxygen and ethelene [sic] at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature about half that of the sun.”

On April 18, 1939, a proposal was finally submitted to the Board of Directors at Caltech to formalize the group’s position. Entitled a “Proposal for a Jet Propulsion Experimental Station at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology,” it was most likely submitted by Malina or Von Kármán, who believed $80,000 would be the best initial budget.

NASA’s Deep Space Network Space Flight Operations Facility in 1964.
Then: NASA’s Deep Space Network Space Flight Operations Facility in 1964.| NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Deep Space Network Space Flight Operations Facility in 2016.
Now: NASA’s Deep Space Network Space Flight Operations Facility in 2016. | NASA/JPL-Caltech

The budget did not include construction at the new Arroyo Seco site (near the original site), so the group built its own makeshift campus with wood from the Arroyo. The group’s fame grew — and Parsons (often wearing a cool leather jacket) and Forman — young and easy on the eyes- — became media favorites. They were cast as rebellious risk-takers, dreaming an impossible dream.

“If a rocket could be shot that high, it could carry recording instruments which would gather information of the greatest importance,” Popular Science reported in 1940. “A rocket to the moon. Men still dream of that. But science deals with facts. Still, the dream is perhaps a little bit nearer realization.”

As it became clear that America would eventually enter into WWII, the group’s work became much more interesting to the U.S. government. In 1941, the National Academy of Science doubled its annual budget. According to the official JPL website:

“The first substantial influx of money came from the United States Army Air Corps. The U.S. had not yet entered World War II, but the military wanted small rockets that could lift heavy aircraft off the ground. In August 1941, Frank Malina — one of the original “rocket boys” — headed a group that equipped an Ercoupe plane with rockets. The modified Ercoupe lifted off in half the normal distance. This method was named ‘Jet Assisted Take-Off,’ and the rockets were called JATOs.”

America’s official entry into the war would send GALCIT into the stratosphere. According to Carter, by 1943, GALCIT had around 80 employees. Its budget had ballooned to $650,000. In 1944, 14 years before the formation of NASA, GALCIT was renamed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (a name coined by von Kármán, Malina and Hsue-Shen Tsien). Malina was named director. That same year, JPL started to develop guided missiles (the Corporal). According to a JPL history:

“JPL’s first completely successful test was achieved with the WAC Corporal, launched Oct. 11, 1945. The rocket reached an altitude of 70 kilometers (almost 44 miles), a record at the time. The Corporal missile system JPL developed for the Army used liquid fuels. Launching a Corporal was quite an event. The fuel, the missiles, the launch equipment and the guidance equipment had to be transported separately. This made for convoys with dozens of trucks. The launch itself took lots of people and many hours of preparation.”

JPL, which now employees around 6,000 people, would eventually become part of NASA and develop technologies that would help America win the Cold War, the arms race and the race to the moon. And what of the three daredevil men who — along with Von Kármán — had started it all?

The science steering group for a mission then-known as Mariner Jupiter Saturn 1977 -- later renamed Voyager -- at JPL for the first time on the steps in front of the administration building 1972.
Then: The science steering group for a mission then-known as Mariner Jupiter Saturn 1977 — later renamed Voyager — at JPL for the first time on the steps in front of the administration building 1972. NASA/JPL-Caltech
The first face-to-face science team meeting of NASA’s mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa in the same spot in 2016.
Now: The first face-to-face science team meeting of NASA’s mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa in the same spot in 2016. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Troubled by the increasing use of rockets for weapons systems, Malina would leave America for France in 1947, where he would join the United Nations and found the research journal Leonardo. Forman would eventually go to work for Lockheed, contributing to both the Poseidon and Polaris sea-launched missile program.

And then there was Parsons, whose infamy looms so large that Carter jokes JPL actually stands for “Jack Parsons’ Laboratory” or even “Jack Parsons Lives.” Parsons, a fervent student of occultist Aleister Crowley, would become the legendary leader of the California branch of the sex-magick sect Ordo Templi Orientis. In 1952, he died at his Pasadena home laboratory in a mysterious explosion, a rocket boy to the very end.