Escape from Earth: A secret history of the space rocket

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Read 09/11/2019-24/11/2019

Rating 4 stars

Fraser MacDonald’s debut is a fascinating account of the birth of rocket science and space exploration. It’s a hidden history brought to light thanks to MacDonald’s interest in unlocking public records that governments have deemed secret.

This is a history of a group of people who came together in 1930s California, as Fascism was taking hold in Europe. Some were the children of immigrants, others were immigrants themselves, fleeing the persecution building across the Atlantic ocean. At the heart of the group is a scientist called Frank Malina. He was researching at the same time as Robert Oppenheimer, but he isn’t as well known as Oppenheimer, because he has been largely written out of the history of rocket science.

MacDonald admits that he didn’t originally have a particular interest in the development of rocket technology. His curiosity was awoken after field research for his doctorate took him to North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. An historical geographer, MacDonald’s research background is in Scottish lives and landscapes and how landscape can represent knowledge and technology. At Cleatrabhal, a hill on North Uist, stands some Cold War architecture. Unable to gain access to the site, MacDonald dug around in archive sources to find out why. The little that he found at the National Archives at Kew led him to Frank Malina, a significant pioneer of space flight technology and the founder of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Malina had been largely written out of the history of space exploration and MacDonald made it his mission to find out why Malina has been sidelined by history. This book is the result of his research.

I didn’t know that I was particularly interested in the history of rocket science until I heard MacDonald speak about his book at the Wigtown Book Festival back in September. We’d popped down to Wigtown for the day from our Ayrshire holiday base on what happened to be the first day of the festival. We bought tickets to the talk on the basis that tickets were available and the timing of the event fitted with our plans for the day. Serendipity is great. The talk was entertaining and fascinating, and at the end of it I queued up to buy a signed copy of the book, which isn’t really a thing that I do. MacDonald’s enthusiasm for his subject was infectious, though, and his research using primary archive sources naturally got my professional antennae twitching.

The book is an accessible and engaging mix of academic rigour and pacey storytelling. Each part of MacDonald’s narrative is referenced to a source. You can read it as an academic history, checking the endnotes for the evidence that MacDonald uses in telling this extraordinary story, or you can read it as a mystery tale that pitches Communists and Anti-Fascists against McCarthyism and the the immigrant Nazi engineers who brought Hitler’s V-2 technology to the US.

That boils things down to their absolute minimum. The story is full of romance, and includes an acolyte of the occultist Aleister Crowley, a group of left leaning scientists more concerned with defeating fascism and using rocket technology as a step towards peace, the literary courtship by Malina of the woman who became his first wife, and the Cold War paranoia of the House Committee on Un-American Activity (HUAC). It pitches idealism against the lust for power, and reinstates a lost protagonist to the story of the Space Race.

MacDonald is an excellent storyteller, knowing when to switch between a narrative that extrapolates from the evidence to hook the reader in and an analysis of the facts that helps to keep the narrative from running away with itself.

In terms of the story, Frank Malina arrived at Caltech from Texas in 1934 to study for a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He took a part time job in the pioneering wind tunnel there, and switched to a Master’s in aeronautical engineering. After a fellow student’s presentation on rocketry made the local newspaper, two amateur rocketeers who work in an explosives factory also made their way to Caltech. Malina ended up taking them on as assistants and from there the experiments into how to propel a rocket into space began. One of the assistants, Jack Parsons, was more interested in setting off explosions than in the painstaking research that Malina plotted out, and gradually Malina began to supplement his assistants’ access to explosives with theoretical expertise from other Caltech students. Malina understood the benefits of having a team of people across a range of skills to reach the goal of his research.

Along the way, the team experienced difficulties funding the equipment needed in the research, so Malina and Parsons decided to write a film script that married aeronautics with Marxism. The plan was for this film to make enough at the box office to cover the costs of the research. Unsurprisingly, the film was never made. MacDonald positions it less as genuine film treatment and more as tool to get onto paper the thoughts of what success might look like for Malina and his team.

The experiments to test the scientific theories did get made, and with them came the sobriquet ‘The Suicide Squad’. Reading about the disastrous bangs and smoking explosions, the spillages of toxic substances, the spectacular failures that helped to build knowledge and success, makes Malina’s Rocket Research Group come across like a gang of real life Doc Browns.

Eventually, the science started to go better and ground breaking work on solid and liquid fuels resulted in successful rocket propelled aircraft flights. The US military became interested, and provided funding for the research, creating a conflict for Malina between his Marxist idealism and his scientific pragmatism.

With the entry of the US into the Second World War, the military increased its funding for Malina’s team and their research. Malina was sent to London where he experienced the effect of the German V-2 rocket but, on examining the relatively intact remains of a V-2, realised that his own research was far in advance of the Germans’.

The end of the war brought the end of Malina’s first marriage. His hopes of refocusing the research of the JPL onto civilian uses for rocket technology were thwarted. The military, interested in the successful launch of a sounding rocket that is propelled almost 73km into the earth’s atmosphere, renegotiated its funding of the lab and insisted on the classification of all research carried out there. For someone like Malina, who believed that all research should be accessible and that research works best when it is collaborative, this was a difficult thing to reconcile.

The classification of Malina’s successful sounding rocket, the WAC Corporal, coincided with the well-publicised arrival of the former Nazi engineers who developed the V-2, making it hard for Malina and his team to make a name for themselves among other engineers. These other engineers were being trained in rocket technology by Wernher von Braun and his compatriots. As MacDonald succinctly puts it, “The V-2 cast such a shadow over everything that it was difficult for the WAC Corporal to be seen, far less celebrated.” He goes on, “For the home-grown pioneers of American rocketry who had spent their lives fighting fascism, the welcome given to the V-2 and its architects was sickening.” Malina, to his credit, ploughed on with the research at the JPL, developing with a colleague, Martin Summerfield, the theory for, and a detailed mathematical analysis of, multi-stage rocket technology. From here, Malina was the first to suggest that multi-stage rockets could be used to deliver communication satellites into orbit around Earth, and would be key to the implementation of inter-continental ballistic missiles. He was a true visionary.

Around the core story of the development of rocket technology, MacDonald wraps the story of Communist Party membership in the US between the two world wars and in the post-war denigration of left wing politics in the US. I found this really interesting in how support for Communism in some states of the US started to grow and why it eventually declined. The high proportion of Jewish refugees from the growing Fascism in Europe marks this particular Communism out as anti-fascist more than pro-socialist, although Socialism and the protection of workers’ rights through the Labour movement is another strand. MacDonald shows how the authorities feared this anti-capitalist ideology, giving the example of a special unit in the LAPD that infiltrated Communist Party cadres in order to disrupt their activism and create events that framed activists as criminals. Which is pretty FBI of them. Communism suffered a blow when Stalin made his pact with Hitler, suggesting that anti-fascism wasn’t a priority for certain Communists. Through all of this, Malina held onto his belief in Communism as a way of bringing peace to the world, alongside his faith in rocket technology doing the same.

Ultimately, though, it was Malina’s political beliefs that resulted in him being written out of the official history of rocket science. Key breakthroughs in theory, key pieces of analysis, key actions taken in moving the technology forward were deliberately attributed to other engineers, in particular Wernher von Braun. Those in charge at Caltech were suspicious of Malina and his fellow travellers in left wing ideology, and actively tried to expunge their contribution to the development of the technology that von Braun later took advantage of.

Malina ended up leaving JPL for a job with the newly established UNESCO. The aims of the organisation met his own in relation to scientific cooperation and the pursuit of world peace. He left America for France just as what became McCarthyism started to take hold and avoided having to appear in court. He was lucky. Many of the scientists with whom he’d worked and discussed socialist science as part of the Pasadena branch of the Communist Party were brought before the HUAC, charged with disloyalty to the USA and stripped of their military clearance, preventing them from carrying out any further research. One team member, H S Tsien, was deported back to China, taking his knowledge with him and kick-starting the Chinese rocket programme. Another scientist, Sidney Weinbaum, lost his liberty, his job and his home, while his wife Lina suffered a breakdown. The worst Malina suffered was the temporary loss of his passport. After his work with UNESCO, he went on to set up the International Academy of Astronautics, worked with Sir Bernard Lovell on a project to establish an international laboratory on the Moon before the Apollo programme made visiting the Moon a possibility, and advocated for arts-science through his artist-engineer artworks and in academic papers.

A more upsetting wrap around narrative is that of Jack Parsons’ involvement in the California branch of the cult headed up by Aleister Crowley. The misogyny and abuse that was rife between the practitioners at the Ordo Templi Orientis made for sober reading. It’s not the occult nature of the cult, which is as nonsensical a belief system as many others, but the shabby behaviour of the people involved in that particular faction of the cult that is the upsetting thing. Malina, seemingly bemused that Parsons and others of his acquaintance might be interested in the occult, treated it all as a nonsense. He didn’t get involved himself, but neither did he distance himself from Parsons or other friends who were involved. At least, not until something happened that impacted on the reputation of his project.

Throughout the book, Malina came across as a blinkered individual for whom his research was the most important thing. His work on developing rocket technology was more important than friendships, and even more important than his marriage. I felt for his first wife Liljan and understood her actions in response to what boils down to Malina’s neglect of her, and his attitude that she only mattered as a person in relation to him. He showed no interest in her whatsoever and was blind to the affairs she had, affairs that were the result of wanting a loving connection with someone who saw her for who she was. Malina was described by one of Liljan’s former lovers as a “typical old-fashioned male in his attitude towards women and his wife in particular.” A chauvinist, in other words. He was most definitely a product of his time, a man who believed his life’s work was the significant thing, something to be facilitated by a good woman at home who would take care of his needs in order to free up all of his attention to focus on his work. His attitude was at odds with his belief in a political ideology that claims to see all people as equal. The patriarchy was engrained in him. Unfortunately for him, Liljan’s belief in the same political ideology empowered her to break free of Malina’s personal embodiment of the patriarchy. As I read, I wondered what a male reader would make of this aspect of the story. Would a male reader feel sympathy for Malina in a way that I couldn’t? Because I didn’t feel sorry for him at all and was cheering Liljan on.

MacDonald’s recording of Malina’s nature, the horrors of the OTO, and the unlauded involvement of women like Liljan across both the scientific research and Malina’s political activities impressed me with its honesty. MacDonald doesn’t exaggerate for effect and the approach he has taken in his narrative feels genuinely balanced. He presents the facts that he has uncovered in archive sources without any hint of skew. It would have been tempting to present Malina, redacted as he has been from the official history, as some kind of hero. Instead he is revealed as flawed and human, as are the other people involved in the story.

I found it sad that a group of people who largely wanted to harness the power of science to do good for the world, and who became embroiled in the Cold War because the technology they were developing was easily militarised, were persecuted and demonised because their political beliefs didn’t fit with the all-pervading capitalist ideology that the US has chosen to pursue. Seeing the trajectory of the lives of these scientists put into perspective the state that the US is in now. McCarthyism made the current politics inevitable, it seems to me. By demonising left wing politics so thoroughly as Anti-American, it has left the US with nowhere else to go but further to the right. I’m not saying that any political ideology is perfect, but in the face of a politics that embraces an aggressive pursuit of wealth for the few, that also sets up wealth as the goal for the many and consequently renders the poor invisible and dehumanised, I’d say that socialism is preferable.

I really enjoyed this book and have already recommended it to friends and colleagues. You don’t need a scientific mind to read it. It’s a story about people, their creativity, their passions and their flaws. It makes the point that nobody is perfect, but through our imperfections and our willingness to work with others, we can do great things.

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