‘Perched above the Earth as an Observer of the Whole’: Frank J. Malina and the Politics of Jet Propulsion

Speaker: Fraser MacDonald # University of Edinburgh

6th Feb 2017

15:30 - 17:00

Staff room, 6th floor, Chrystal Macmillan Building


This paper explores the life and work of rocket engineer Frank J. Malina (1912-1981) to reflect on the relationship between ascendance and transcendence, as well as the co-constitution of scientific and political authority, in mid-twentieth century engineering. The Caltech propulsion research of Frank Malina and Theodore von Kármán led to the first successful US rocket programme and to their founding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the celebrated NASA facility for autonomous interplanetary exploration. Today, Malina is not well known, despite his singular contribution as the architect of the first object to reach into extra-terrestrial space: the WAC Corporal rocket. Two factors partially explain Malina’s relative obscurity: an FBI campaign gripped by concerns about his Communist Party membership; and his abandonment of practical astronautics, in protest against its weaponisation, to work initially at UNESCO, and, later, as a pioneer of kinetic art. I consider a specific period in the biography of Malina – his transition from rocketry to diplomacy – to open up wider questions about relationship between science and politics at the cusp of orbital access. The paper sits as part of a narrative book project on the history of early American space exploration, in which relations between science, politics and intimacy are foregrounded. Drawing on an unseen cache of letters between Frank and his wife Liljan, then in the midst of divorce, I draw correspondences between his failed proposal for the first US satellite and his leftist vision of ‘one world’ government. These diverse pursuits are united by his bid for ‘objectivity’ at all costs.