It all makes, as MacDonald concedes, “a messy history”, and Escape from Earth is necessarily quite a messy book, caught between what he calls two “contrasting realities”. On the one hand, “campus fronts… really did provide cover for Soviet espionage networks in the service of Stalin’s militarised expansionism”, while on the other the “forces of anti-communism, often animated by racism and anti-Semitism… ruined countless lives”.
MacDonald, an academic historian, has drawn on copious archival material and uncovered a tangled, fascinating story that is a mixture of science, politics and soap opera. Malina himself comes across as somewhat colourless, devoted to his work and social causes, unable to understand why his wife was so unhappy despite his success. Even after they split up, he still sent her his laundry. A more vivid personality is Malina’s collaborator Jack Parsons, a man who described himself in a poem as living ‘on Peyote/marihuana, morphine and cocaine’. In 1941, seeing workmen in Pasadena tarring a roof with asphalt, Parsons had the brainwave of using it as rocket fuel. Malina refined the idea, coming up with the two-part ‘hypergolic’ system still in use. With the older Theodore von Kármán, a distinguished theoretician who rated himself just below Newton and Einstein, they were instrumental in a series of research projects that prompted the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It would eventually contribute to NASA space missions such as the Mariner probes to the solar system’s inner planets and the Voyager missions to the outer ones. Kármán and Malina were the JPL’s first directors, while the unreliable Parsons was safely squeezed out.
In Escape from Earth, Fraser MacDonald, who teaches historical geography at Edinburgh University, has raised a crucially influential American pioneer rocketeer from obscurity to the recognition he deserves. Frank J. Malina, born in Brenham, Texas in 1912, of Czechoslovakian immigrant parents, developed a rocket that was propelled at five times the speed of sound up to 224 miles in altitude, on which even more powerful, longer-range rockets were founded.