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Frank Malina: Texas Rocket Grandmaster

It’s wonderful to have my friend Al Jackson back at the top of the site with a look at the career and times of JPL’s Frank Malina. Al’s service in the Apollo program came as astronaut trainer on the Lunar Module Simulator; he then spent 40 more years at Johnson Space Center, mostly for Lockheed working the Shuttle and ISS programs. His doctorate was in 1975 from the University of Texas at Austin. The author of numerous scientific papers on interstellar concepts, Al is a fixture at deep space conferences and a continuing source of inspiration on matters scientific as well as science fictional. Today Al gives us an overview of a man who played a key role in the sounding rocket era following World War II, as the infant Jet Propulsion Laboratory began its rich history of exploration and technical development.

by Al Jackson


I travel from Houston to Austin by Highway 290 fairly often, and sometimes I stop at Brenham, Texas for lunch. I skip the fast food joints on 290 and go downtown. It is a beautiful small town with a charming old downtown (founded in 1844). Only recently have I become aware that a native Texan from Brenham fulfilled a dream started by Robert Goddard, in fact doing in 10 months what Goddard had for twenty years tried to accomplish. Even more than that, he was co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL, and co-founder of Aerojet General. By 1945 he had eclipsed Goddard as the most important American rocket scientist. He was a consummate researcher in the theoretical engineering of rocketry and a master manager of several rocket and rocket vehicle projects for the U.S. Army. So who was the Texas pioneer ‘Wernher von Braun’? Dr. Frank J Malina from Brenham, Texas.

Malina was the originator and leader of a project whose anniversary is today, June 12. It is the 70th anniversary of the last launch of a Wac-Corporal sounding rocket at White Sands. We tend to forget that Robert Goddard had a solid scientific use for his development of rockets — to explore the Earth’s upper atmosphere. We all love Goddard for his inventiveness in rocket hardware and his stubborn individualism, and given time he may have realized his sounding rocket dream. However, while he struggled in the New Mexico desert in 1936, Frank Malina, still a graduate student at Caltech, had put on the wall of his office a chart of how a successful sounding rocket project might be accomplished. Unlike Goddard, he recognized the need for a team and a choice of team captains.

Malina’s dream was interrupted by World War II. Along with his mentor Theodore von Kármán (the great 20th century aerodynamicist), he directed the development of the Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) rockets for use by the Army Air Force. This work for the U.S. Army led to the formation of JPL, and Malina became its first director. There is a straight line heritage from the solid rocket JATO motors to the intercontinental missiles in the American defense arsenal and even up to the Space Shuttle booster motors. His involvement in this project alone is enough to have made him a famous rocketeer.


Image: Dr. Theodore von Kármán (black coat) sketches out a plan on the wing of an airplane as his JATO engineering team looks on. From left to right: Dr. Clark B. Millikan, Dr. Martin Summerfield, Dr. Theodore von Kármán, Dr. Frank J. Malina and pilot, Capt. Homer Boushey. Captain Boushey would become the first American to pilot an airplane that used JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) solid propellant rockets. Credit: NASA/JPL.

In 1944 Dr. Malina was sent to England and France to inspect salvaged V2s and V1 launch sites. Returning by plane over the Atlantic, he decided to ask the Army ordnance department to fund his cherished goal of building and launching a vehicle to sound the upper atmosphere in regions that could not be reached by balloons. This was December of 1944. From designs by H.S. Tsien and Malina, he and Homer Stewart submitted and got approval on a proposal to launch a sounding rocket with a 25 lb payload to 100,000 ft.

There had already been a program started at the newly founded JPL to build military rockets. Malina organized a team to use components developed from this program. It is amazing that the von Kármán-Malina program at JPL during WWII accomplished, on a smaller scale, almost the same technical objectives as von Braun’s huge V2 project. A viable liquid rocket motor using nitric acid and aniline with 1500 lbs of thrust was developed, as was the Private-series of missiles. The main difference being the V2’s much larger rocket motor and especially the guidance system, which was still being researched at JPL by the end of the war.

Once the project was approved, Malina and his JPL crew turned over several ideas for the sounding rocket. It turned out that the solid rocket motors would be too heavy for the flight. They needed a long burn light weight rocket. So a liquid motor powered vehicle boosted quickly to a high speed was designed. They needed the initial boost in order to gain a sufficient amount of stability from the vehicle fins since they had yet to developed an active onboard guidance system. The booster system used some of the solid rocket technology in the JATO units that JPL had already fashioned. The booster and 2nd stage liquid rocket were to be launched using a 60 ft tower.

In July of 1945 the flight characteristics of the booster were tested with a 1/5 scale model at Goldstone Lake, California. The tests showed the viability of the solid booster system and a three fin stabilization system rather than four fins favored by ordnance experts. One wonders: Did any copies of this ‘baby Wac Corporal’ survive to the present?

Nine months after Malina had proposed it the vehicles were taken to the new facility at White Sands Proving Grounds, New Mexico.

Four rounds of the booster called Tiny Tim were launched off the tower. Two dummy rounds of the WAC were boosted and then two with only partially filled fuel tanks were flown to get experience with the radar tracking.

These must have been counted as rounds 1 through 4 because on October 11, 1945 a fully loaded round 5 was made ready. The 16 foot long 1 foot in diameter rocket stood flight ready. It weighed 665 lbs and would be boosted by 50,000 lbs of thrust before the 1500 lb thrust liquid motor took over. In Malina’s words the flight went like this:

“11 October 1945 became our great day for the first flight of the WAC (round 5) fully charged with propellant. It was a clear day. We craned our necks to watch the WAC’s smoke trail until the engine stopped at around 80,000 ft. On the basis of radar tracking data for the 6th round of the WAC, it was estimated that the maximum altitude reached was between 230,000 and 240,000 ft. The total time of flight was about 450 sec. or 7.5 min. the velocity of the WAC at the end of the burning was about 3,100 ft per sec. The impact point of the first round was around 3,500 ft. from the launcher, which meant that the WAC had maintained a very satisfactory vertical path. Success!”


Image: Project director Frank J. Malina (a former JPL Director) poses with the fifth WAC Corporal at the White Sands Missile Range. The solid-propellant booster is not shown. Credit: NASA/JPL.

That 43 mile flight was a world record, for even the more advanced V2 had not been launched to such an altitude yet. It was an amazing achievement. In 10 months, Malina and his crew had designed and built the sounding rocket Goddard had dreamed of and made such a contribution to. Soon there followed the captured V2 flights from New Mexico and other sounding rocket programs.

Malina headed a large team of people working together just as von Braun had run a much larger team in Germany (Malina and von Braun were almost the same age). Malina remarked:

“The large number of people involved in this (WAC Corporal) program indicates why the dreams of individuals and small groups of rocket enthusiasts in the 1920’s and 1930’s to design, construct and test a high altitude sounding rocket had little chance of success. Fortunately, most pioneers do not foresee all of the practical implications of their dreams. No doubt if they were able to do so, few new wild ideas will ever be tried.”

It is good to remember a fellow Texan, Dr. Frank Malina, a man not as well-known as Dr. Goddard, or Dr. von Braun, but a rocketeer who had profound and lasting impact on the American development of rocket vehicles, astronautics and spaceflight.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley June 12, 2017, 16:45

    Going through my library I could barely find a mention of Malina. A man who apparently stayed very much in the background.

  • Greg Matloff June 13, 2017, 6:47

    Dear Al

    As always, it’s nice to spend time with you at the Citytech Interstellar Workshop. Both C and I are amazed at your knowledge of astronautical history. It is great to see some of this knowledge in this blog piece. See you later.

    Regards, Greg

  • J. Jason Wentworth June 13, 2017, 7:15

    Thank you both for bringing this commemoration to our attention! Frank Malina (I’m almost 100% certain it was he, due to the context) apparently actually visited the Goddards at their Roswell test facility in 1936, hoping to work with them. Arthur C. Clarke recorded in “The Promise of Space” that, “The Goddards, he says, received him cordially, but never once were the dust sheets removed from the large, torpedo-shaped object that lay in full view of his vainly goggling eyes.” Dr. Malina’s decision to use only three fins on the WAC Corporal (on its Tiny Tim booster as well as its liquid propellant sustainer) had a humorous outcome:

    G. Harry Stine mentioned in his “Handbook of Model Rocketry” that, “Before that, all rockets and bombs had four fins. Some aerodynamic experts didn’t believe that the three-finned WAC Corporal rocket would be stable in flight. Dr. Frank Malina, the rocket’s designer, quietly pointed out that arrows with three fletching feathers had been flying in a stable fashion for centuries. Often, it pays to bridge the apparent gulf between two seemingly unrelated fields of human endeavor.” The WAC Corporal, incidentally, has always been a favorite scale model rocket kit (see: http://www.google.com/#q=WAC+Corporal+model+rocket ).

    Also, Al, many other rocketry and space flight historians would also like to know if any of the 1/5 scale “Baby WAC Corporal” test vehicles were left over from the test program! There was also an even more obscure “WAC B,” an improved WAC Corporal with a lighter-weight sustainer engine and fitted with an ogive nose in place of the original WAC Corporal’s conical nose. One WAC B flew above 50 miles (the old “border of space”; the later Project Bumper [V-2/WAC Corporal combination] first reached true space–a peak altitude of 244 miles–on February 24, 1949). An enlarged successor to the WAC Corporal, the Aerobee, flew hundreds of times from 1947 to 1985.

    Frank Malina was probably the quietest of all of the rocket pioneers (in contrast, his JPL colleague Jack Parsons–who invented the modern composite propellant solid rocket–was an Aleister Crowley-like occultist, who invoked the god Pan before static firings!); after leaving JPL Malina became an artist, and he worked with equal dedication to that field until the end of his days. He had once been a member of the Communist Party, which might be part of why he lived quietly (to avoid attracting attention) and why he is relatively little-known today.

    • ljk June 13, 2017, 9:55

      This article on Malina from IEEE Spectrum goes into detail on some of the history and issues about the man you brought up:


      • J. Jason Wentworth June 13, 2017, 23:07

        Thank you–this is one of the better articles I’ve read about Frank Malina (and Jack Parsons, too). While Malina’s flirtation with Communism was, viewed in hindsight, a naive thing, I don’t condemn him or most others who were attracted to it during the Depression era, because it offered a hopeful alternative to the world as it was then; also, in those days the Soviets were very effective at hiding the realities of their system.

        Like the British geneticist and science popularizer J.B.S. Haldane and many other intellectuals of the Depression era, Malina was attracted by the ^ideals^ of Communism; he was *not* in favor of the horrors that its implementation actually wrought, and like Haldane and many others, Malina was disillusioned and condemned the Soviet Union once its real nature became known. This “hoodwinking” wasn’t limited to academicians, either:

        Two friends of my father were also affected similarly. One–against my father’s advice–went to the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s as part of a foreign workers jobs program, and as my father feared would happen, he was never heard from again. The other smuggled weapons for Fidel Castro in the 1950s (and even had a large photograph of Castro on a wall in his home), believing him to be “the George Washington of the Caribbean,” as many called him before he took over Cuba. My father warned his friend, “One day I think you’re going to be sorry you helped Castro,” and this unfortunately turned out to be the case.

  • ljk June 14, 2017, 9:48

    A lot of people, including and especially intellectuals, fell for the Soviet propaganda machine that made the USSR look like a “Worker’s Paradise” and their leader Joseph Stalin to be essentially a nice guy. Yeah, Old Joe ended up murdering more of his own people than Hitler did during World War 2, roughly 35 million, though the actual number we may never know, to say nothing of what he did to the millions more who were not killed outright.

    • J. Jason Wentworth June 14, 2017, 18:39

      Indeed–and the Nazis were similarly successful in making their system look modern, advanced, and wonderful in the 1930s–many a member of the German-American Bund was also disillusioned just a few years later. But ironically:

      It was Soviet propaganda–combined with U.S. secrecy to avoid revealing how much we really knew (and the extent of and sources of that intelligence)–that was responsible for the rapid advance of U.S. missile and space technology in the first decade of the space age. Sputniks 1, 2, and 3 demonstrated the existence of the U.S.S.R.’s first ICBM, but they did not portend a “missile gap.” The Eisenhower Administration, however, could not reveal this without also tipping off the Soviets that we knew a great deal about the true scale of their ICBM program (which would have resulted in those “intelligence leakage holes” being promptly “plugged” by the Soviets).

      • Alex Tolley June 14, 2017, 22:54

        Wasn’t it Eisenhower who warned about the Military-Industrial Complex? Wouldn’t allowing a general belief in the “Missile Gap” support the growth of the MIC in this area?

        • J. Jason Wentworth June 15, 2017, 10:52

          Yes, he did. John F. Kennedy also used the supposed “Missile Gap” to help him garner enough support to win the 1960 election. Eisenhower knew that there was no real gap, but he–and Nixon, his hoped-for successor–couldn’t answer JFK’s charge that they had “let the U.S. fall behind in missile and space development” without compromising (and thus losing) all of their on-the-ground intelligence sources in the U.S.S.R. It was a frustrating situation for them. Also, the American people reacted more strongly to the Sputniks–with not only fear (due to the hefty ICBM capability that they implied), but also embarrassment (at having lost “first place in space” to a country they thought was technologically backward)–than the Eisenhower administration had expected.

      • ljk June 15, 2017, 8:58

        You may find this recent article of great and relevant interest:


  • J. Jason Wentworth June 15, 2017, 11:01

    Indeed I do–thank you! I vaguely recalled there having been a German equivalent of “Tokyo Rose,” but other than his (or her–I didn’t even know the person’s sex) existence, I knew nothing about who the person was or why s/he chose to betray the U.S. (The British Mitford [Mittford?] sisters became the girlfriends of Hitler [that was Unity Mitford] and Mussolini–Dennis Rodman is best buds with Kim Jong Un [he just left to visit Kim again a few days ago], so he’s “continuing the tradition,” so to speak… :-) )