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.