Escape from Earth

Was rocketry pioneer Frank Malina written out of some histories of space exploration for his political sins?


Everyone knows of the Nazi past of Wernher von Braun, yet he's still rightly treated as a father of the American space program. So why was fellow rocketry pioneer Frank Malina written out of some histories of space exploration for his political sins? In Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket, Fraser MacDonald tells the story of Malina, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an irreplaceable early theorist and experimenter in finding the right explosives in the right delivery mechanisms to send rockets into space.

MacDonald believes Malina has gotten short shrift because he had been a member of the Communist Party. In 1952, after his groundbreaking work in rocketry was completed, he was indicted for lying about that fact. Malina also became disenchanted with his own invention when he saw it become a delivery device for bombs first, a tool of scientific exploration second.

MacDonald believes the U.S. government had some justification for taking a close look at rocket scientists who had had Communist Party connections in that first Cold War decade, though there was no evidence Malina ever engaged in espionage against the United States. MacDonald also makes a good case that when anti-communist fears chased one of Malina's colleagues back to China, the result was the development of that nation's deadly Silkworm missiles. There's caution, and then there's self-defeating totalitarian paranoia.

NEXT: Brickbat: Pissed Off

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  1. Oh hey look, Reason carrying water for communists. What a gigantic mothafucking surprise.

    1. Oh look, another human who believes in ideological purity.

      Much better to reject even major accomplishments by people who turn out to be less than perfect, according to some righteous score card.

      1. Obligatory: The Saga of Jack Parsons

        If you are a Twin Peaks fan, also check out The Secret History of Twin Peaks, which has a lot of Jack Parsons stuff in it.

  2. Because communism is objectively worse than fascism and for an American rightly unforgivable.

  3. Communism is so bad that we must write it out of the history books, forget it exists, pretend it never happened, never speak of it. Just the same as we never speak of the Civil War or slavery or Hitler or the Holocaust. Some people may say that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it, but some of us prefer to repeat history so we’re actively erasing it.

    1. Even better, we need to erase things even incidentally related to those on the righteous black list.

      I understand that Hitler made some water color paintings, so we should ban that art medium, right?

      1. Gee Reason going to bat for a Grauniad author trying to rehabilitate an out and proud commie.

        Will wonders never cease.

      2. Yes. It’s gouache.

  4. In 1952 the competing ethical theories in These States were pietistic mystical altruism and Altrurian collectivism symbolized by National Socialist Germany and Soviet Russia. American politicians collated a patchwork of these to blot out Jeffersonian and Jacksonian individualism while maximizing honest graft. Philosophy professors were converging on an objective theory, but Ayn Rand beat them into print in 1957. For the non-cynical, force-initiating altruism was the only game in town. Voters today have a real choice–in a few places.

  5. And yet in academia and politics, its just the opposite. Given the history of the two ideologies, I’d rather punish association with the one which murdered 100M people, so too bad, Malina.

    The answer to this article’s question, however, is that there isn’t nearly enough information in this article to make any reasonable answer. About all one can say is that the Nazi threat had been defeated and the Communist threat was rising, so too bad, Malina.

  6. This seems perfectly reasonable: To be a Nazi while living IN Nazi Germany could be motivated by self defense or opportunism. It might also be principled evil, but that would have to be independently demonstrated.

    OTOH, to be a Communist in a free society, where there is no danger to not being a member, and no real advantage to membership, is incontrovertible proof that you are at least a moral idiot, and maybe a moral monster. There are no innocent or minor excuses for that choice, you have proven your self morally unfit beyond all rebuttal.

    1. When was he a communist? Did he join after the war, or during the Great Depression? After the war, no excuse. During the Great Depression, at least it was a plausible excuse, since almost all the news coming out was lies from the communists themselves, or lies from their useful idiots, like that stooge from the New York Times.

      1. Wikipedia says in grad school during the 1930’s, but he got in trouble in 1952 for failing to acknowledge it during a background check.

        From an interview with the author in Air&Space:

        “Do you think the FBI’s investigation of Malina was warranted?

        Actually, I do—though I didn’t at the beginning. I saw things rather differently by the end of the book. That doesn’t mean that the FBI investigation of Malina was fair—it often wasn’t—but he was a member of the communist party at a time when the party was routinely used as a front for intelligence operations. He must have known that being a communist working in classified defense research would attract some scrutiny.

        Did Malina feel a sense of loyalty to the United States?

        He was loyal. The complication is that he didn’t put much store by nationhood or sovereignty—his own or anyone else’s. Malina was internationalist to his core. The problem was that some of his colleagues thought this aversion to flag-waving meant that Malina might be a Soviet agent. Malina’s successor as director of JPL, Louis Dunn, made unfounded accusations of espionage, which sparked off a sprawling campaign against JPL’s left-leaning engineers.”

        I’d note that after the KGB archives were temporarily opened during the fall of the USSR, we learned that a lot of accusations of espionage that historians regard as unfounded were, in fact, quite true.

  7. >>

    MacDonald also makes a good case that when anti-communist fears chased one of Malina’s colleagues back to China, the result was the development of that nation’s deadly Silkworm missiles.

    That was the lesson of Superman, the first of the two Kirk Allyn Superman movie serials: that you’d better treat your scientists right, or they’ll sell their expertise to the Spider Lady for $1.

  8. Yeah, why let people judge for themselves? Much better to erase undesirable types from the history books, right?

    1. Erasing and not featuring are not equivalents.

      Or did the author not use any source materials?

      1. What’s the difference? Lying by omission is still lying.

        1. And who has “lied by omission”?

    2. And how exactly was he “erased”? His publications are still available. Malina is not very well known as a rocket scientist because he had a short career and didn’t like where the work was going; he became some UN functionary and then an artist in the late 40’s.

  9. Malina has been ignored for the same reason Jack Parsons was—they were such weirdos that even Nazi Von Braun was a more flattering public face for the space program.

  10. مدونة تهتم بعالم الأسفار تتضمن صورا ومقالات لأجمل مناطق العالم وأرقى الفنادق والمنتجعات، المطاعم والمعالم المتميزة، تحتوي أيضا على نصائح وارشادات ومجلات خاصة بالسفر، تطمح لتكون دليلا للمسافر العربي قبل السفر.

  11. I don’t know what “written out” is supposed to mean. The few publications that Malina had are still available. Malina left research on rockets in the late 40’s and became an activist and artist, several years before he was finally indicted for failing to list his communist party membership.

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