The Inside Story of the Crazy Rocket Research at Jet Propulsion Labs

Everybody knows the cowboy reputation associated with early astronauts, the test-pilot swagger immortalized by Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. But the rockets that took those astronauts to space were built by a group with an equally cinematic image: the nearly-unhinged, completely unfettered mad scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Mika McKinnon brings us a fascinating look at the madcap, explosion-obsessed minds that helped get man into space—and presided over some monumental explosions in the process.

The Insane History of Rockets at Jet Propulsion Laboratories

Everyone loves a gorgeous rocket launch, but the story of getting from the first sputtering attempts to the modern day marvels is completely unreal. The Jet Propulsion Laboratories took it up a notch, giving mad scientists their epic reputation.

The Rocket Boys

In the late 1930s, a group of Caltech graduate students were booted off campus after blowing up (part of!) their building during a rocket test gone awry. Unwilling to give up on the joy of semi-controlled explosions, the students and a few of their friends headed into the San Gabriel Mountains. They picked a deserted gully — Arroyo Seco — and got testing. This was about when their classmates starting calling the gathering the Suicide Club.

1936: Rudolph Schott, Apollo Milton Olin Smith, Frank Malina, Ed Forman and Jack Parsons: Rocket Boys, or Suicide Club?


Frank Malina studied aerodynamics at Caltech. Jack Parons was a high school drop-out and a self-taught chemist. Ed Forman was an excellent mechanic. Their first round of testing in October 1936 was less-than-successful: the last test of the day, they accidentally lit their oxygen line on fire. The line whipped around, a snaking hose of fire that somehow didn't kill anyone. Undeterred, they kept trying. By November, their tests worked.

1936: A half-meter flame and no one died? SUCCESS!


Rockets on Campus

When the Suicide Club failed to live up to their name and blew neither themselves nor anyone else to pieces, Caltech professor Theodore von Karman had a little faith and found them a spot back on campus. But the keys had a price: for access to their sweet new space, the Rocket Boys had to learn the math to back up their fancy rockets.

The school-sponsored project also came with a new name. No more Suicide Club, now the group was part of Caltech's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory. That several of the Rocket Boys were hardcore scifi fanboys almost certainly didn't influence this awkward mouthful going by the galactic-empire implying nickname "GALCIT."

By 1940, Caltech was once again regretting the decision to allow semi-controlled explosions in close proximity to the student body. Once again, the group was kicked off campus, but this time to a shiny new facility across the Arroyo from the original test site. In keeping with the idea that rockets are unkind to buildings, the new site had a few tarpaper shacks and not much else.

1942: If you don't build it, they can't blow it up.

When Rockets Meet War

The group collected a tiny $1,000 grant to work on jet-assisted take-offs (JATO), a technique of strapping rockets onto airplanes to get them airborne faster. A few months later, they picked up a heftier $10,000 grant. Rolling in cash and glee, they proved that money is the answer and had a successful JATO launch in 1941.

1941: Jet-assisted takeoffs get a plane off the ground a lot faster than an unassisted takeoff, provided nothing blows up that isn't supposed to.

This whole "things exploding when you want them to" drew the interest of the United States Army and its deliciously deep coffers. With the onset of World War II, the Army dreamed of rockets, and knew their new friends would deliver.

1943: What happens if you chill a 50-pound thrust liquid propellent jet unit in a bath of ice and salt to cool it near 0°F? Sounds interesting, might as well test it!

By 1944, the group adopted a far more respectable name — the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — and started development on guided missiles. Guided missiles had a very important new feature: guidance systems to steer them into targets.

The next year, JPL had something that would work, but it wasn't graceful. The liquid fuel, missiles, launch equipment, and guidance systems all had to be transported separately and assembled on-site. With a full truck convoy and hours of preparation, the WAC Corporal was successfully launched to 70 kilometers altitude, but certainly wasn't ready for the Army.

On the Complexity of Fuel

The next several years were spent trying to simplify the rocket. Why all the complication? Rockets were just recently moved from the realm of science fiction to reality, and finding a good fuel was more an art of bravery than science. When working with propellents, the difference between bravery, insanity, and innovation was just a wee bit fuzzy.

Dr. John Drury Clark, chemist at the Naval Air Rocket Test Station in Dover, New Jersey, wrote a terrifying and hilarious first-person history of the development of rocket fuels. "Hypergolic" describes a chemical reaction where a material spontaneously ignites when it comes in contact with something else. Dr. Clark uses the term frequently in his description of one of the early candidates, chlorine trifluoride:

It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water-with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals-steel, copper, aluminium, etc.-because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminium keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.

Need more proof of the insanity? In the words of chemist Derek Lowe, "I present this video, made at some point by some French lunatics. [...] We have Plexiglas, a rubber glove, clean leather, not-so-clean leather, a gas mask, a piece of wood, and a wet glove. Some of this, under ordinary circumstances, might be considered protective equipment. But not here:"

One way to reduce the odds of sudden death was to work with solid fuels. It turns out that neoprene isn't just an excellent wetsuit material, it's also a passible solid fuel. Ingredients were mixed, rolled into a sheet, spread on a table, then carefully trimmed into disks. These disks were stacked into a cylinder, then wrapped in a neoprene liner. This doom-cylinder was then compressed and heated to vulcanize the charge and fuse everything together. The result was a restricted-burning solid propellant worth investigating.

1946: ORDCIT 29, the cookie-cutter missile propellent.

Quite a few people had the bravery to explore the frontiers of the explosively unknown. By 1952, JPL had grown to a thousand employees. Most were men, but exceptions snuck in. While women worked as cleric staff and even computers, only three worked in a scientific capacity.

1952: Lois Taylor, JPL chemist researching rocket propellents.

All three were part of the Analytical Chemistry Laboratory: Lois Taylor and Julia Shedlesky were chemists, and Luz Tret was a lab technician. The chemistry section — Section 6 — researched propellents. Propellent research was in its infancy, with a constant race to try new solid and liquid fuels, evaluate existing fuels, and analyse combustion processes within motors. Yet the insanity of the earliest days of propellents had passed, and none of these women, nor the rest of Section 6, blew themselves up in a newsworthy fashion.

Not all the tests took place outdoors, nor did every investigation have to do with developing a new barely-contained catastrophe. In the 1940s, a concrete channel was constructed and flooded with water to test the Hydrobomb, a rocket-propelled towing car. In the 1950s, this channel was drained and reclaimed to test laminar pipe flow when disturbed at different frequencies and amplitudes.

1954: the Hydrobomb makes way for far more prosaic fluid flow testing.

From Rockets to Satellites

In October 1957, the Soviet Spunik launch threw American rocketry (and everything else) into chaos. The United States countered with Naval Research Lab's Vanguard project, which exploded spectacularly.

1957: the first American attempt to launch a satellite into space didn't work very well.

JPL gamely stepped up next, partnering up with the Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, to slap together a four-stage rocket in roughly eighty days. A small canister — Explorer 1 — was shoved on the nose of the rocket, and the entire thing was blasted off before the end of January 1958. The one solitary instrument pinged back a tiny thread of data about high-altitude radiation.

1958: JPL's Director William Pickering, scientist James Van Allen and rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun pose with a model of Explorer 1.

The switch from rockets to satellites finally broke the Army's interest in the organization, and they handed JPL off to to NASA in 1958, who supervised the highly-successful Explorer missions. JPL continues to operate under a joint partnership between NASA and CalTech. Somewhere along the way, the local fire department figured out it would be a very good idea to build a station directly south of the campus.

The relics of past experiments continue to haunt JPL. Aside from exasperated denials that co-founder Jack Parsons opened up a Hell Pit in Pasadena, JPL has the not-insignificant problem of just how their early researchers dealt with mistakes. Around the site are approximately 35 seepage pits holding liquid and solid waste, including solvents, solid rocket fuel propellants, cooling tower chemicals, sulfuric acid, freon, mercury, and assorted chemical laboratory waste. After spotting volatile organic compounds in the groundwater in the 1990s, JPL joined the list of national Superfund sites requiring cleanup.

All images credit NASA/JPL. Dr. Clark's "Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants" is out-of-print, but a digital version is available on the Science Madness library. Chemist Derek Lowe's "Things I Won't Work With" series is a masterpiece of scientific horror, and how I first learned about chlorine trifluoride. Inspired to try your hand at rocket research? The Kerbal Space Program accurately represents the endless explosions during the trial-and-error to make it into orbit. Want a more current discussion of doom in Pasadena? Here's anti-hysterical coverage of the LA earthquakes. The history of aerospace is a reoccurring feature on the io9 Space subsite — here's a bit about NASA's first test flights using aerospace nozzles.

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