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JPL celebrates 75th anniversary of event that led to its creation

They were known as the Suicide Squad.

The roots of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge can be traced to an afternoon 75 years ago this month when a group of Caltech students test-fired a homemade rocket in the dry bed of the Arroyo Seco.

The first three attempts failed. The fourth accidentally ignited the engine’s oxygen line, spewing fire in every direction.

“We had no money except our own pocket money,” Frank Malina, the group’s leader, who would become JPL director, said years later. “So we went around looking for second-hand stuff all over the area.”

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That wayward experiment on Oct. 31, 1936, would lead in a few short years to the creation of the laboratory at Caltech and the birth of rocket science in the United States.

JPL will mark the anniversary with a public screening of “The American Rocketeer” on Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. It’s the first of three documentaries on the history of JPL from its beginnings to the missions to the moon that will air next month on public television station KCET.

“JPL is an accident of history,” said Blaine Baggett, the lab’s director of communications and education, who produced and directed the series. “It was not planned. It just happened. And one event after another kept it going.”

In the 1930s, rockets were considered more science fiction than actual science. Malina and his cohorts were students and assistants of Caltech professor Theodore von Karman, a pioneer in aeronautical engineering. He let them move their experiments to the campus.

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But the Suicide Squad’s loud and potentially dangerous explosions forced Malina’s group to move back to the arroyo. They shot off rockets and worked out of tar paper shacks — humble quarters that Von Karman named the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1943.

JPL’s first mission was military. During World War II, the lab developed rockets that were strapped to Army aircraft to boost takeoff. Later the lab would build guided missiles that were a response to German V-2 missiles.

JPL’s focus pivoted in 1957 with the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of Sputnik, the first satellite. Less than three months later, the United States’ answer was developed at JPL: Explorer 1, which was launched into space to collect data on radiation.

Today, what began with Malina and the Suicide Squad in a dry creek bed reaches across the galaxy and beyond with dozens of active spacecraft and instruments.

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Malina was a major pioneer in American rocketry, Baggett said. “The time is long since past that the public should know the name Frank Malina.”

mike.anton@latimes.com


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