Escape From Earth

Fraser MacDonald

Profile, £20

LEGEND has it that when President Eisenhower asked why the Soviet Union was edging ahead of the USA in the space race, he was told: “Their German rocket scientists are better than our German rocket scientists.” That has been the accepted narrative ever since: that it was due to the expertise of Wernher von Braun and his team that the USA eventually overtook the USSR and made it to the Moon.

Except, as Fraser MacDonald found, it wasn’t like that. A significant share of America’s success in space can be attributed to a group of homegrown scientists from Caltech in California. So, why sideline them and let former Nazis get the credit? Because these guys were much, much more embarrassing. They were Communists.

MacDonald, who teaches historical geography at the University of Edinburgh, began this book after stumbling across a testing range on North Uist used for trials of the Corporal, the first guided missile authorised to carry a nuclear warhead. The discovery spurred him on to investigate the life of its designer, Frank Malina, and one of “the darker legacies of the twentieth century”.

Aeroplanes were where it was at when Malina arrived at Caltech in the 1930s. He was one of a handful of scientists who made rocketry a viable field, his mathematical brilliance complemented by the talents of fuel expert, Jack Parsons, and engineer Edward Forman. When the idea of the multi-stage rocket was conceived, the prototype was three parts Malina’s Corporal to one part von Braun’s V-2. But the guilty secret of the group, which evolved into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was its high Communist Party membership.

MacDonald has uncovered a compelling saga of secrecy, activism, betrayal and, to some extent, espionage. It’s one loaded with irony too: of Malina accepting military funding to sustain his dream of peaceful research, the committed socialist later setting up a private company, Aerojet, so that the innovators could profit from their work. We hear too from Malina’s first wife, Liljan, who was equally committed to the Party, but whose free spirit could never flourish in the the shadow of her husband’s mathematical rationality.

The story takes a bizarre turn into another underground 20th Century subculture with Jack Parsons’ involvement in a sex-magick cult. Few would expect a cameo from Aleister Crowley in a book on aeronautics, but here he is, fuming at Parsons’ handling of his Crowley-inspired cult. L Ron Hubbard also passes through, sweeping into Parsons’ mansion and relieving him of thousands of dollars. The Church of Scientology, it emerges, was partly funded with Aerojet money.

After years of FBI surveillance, Truman’s crackdown on Communism finished the JPL set, most of whom never held another scientific post. Frank Malina, the scalp the government most wanted, escaped by sheer chance, and a separate quirk of fate made him a very rich man. But his politics meant that he was denied credit for his achievements and remained unrecognised by the wider public, a situation MacDonald’s superb, illuminating biography goes a long way to redressing.