Author Fraser MacDonald details the shadowy aspects of the race for dominance in space.

NASA is commemorating the this month’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing with a full slate of activities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and locations around the country. The lunar mission was a proud moment in American history, one that filled the world with awe as the first images of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon’s surface were beamed back to earth. But the decades leading up to that moment were marked by the political and cultural tensions of World War II and the Cold War. In his new book, Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket, Fraser MacDonald reminds readers about the shadowy aspects of the space race — including lying and spying — that ruined some careers while launching others. MacDonald, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, joined the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to talk about his book. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.  

Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us about your book?

Fraser MacDonald: My book deals partly with the dark aspects of space exploration, but also the stuff that people tend to not know about. With the Apollo anniversary coming up, we were mindful of what an amazing human achievement it was to get onto the moon, and many people are aware of the legacy of that achievement. A lot of it gets credited to famous German engineer, Wernher von Braun.

What my book does is uncover the previous history that has kind of been forgotten but also slightly repressed, because it is actually quite a difficult history to know about. Before America got hold of the German engineers that took Apollo to the moon, America had its own space program at Cal Tech. The problem is that many of these engineers had joined the Communist Party. That is really the focus of my book, is uncovering the awkward, slightly difficult history of a bunch of left-wing graduate students who pioneered America’s first space program but have been written out of the story on account of their politics.

Knowledge at Wharton: This was during the Cold War and McCarthyism, which had to be an influencing factor in why these engineers have been forgotten.

“There is this strange paradox that the Cold War is a lot more complex than we make it out to be.”

MacDonald: Right. A lot of the engineers I am talking about — including the main character in my book, a really smart and gifted engineer named Frank Malina who founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — all of these people were caught up in McCarthyism. But their story precedes that. This is going to sound ridiculous, but they really joined the Communist Party before it was controversial. They joined in 1938, and they joined in order to fight fascism abroad.

Many of these engineers were Jewish, profoundly concerned about what was happening in Europe. They also wanted radical change at home. To give an example of that, they campaigned against the racial segregation at their local swimming pool. This is in Pasadena and Los Angeles, where the pool had a blacks-only session on a Wednesday afternoon, after which the pool was drained and cleaned for whites to return on Thursday morning. They just found this utterly abhorrent. They saw the Communist Party at that time as a vehicle for real change, and that is why they joined. Of course, later in the McCarthy era, all of that caught up with them.

Knowledge at Wharton: Did some of your research come from FBI files that had been locked away?

MacDonald: I first got hold of the FBI file for Frank Malina, and I realized there are just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of phone transcripts and informant testimonies. I just kind of blinked at some of the allegations that were contained in this FBI file. Not only was he an alleged member of the Communist Party, but he was accused of espionage. Part of my hunt in this book is trying to work out the background to that, as I conclude there wasn’t really any good evidence against him.

His politics were not particularly controversial at the time; it was just that later during the McCarthy era they became much more of concern to the FBI. But yes, a lot of my archives were based on trying to get files declassified for a lot of these left-leaning graduate students.

Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us more about Frank Malina, who left engineering and became a painter.

MacDonald: It’s such an unusual story. I see him as the most important engineer you’ve probably never heard of. He’s the first person in the United States to make rocketry successful. To the extent that people know about the history of space exploration, they maybe know a bit about von Braun, they might know about Robert Goddard, who was an early experimenter with liquid propulsion. But Goddard was not successful. He was a pioneer; he did some important experiments, but he never got a rocket high.

It was Malina — he was the first person to manage that in the United States. Not only does he do that with his rocket called the WAC Corporal, but he then founds the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is even today among the most important institutions for interplanetary exploration.

Malina was quite an ordinary student. He was clever, but he was also determined. He had a certain kind of tenacity. He was from Texas but with a Czech background. And yeah, he had this strange career where he was incredibly successful in rocketry, only to leave the United States in a hurry as things got a little bit politically hot. But also because he felt disillusioned that the very rocket that he had created was likely to become a vehicle for the world’s first nuclear missile. It was about to become weaponized, and he wanted to work for peace. He worked for UNESCO, and then eventually he became a painter.

Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us about Jack Parsons, who was a friend of Malina’s and a unique individual as well.

MacDonald: That’s a little bit of an understatement. There is this big TV series on CBS at the moment called Strange Angel, which is all about Parsons. He is pretty off the wall. He is not an engineer. He is not of a great education. He is a self-taught chemist, but also an occultist. He is an explosives expert who is also deeply into the occult practices and knowledge of an English magician called Aleister Crowley. In Pasadena, he is part of this underground occult group that uses ritual sexual magic as part of their religious practice. But there is also a sense in which Parsons actually uses some of that magic as a prelude to rocket tests, which is unusual in engineering.

There is quite a lot written about Parsons. His story is well known; it’s just that for the most part it’s wrong. He tends to get cast as this charismatic sexual hero. In fact, he is a genuinely much darker figure, as well as being an FBI informant who all along is informing on his friend, Frank Malina.

“The idea of rocket science in the 1930s was ridiculous. It was for cranks and fantasists and charlatans.”

Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s go back a little bit. You mentioned that there is a link between the Nazi Party and the Jet Propulsion Lab. Can you explain?

MacDonald: There is not an exact link between the Nazis and JPL, but rather the link is more extraordinary than that, which is in the aftermath of the World War II, when the Americans realized the extent of Hitler’s V2 Rocket Program. The V2 was a rocket that Hitler was keen to have built by Wernher von Braun, and it rained terror on London and Antwerp in the last year of the war. Because it was such a weapon of terror, the whole thing about the V2 was you couldn’t hear it coming. It was supersonic. It was just death from the unknown.

The U.S., unsurprisingly, was really keen to get a hold of that kind of technology. So, they just took 1,600 engineers from Germany over to the United States under the auspices of an operation called Operation Paperclip. Many of these engineers were Nazi Party members, they were SS members. Von Braun was a member of both the Nazi Party and the SS. It is that strain of engineering that is extremely important in the later development of the Apollo program. Sometimes it is acknowledged, but I think not acknowledged enough. And the really crazy thing is that none of that political baggage held back Wernher von Braun. He is still celebrated as a creator, and a movement is named after him.

But there was the other kind of political baggage that Malina was bearing. That is to say he joined the Communist Party to fight racial segregation, which meant he was absolutely persona non grata. He really was out in the cold and has been largely written out of the story of American space exploration, and that is kind of not ideal.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was China’s role in this?

MacDonald: There’s another one of these unexpected links that I initially thought, “Oh, maybe there’s something there,” and then it turned out to be massive. One of Malina’s colleagues at Cal Tech is another very smart engineering student named Hsue-Shen Tsien from China. He comes to work with Malina’s supervisor, Theodore von Karman.

Theodore van Karman is one of the great aeronautical engineers. He gives us the swept back lines of the modern jet aircraft. Tsien, the Chinese rocketeer, was close to Malina and helped a lot in the more theoretical aspects, the mathematical aspects of designing the first rockets. Like Malina, he was very successful and quickly rose up the ranks of Cal Tech.

But once Malina had left the United States, and once Malina’s colleagues started making allegations of espionage, the entire security apparatus descended on Tsien, who was still at Cal Tech. Malina had gone to Paris, but Tsien was still working at Cal Tech. As I see it, he was really unfairly accused of being a spy.

The United States couldn’t quite work out whether to deport him or, because he had such valuable expertise, to detain him. In fact, they did both. They detained him for four years and eventually deported him to China, which was delighted to receive this dividend of rocket expertise. Tsien then becomes the founder of the Chinese space program. So, it was an incredibly strategic blunder on the part of the United States, which is that they handed over the expertise to a rival space program, to a communist adversary, yet all under the guise of trying to contain domestic anti-communism at home.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was Russia’s involvement at this time?

MacDonald: Russia developed its own space program. Russia, Britain and the United States were all scrambling after V2 technology from Germany. But Russia had its own quite long tradition of rocket engineering going back to the famous theoretician, [Konstantin] Tsiolkovsky. But I would say that their engineering is much slower to get off of the ground, if you pardon the pun, than the United States.

I think the real paradox here is that when we think of the Cold War, we think of it as being United States versus the Soviet Union in terms of rocket engineering. Yet the great surprise to me was there was also a debate internal to the United States between conservatives and socialists about the direction of space exploration, and also what  it was for.

For Malina and many of the others involved in his program at Cal Tech, they wanted space exploration not as a weapon of war, not to just kill people and break things, but they wanted rocket engineering as a vehicle for civilian science and improving ordinary people’s lives. From their perspective, it’s not like rocketry was a massive proletarian kind of necessity, but they could see at the same time it was able to provide potential applications for civilian life that would genuinely make a difference to ordinary people. Like weather forecasting, for instance, which of course turned out to be completely accurate.

“What we can learn from the Tsien episode is that in trying to act in America’s self-interest, you can end up doing exactly the opposite.”

So yes, there is this strange paradox that the Cold War is a lot more complex than we make it out to be, and that the division is not just a division of superpowers, but a division within the United States.

Knowledge at Wharton: Florida and Texas get much of the attention, but I think we sometimes forget about the important role that California has played in the space program.

MacDonald: It’s really interesting. Los Angeles is known as a center for airplane design, and that is why the rocket work starts there. There is a cluster of engineers at Cal Tech who are really trying to pioneer things like propeller design and air foil design, and they’ve got the tools to do that. It is that very expertise that ends up becoming really important, being able to take it to rocket research. But I guess it’s that other thing going on Los Angeles, which is just the kind of kookiness, the kind of eccentricities, the colorful characters, all of which does play a role in this story.

We now think of rocket science as a shorthand for complexity. “It’s not rocket science” — [meaning] it’s not complicated, right? But those words didn’t even belong in the same sentence together. The idea of rocket science in the 1930s was ridiculous. It was for cranks and fantasists and charlatans. Yet it is quite interesting that it is in California and in Los Angeles that you have the outsiders who are willing to give this a try. It is no coincidence that it starts there, because it takes slightly unconventional types, first of all, to be attracted to this domain of science, then to make it work, which they did.

Knowledge at Wharton: What happened to Tsien?

MacDonald: He had a long career in the United States. He didn’t leave until the mid-1950s. But he lived to a very ripe old age and became the founder of China’s space program. It is interesting that China is very careful to credit Tsien as the founding father of their own space program in ways that are quite different from the United States in acknowledging essentially the same history. Malina is regarded as being a very marginal figure. He tends not to be remembered. Yet they are doing the same engineering, are part of the same program.

The great irony is Tsien then designs rockets for China that end up getting passed on to states with even less cordial relationships with the United States. For instance, Tsien’s silkworm missile ends up getting fired back at the United States in the first Iraq War, and as recently as 2016 by Houthi rebels in Yemen firing a rocket that is essentially a Tsien design coming originally from China. The circularity there is a little bit bizarre.

But yes, it’s a remarkable history and, to reiterate a point I made earlier, just a great strategic mishap to deport for no good reason an engineer that actually hands on such important technology to what was then a rival communist state.

Knowledge at Wharton: Are some of these political dynamics that were in play back in the 1930s and 1940s still around today?

MacDonald: Yes, there are parallels. Just a sheer need for security and concern about technology transfer, for instance, between the U.S. and China. Clearly, there is a lot of anxiety about that now. There’s an impetus to try and batten down the hatches a bit and become much more secretive and much less cooperative in terms of a collaborative international space endeavor. I think it is likely to end up creating unhappy side effects. And I think what we can learn from the Tsien episode is that in trying to act in America’s self-interest, you can end up doing exactly the opposite.