FRANK JOSEPH MALINA
by Roger Malina
Interview by Franklin O'Donnell. Published in JPL Universe, July 2007
On Halloween Day 1936, one of the leaders of the "suicide squad" that carried out the rocket engine tests that led to the founding of JPL was Frank Malina, then a 24-year-old Caltech graduate student. A protégé of professor Theodore von Kármán, Malina served as JPL's director during the 1940s during the development of jet-assisted takeoff rockets for airplanes and early missiles such as the Private and WAC Corporal. He and several colleagues including von Kármán also founded the Aerojet Corp. to manufacture rocketry hardware that JPL pioneered.
After leading the Laboratory to key achievements in his 20s and early 30s, Malina left JPL in 1947 at the age of 34 and moved to Paris to help set up the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. In 1953 he left that organization to devote himself full-time as a studio artist. In 1967 he founded the international organization and journal Leonardo, devoted to interactions between the arts and science and technologies. He died in suburban Paris in 1981.
Roger Malina, the elder of his two sons, pursued a career in astronomy, specializing in extreme ultraviolet observation of the universe. He is currently an astrophysicist with France's National Center for Scientific Research in Marseille and is working on the proposed Supernova/Acceleration Probe, or Snap, a dark-energy cosmology satellite. He continues to run the Leonardo organization that his father founded. He chatted with Universe on a recent brief visit to JPL.
What was going on with your father at the time he decided to leave JPL and join the United Nations? I've read that UNESCO was led by the British biologist Julian Huxley -- did your father know him?
At the end of the war he was part of the American teams that were touring Europe, visiting scientific facilities and so on. When he was in London he saw an announcement for a talk by Julian Huxley. I think the UNESCO founding meeting was in the end of ’46 sometime. So he went to the lecture by Huxley and introduced himself afterwards. And Huxley said, “Why don’t you come help set up UNESCO?”
So he moved to Paris and started off as deputy director for science and then the director for the science program at UNESCO. In that capacity, he worked on projects in the Negev Desert, which actually picked up from his work when he was at Caltech. He worked in the wind tunnel at Caltech on soil erosion projects at one point. But then when he was in Paris he also helped set up with [Theodore] von Kármán the International Academy of Astronautics, which is still the premier international academy in the fields.
And I gather that you came along at some point in those years?
Yes, I was born in 1950. He had left UNESCO by the time I was old enough to remember. So, in fact, when I grew up, my dad was a full-time, professional artist. He was working out of a studio in our home building technological art with motors and electronics.
How did he meet your mother?
They were married in ’49. My mother was from the north of England. She was the youngest daughter of four daughters of a textile baron, and she had gone to the University of London and was being groomed to take over the family business. But she also heard, I think, Huxley give a talk on the BBC and sent in her résumé. And so she got hired at UNESCO -- actually, I think, right after my dad, but in the personnel department. And the story goes that he was always trying to hire secretaries who couldn’t type, and she wouldn’t let him. [laughs]
During the war she was in the women’s air corps in England -- she was dealing with all the women in England who were in the antiaircraft batteries guarding the English shores. So she was a professional woman.
And you have one brother.
My brother, Alan, lives in Portugal, and his specialty is water engineering in developing countries. He’s sort of picked up the second part of my father’s work through the UNESCO side, I guess, and he’s spent all his life working in rural communities and cities in Africa on water supplies, irrigation, water supplies in general.
There's a story that whereas Jack Parsons and others who had founded Aerojet were induced to sell out relatively early on, your father held on to his shares. I gather that gave him a base while he was pursuing his art career?
Yes, that’s right. Indeed, when he was in Europe, General Tire had acquired Aerojet and was trying to buy out all the founders. They managed to buy everybody out except my father. And the story was that they couldn’t reach him -- he was in Paris, nobody had his phone number. They sent a telegram with whatever the offer was for the shares, and I think he talked to [a friend] and said, “This doesn’t sound like a very good deal to me,” and he hung on to them. And as a result he was able to live off the Aerojet dividends.
Where do you see his artistic interests having come from? I understand that when he was a Caltech student he had a bent for illustration.
Well, both his parents were music teachers. I mean, originally they were shopkeepers and butchers, but they both worked in Brenham, Texas as music teachers. So my father certainly grew up in a home where music as a career was a strong thing, and certainly, unlike most children, he kept on drawing and sketching even after the age of 12 or 13. After he received his bachelor's degree at Texas A&M and came to Caltech for graduate school, he had to earn money to pay for his living expenses, and so he got a job working for Theodore von Kármán doing the illustrations for some of von Kármán’s textbooks. And then indeed his first wife was an artist here in Pasadena. So my father, I think from childhood, had a very integrated view of the world, of how the arts and sciences played together.
Which would tie in with the concept for the journal Leonardo, which he founded some years later.
I think it was sort of a deep understanding also about the nature of creativity, whether it’s in engineering or in the arts, which is that creative people get ideas wherever they can find them. You don’t just stick to the textbooks and the math section if you’re going to have a math idea. I think from very early on, his view of engineering was that if you really wanted to be inventive you had to be aware of the world in the larger sense and get ideas in different places. The “suicide club” that led to the founding of JPL was a very diverse group of creative and inventive people, socially engaged and culturally involved. My dad and Jack Parsons wrote a film script they shopped around Hollywood to try and raise money form their rocket work before the government funding came through.
As he started working as an artist, he found out first that in the art world artists were not allowed to write about their own work. Now, scientists and engineers write about what they’re doing, but they’re not trained as writers. They didn’t go into science to be writers. But to communicate their discoveries, scientists and engineers document their work through publications and so on. And so he got very frustrated because he was not allowed to write about his own inventions, and he was inventing things, he filed patents on his art devices.
Secondly, he discovered that artists tended to be very isolated. There was the New York art world and the Paris art world, whereas in science there was sort of a network of people. An expert in rocketry knew what was going on in different countries and so on. It led him to start an organization called Leonardo, which is now 40 years old. And the first project, indeed, was a scholarly journal where artists could write about their own work, both technically, but also in terms of the ideas they were having and so on in an international context. So it all kind of, these things all meshed together.
I’ve heard his art described as kinetic art, but I haven’t actually seen examples.
When he started painting and drawing and making sculptures, he went to art school in Paris and he got very frustrated because the only things they were painting were dead fish and apples and oranges and landscapes. So the first thing he got obsessed with was introducing into art-making the landscape that he was familiar with as an engineer or as a scientist. That went all the way from images from space or the technology of engineering. He started introducing into his painting subject matter, which might be the devices in his engineer’s lab or it might be pictures from under the microscope. And as part of that one day he was building constructions with wire meshes and he put a light bulb behind it and he said, “Gee, I could use light as a fine art medium”, except the light bulb was so hot the frame burst into flames. So he gave that up.
Then one Christmas, and I remember this because I was unhappy, he had a eureka moment. Christmas tree lights were just appearing on the market, so we had lights on the Christmas tree, and he realized that he could take those Christmas tree lights and put them in his painting. He took the Christmas tree down early that Christmas, much to my brother's and my distress. In the first work that he created with Christmas tree lights the lights would blink on and off. The work was called “Jazz,” and as you watched the painting with music playing, with the lights going on and off your mind synchronized the light action with the sound. It became a very sort of integrated visual music piece, if you like.
Then he started saying, “Well, I want lights to move inside my painting.” So he introduced clock motors with discs, which he could paint. And he discovered that he could make moving images, which of course, now with a computer is really easy to do, but in 1954 it was not so easy to do. But he discovered that he could make moving pictures, which is what kinetic art is, where indeed he would paint the plastic discs and canvases and the images would play against each other. So he had total artistic control over the pictures.
That became quite a movement in Paris. He was one of the two or three pioneers of that kinetic art movement in Paris. He started a company to try and commercialize the work, unsuccessfully. The company never turned a profit. But he just became fascinated how you could encourage artists to use new materials that come out of engineering practice, but also that all the imagery that scientists become familiar with, whether it’s medical imaging or other kinds of imaging. So just really interested in that nexus and so the kinetic paintings that he did often had scientific themes.
One of his good works is called “Return to the Earth,” and it’s basically an image of the Apollo trajectory around the Earth and up to the moon, around the moon and back again, but in a moving image. It’s kind of a poetic representation of the Apollo program.
Some histories state that one of the reasons for your father's decision to leave JPL and move to Europe was that he was disheartened by the prospect of developing more missiles to carry atomic weapons. Around this time, like some of the other JPL founders, he was also being investigated by the FBI, which was making allegations about Communist connections. Can you set the record straight on this? What were your father's politics like?
A lot of this is incorrect, and would make my father very mad. It is true that he stated that at the end of the war he found himself involved in discussions on how to put nuclear bombs on rockets, and the military was preparing for World War III -- and those discussions made him break out in a sweat and sick to his stomach. But I think that fundamentally he chose to go to work for UNESCO because, after 10 years of working non-stop for the war effort, he was exhausted and ready for a new challenge, and wanted to contribute to the rebuilding of Europe and creating new international organizations for peace.
He left the U.S. to work for UNESCO before the FBI started bothering him seriously – his real problems with the FBI did not really start until 1952 or 1953. His passport was taken away until 1960. The allegations about his joining the Communist Party are hearsay as far as I am concerned. I have no doubt that at some of the parties or social events at the time, there may have been people who were Communists. During the 1930s, he certainly participated in solidarity efforts for the Spanish civil war. According to the FBI files there are claims that he failed to declare membership in the Communist Party in his security clearance forms. I doubt it, but when I knew him he was in his 40s and 50s and not a 23-year-old politically involved student.
The man I knew was perhaps at the left end of the Democratic Party, and anti-capitalist he certainly wasn't. Indeed, he was living happily off his Aerojet dividends. After the war, my father was in close contact with his Czech cousins. During the Cold War, he sheltered some of them who had gotten out from the Iron Curtain.
During the Vietnam War -- while I was demonstrating at MIT in 1969 against the war -- we had long, heated discussions. He had a much more nuanced view, basically that nation-states had led to repeated world wars in Europe, and new structures were needed. He just felt that governments had a really difficulty behaving in an intelligent manner for the benefit of all humankind.
Now to turn to you -- in doing some research, one fact I ran across was that you had gone to school at one time in the United Kingdom and that you had founded the rocketry club at this school. A chip off the old block?
I can’t say there was any parental pressure but, I mean, I grew up in a house where there were visiting scientists and engineers coming through, von Kármán was coming through. I grew up breathing the space program. At the same time it was an artist’s house. So I certainly grew up in a broad view of the excitement of science. When I went to high school indeed I set up a rocketry club with two or three friends, and we did rocket tests that are just like the pictures [of the early JPL tests] in the Arroyo. Now, I hadn’t seen those pictures. My dad had never shown them to me. But we used as a rocket fuel sugar and potassium perchlorate. This is the kind of castable rocket fuel that Jack Parsons had invented with my dad.
And then I went on to a scientific education and I got the opportunity when I was at MIT, I was a physics student, to be involved in a sounding rocket campaign down at White Sands for professor Saul Rappoport and Hale Bradt. I helped finalize the assembly of the payload, and went down there for the rocket launch. And it was from the same launch site where my dad had launched the WAC Corporal in 1946. So there’s no doubt, he certainly didn’t direct me in that way, but I’m a second-generation space explorer. It must have given him a lot of pleasure and it’s certainly given me a lot of pleasure to be working — and realizing how short it’s been since people were blowing up rockets in sandpits to being able to send people to the moon.
One bit of a distinction is that your father’s career path, at least early on, was more what you’d consider engineering, whereas you became a scientist and went into extreme ultraviolet astronomy.
Yes, that’s right. But he was very much what I would call a research engineer. His Ph.D. advisor was Theodore von Kármán, and one of the strong philosophies of that group was that to do state-of-the-art engineering you had to do state-of-the-art theory, engineering theory, mathematics, modeling, simulation, combining it with experiments and so on. And so his practice was very much that of a research scientist even though the objective was to build working devices, rather than to make discoveries about the world as such. But at the same time his motivation for high-altitude rocketry was very much to launch scientific experiments into space, explore the universe; a number of the Caltech professors at the time were interested in using rockets to do scientific investigations of cosmic rays and the upper atmosphere. So I’m an astronomer, but I design telescopes, I work closely in engineering teams, and so to some extent I’m on the top end of the rocket and he was more on the bottom end. It’s still very connected.
Was the ultraviolet astronomy something that you became interested in at Berkeley, perhaps?
Right. After MIT I was recruited to Berkeley by Stu Bowyer, who was one of the pioneers in X-ray astronomy, and I got a job in that group as a research assistant working on the sounding rocket program. Very quickly I was put in charge of running the sounding rocket program, and at that point there was a huge motivation in general in NASA astrophysics to open up every band of the spectrum with the visible infrared, the gamma rays, the X-rays and the ultraviolet band. The extreme ultraviolet band, which is between soft X-rays and the ultraviolet, was one of the last bands that had not been opened up. So Stu Bowyer and his group gave themselves, gave ourselves the task of making the first astronomical observations in this band.
My Ph.D. rocket was the first spectrometer for looking at stars in this band, which we launched from White Sands. And coming out of that work, Stu and I and a number of us, got a big NASA contract for an Explorer satellite and I became the P.I. [principal investigator] to that satellite, and Stu was the science P.I. So I also had the pleasure, since Explorer 1 was a JPL project, of being the principal investigator on an Explorer satellite. I’m not sure which number and series it is. We made the first map of the sky in that band of the spectrum, the first catalog of stars that were visible. It’s the kind of astronomy you just cannot do from the ground.
Is my understanding correct that you have some relationship to the science team for the Galaxy Evolution Explorer that JPL manages?
Actually, Chris Martin, who is the P.I. of that, had worked for me on the Explorer satellite when he was a graduate student Berkeley; he helped invent an innovative spectrometer that was part of the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer's success. I was part of his ultraviolet sky survey proposals for many years for the Galex satellite, and I was recruited to be the director of this lab in France, where I worked with his partner also on the Galex satellite. So I was instrumental in the efforts to have that lab contribute to Galex. It’s a French-American collaboration. And I must say Galex is a huge pleasure and success, because it is a project that Berkeley, Caltech and Johns Hopkins had been trying to do for 20 years to make the first in-depth map of the sky in the ultraviolet. It’s definitely something I’m very proud of being involved in, and Chris and his group have made the project into a remarkably productive small explorer satellite, still producing now; it's able to observe galaxies and their formation over 80 percent of the age of the universe.
And now you are back in France, the country you grew up in, although you are currently in the South of France.
Yes. I was the director of the largest astrophysics lab there for nine years, the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille. One of the projects we’re working on is called Snap, it’s a big space-telescope project, for observational cosmology. JPL is involved in it, again, also, through an infrared detector program. We’re not quite sure who’s going to fund the whole thing yet but the Department of Energy is backing it totally, and we’ll get it done. It’s a beautiful project. So actually Berkeley and my French lab and JPL are working on it, as well as some other labs.
I would think you’d have a unique international perspective having had an American father, a British mother, growing up in France, going to school in the United States, going back to France and so forth.
Yes. So I have, you know, there great work going on everywhere. So I’m a little bit less American-centric than a lot of Americans. And it’s a competitive world out there. I think it’s an interesting situation these days with India and China setting up space programs, and obviously the commercial space industry and tourism getting going. I think my international perspective gives me contact with a lot of those people through the International Academy of Astronautics, and I get to meet our peers from all these different countries. I’m very aware of the strength of places like JPL, which has managed to keep out there pushing the limits; like most space scientists I am discouraged by the trouble NASA is having maintaining real momentum in its space science program in face of the Moon/Mars priority.
I understand you have children yourself. Have they expressed an interest in pursuing the same fields, either science or the arts?
My wife, Christine, and I have three children, a daughter and two sons. The eldest son is probably heading into international relations; this summer he is interning at the Clinton Foundation in New York. So I think he’s inherited the international orientation that my father espoused. Our middle child is named Yuri, just like Yuri Gagarin. This summer he’s doing an internship at Emory Riddle University in Arizona in the astronomy department. So who knows? He’s certainly headed for a science and engineering career. And my daughter, Giselle, is 15 turning 16, and I think she has the making of a good scientist or engineer in her, so we’ll see what happens. There may be some third-generation space explorers on the way.
© Leonardo/Olats & Roger Malina, september 2007