Space exploration, at first glance, doesn’t much look like a leftist cause. Perhaps that’s because it’s the billionaire class that are currently making it their own: Earth’s orbit, the moon, and Mars are set to become the next horizons of capitalist expansion. As we look back on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, our image of astronautics is stubbornly stuck in “the right stuff” — rugged individualism and heroic masculinity. Jeff and Elon must love it.
This conservative image, however, is only part of the story: spaceflight and socialism have a shared history in the United States that is generally forgotten. The first successful rocketeers in the United States were activists who fought racial segregation at home and raised money for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. In the 1930s, they believed that transforming the Earth was as important as transcending it.
Step forward Frank J. Malina — the brilliant founder of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He designed the WAC Corporal, the first American rocket to reach “extreme altitudes” when it was launched on October 11, 1945. More than any other engineer in the United States, Frank Malina made rocketry scientifically respectable, just as his attendance at Communist Party meetings made him politically beyond the pale.
Few people these days have heard of Malina. Instead, much of the credit for early space exploration goes to SS-member and actual Nazi, Wernher von Braun, Hitler’s boy wonder whose V-2 terrorized London. As many as ten-thousand enslaved prisoners died — mostly Jews, Roma, and French resistance fighters — making V-2s in the bowels of Nordhausen’s Mittelwerk factory. Apparently von Braun didn’t notice the workers’ bodies in the factory tunnels.
In the postwar scramble for Nazi technological expertise, the United States ignored this history to embrace the V-2 and its personnel. Operation Paperclip saw the welcome of 1,600 German engineers and their families, including von Braun, whose arrival in the United States was marked by the anti-semitic slurs that he dished out to his US military minder, Arno J. Mayer. It’s true that von Braun was an important engineer: his Saturn V engine took humans to the Moon. But let’s not forget that his early rocketry was propelled by fascism.
Frank Malina and his fellow rocketeers, Martin Summerfield and H.S. Tsien, were, by contrast, animated by anti-fascism. Yet the political baggage they carried as Communist Party members dragged down their scientific reputation more than Nazism did for von Braun. By the time the Space Age really took off, the anti-Red climate meant that past membership of the US Communist Party was not readily forgiven. Tsien was deported back to his native China and Summerfield lost his security clearance while Malina, having moved to Paris to pursue peace at UNESCO, lost his passport and his job. For a short time, he was an international fugitive.
Our problem today is that McCarthy-era hysteria has tended to not only obscure the scientific contributions of these engineers, but also the rationale for why they joined the Communist Party in the first place. About twenty-five Caltech scientists filled in the application form in 1938, motivated in part by the corruption of the Los Angeles mayoralty and the modesty of the New Deal. They had seen how tear gas and clubs were regularly used against union meetings, that white vigilantes helped beat up labor activists among the immigrant fruit pickers of California’s Imperial Valley.
One of the party campaigns focused on desegregating their local Pasadena swimming pool. It ran a “blacks only” session on a Wednesday morning, only for the pool to be drained and cleaned for whites on Thursday morning. Most of these Caltech communists were Jewish. They had seen for themselves the rise of fascism in Europe and felt that only the Communist Party had a seriousness of purpose commensurate with this threat.
Public meetings were out of the question given that the LAPD and vigilante violence had more or less driven the party underground, so they met weekly in each other’s homes. (Not that this caution was sufficient: the local membership secretary was in fact an undercover LAPD mole that passed on all details to the FBI).
Most meetings of “Professional Unit 122” involved more talk than action: they would read Lenin’s State and Revolution and Marx’s Capital, followed by refreshments, chess, and classical music. As Frank Malina’s wife Liljan put it, it was “as innocuous as a church social.” Only it wasn’t — at least not entirely.
The paradox of the US Communist Party is that it was both progressive and subversive, both a grassroots network of socialists and a front for covert intelligence operations. There’s no evidence that these campus communists had any knowledge of such operations but, given their proximity to classified material, it’s a reasonable question to ask why they didn’t. Malina, Tsien, or Summerfield did not likely deserve the clouds of suspicion that hung over them but the concern about communist espionage was not unfounded.
All of this makes for a messy history. Yet it’s not our job to tidy it up. And it’s not necessary in order to recognize and honor the achievements of Malina and his colleagues. Unlike von Braun, Malina has no eponymous crater on the moon, or a civic center in his name on Earth. That’s a shame. His WAC Corporal represents the first time the promise of rocketry was successfully realized in the United States. In February 1949, when Malina’s WAC Corporal was “mated” on to a captured V-2, the combined Bumper WAC Corporal reached a record altitude of 244 miles. It was the first human object to reach extraterrestrial space as it was then defined.
This is the space history that the Left needs to reclaim. We need to ensure that vestiges of McCarthyism don’t continue to obscure the means and the motivation behind our species leaving our planet. America’s space pioneers weren’t all “final frontier” types. Frank Malina abhorred flag-waving and the language of conquest. His motivation was to better understand the limits of Earth and what it might mean to slip outside its protection.
Like his Unit 122 comrades, Malina believed that science should be in the service of the people. Rockets might not have been the most urgent proletarian necessity in the 1930s, but he was excited by their potential for weather forecasting and detecting cosmic rays. And if they needed military support to fund their development, he naively rationalized that maybe missiles could help win the war.
Only after his rockets became fully weaponized — when it became clear that they would be vehicles for nuclear destruction — did he quit JPL. The remainder of his life was spent building the infrastructure for a cooperative space endeavor, like founding the International Academy of Astronautics to promote space exploration for peaceful purposes.
Malina’s socialism wasn’t without contradiction. He founded a private rocket contractor, Aerojet, which made him wealthy later in life. Even so, I think he’d be disheartened to see the neoliberalization of the US space sector. Or, as we recently discovered with Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation, that the integrity of the night sky now lies in the hands of a few entrepreneurs.
Frank Malina certainly didn’t have “the right stuff” according to conservatives. But in taking us outside the envelope of Earth, he left us an image of the future in which spaceflight and socialism are compatible strains of twentieth-century optimism.