How the “Suicide Squad” Turned Into One of the World’s First Rocket Companies

Aerojet celebrates its 75th anniversary.

The Caltech rocket group engineered the first American rocket-assisted takeoff, of a light Ercoupe airplane, in 1941.

The three young men who showed up at the Caltech office of renowned aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán had an unusual request, considering the year was 1936. They wanted help in designing a space rocket.

Far from being starry-eyed dreamers, Frank Malina, Jack Parsons, and Ed Forman were as serious as they were technically gifted. Malina was a grad student at Caltech who hoped to write his Ph.D. dissertation on rocket propulsion. His fascination with spaceflight had been aroused when, as a 12-year-old living in Czechoslovakia, he read a translated version of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. Throughout the space craze of the late 1920s and ’30s, Malina had devoured everything he could find in the popular press about rocketry and spaceflight.

His two friends weren’t students, but self-taught chemists and rocketry enthusiasts who had approached Malina for technical advice. After a few days of thinking over their proposal, von Kármágranted his approval for Malina to do his dissertation on rocketry, and specifically to design a high-altitude sounding rocket with the help of Parsons and Forman. So began a most ambitious enterprise known as the Caltech Rocket Research Project, which soon involved other talented students doing pioneering work in solid- and liquid-fuel propulsion.

How the “Suicide Squad” Turned Into One of the World’s First Rocket Companies
Frank Malina standing next to a WAC Corporal missile in 1945.

Von Kármán later recalled that some of his colleagues on the Caltech faculty “grumbled about the danger of rocket work in the laboratory.” Other students not associated with the project started calling Malina’s group the “Suicide Squad.” Hearing the complaints, von Kármán counseled the group to conduct their experiments as far away from campus as possible. After considerable scouting, they chose an ideal spot in the Arroyo Seco (“Dry Stream”) canyon on the western outskirts of Pasadena, near the present location of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Here they set up primitive test stands, tried different formulations of propellant, and learned as much as they could about rocket propulsion. By 1938, the work had yielded solid results and several key technical papers, including a groundbreaking theoretical study by Malina and fellow student Hsue-shen Tsien of China on thermodynamic characteristics of a rocket motor.

By then the group was drawing public attention, as well as a visit in May 1938 by General Henry A. “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps. With war looming, Arnold had become intrigued by the promise of rocketry—especially the potential for “Jet-Assisted-Take-Off” units that could greatly shorten take-offs for heavily loaded warplanes. From Arnold’s visit sprung a $10,000 Air Corps contract to develop JATOs.

The “suicide squad” also got an official name. The Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) was established to undertake the fundamental research that finally culminated in America’s first successful JATO flights, late in the summer of 1941. Von Kármán and his team attached several 50-pound-thrust, solid-fuel GALCIT JATOs to a light Ercoupe monoplane flown by Army Captain Homer Boushey, and made several successful test runs. For the last run, on August 23, they removed the propeller, attached six JATOs under the wings, and Boushey was thrust into the air for a short (though memorable) flight as the first American to fly by rocket power alone.

By that time Malina, Parsons, and others had begun looking at liquid-fuel JATOs, which were potentially more powerful and controllable. In early February, 1942, their team made another tremendous breakthrough. They discovered that aniline fuel, when paired with red fuming nitric acid (RFNA) as the oxidizer (which provides the oxygen for combustion) was a “hypergolic” combination; they ignited spontaneously upon contact. That immediately did away with the need for a complicated ignition system. And the burning of the fuel was absolutely steady.  In effect, the acid/aniline combination was the first successful storable rocket propellant, a key invention in the history of rocketry.

“Our JATO rockets had been so promising,” von Kármán later recalled, that even before the first test of the liquid-fuel version (on a Douglas A-20 Havoc light bomber), Malina “came up with an interesting proposal: Why not set up a business to sell JATO units to the armed services?”

Initial reactions to the idea were lukewarm. Some felt it was premature, while others thought it too risky a business. Von Kármán paid no attention to the naysayers and asked his friend Andrew Haley, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., for advice on how to set up such a business.

They also needed a name. Von Kármán first thought of calling the company Superpower, but that sounded too much like Superman. Finally, Malina and Haley came up with Aerojet, which everyone approved.

And so, on March 19, 1942, the Aerojet Engineering Corporation was incorporated. It was only the second rocket company in U.S. history, coming three months after the creation of Reaction Motors, Inc. in New Jersey. Von Kármán was named Aerojet’s president, Malina treasurer, and Haley secretary. Parsons and Foreman became vice presidents. Offices were soon opened on East Colorado Street in Pasadena, in a room formerly occupied by the Vita Juice Dispenser Company.

Despite being the leading aerodynamics theoretician of the 20th century, von Kármán turned out to be no businessman. So Haley took over the presidency in August, and proved, as von Kármán later admitted, to be “an incredible administrator.” Under Haley’s leadership, Aerojet grew by leaps and bounds.

The company’s low-cost, high-performance solid-fuel JATOs were a phenomenal success. They were manufactured by the thousands for both military and civilian airplanes, including commercial airliners. Aerojet also became one of America’s leading pioneers in the development of both liquid- and solid-fuel rocket power plants for missiles, sounding rockets—notably the famous Aerobee series that was in service for almost 40 years—and even large launch vehicles like the Titan that boosted Gemini astronauts into orbit.

Ultimately, Aerojet, whose 75th anniversary we celebrate this month, got caught up in the wave of mergers that went through the aerospace industry starting in the 1990s. In 2013 it merged with Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and today it’s known as Aerojet Rocketdyne.

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