When Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was looking to name the site where the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars in August, ‘Bradbury Landing’ must have been an obvious choice. Ray Bradbury, who died in June, was a regular visitor to JPL. He wrote his first Martian stories in Los Angeles just a few months after the lab was founded in Pasadena in 1943. As a teenager in 1939, he had attended a meeting of the LA Science Fiction Society where he listened to the self-taught rocketeer Jack Parsons, one of the leading lights of the group that would become JPL.
A devotee of Aleister Crowley, Parsons carried out experiments in ceremonial sex magic as well as solid-fuel rocketry. He was killed in 1952 when he dropped a coffee can with mercury fulminate in it, blowing up his house. There’s an impact crater named after him on the dark side of the Moon.
Bradbury later became friends with Parsons’s colleague Frank Malina, who founded JPL along with the aerodynamicist Theodor von Kármán. Von Kármán has craters on both the Moon and Mars named after him, as well as the Kármán Line marking the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. If you count Von Kármán Avenue in Orange County, California, he has eponymous features on three celestial bodies – good going even for a rocket scientist.
Malina’s achievements in rocketry were more significant than those of Parsons or von Kármán. He pioneered America’s first successful high altitude rocket, the WAC Corporal in 1945. But it was quickly overshadowed when America brought Wernher von Braun and his V2 over from Nazi Germany. Twenty thousand enslaved prisoners had died in the production of the V2; unruly workers were hanged from the rocket gantries. But von Braun took America to the Moon and a crater there was named after him.
Malina has yet to be so honoured. Yesterday would have been his 100th birthday – a good occasion, you might think, for giving him a small feature of Martian topography as a memorial. But none seems imminent. Unlike von Braun’s whitewashed Nazism, Malina’s politics still seem to be cause for unease among America’s space establishment. He became disillusioned with rocketry once he realised that the WAC Corporal was to be weaponised as the world’s first nuclear missile. He left applied astronautics to work for Unesco in Paris under Joseph Needham. That would have been suspicious enough. What really alarmed the FBI was his earlier association with some Caltech science nerds on the fringes of the Communist Party. They had supported the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and campaigned against racial segregation at their local swimming pool. J. Edgar Hoover didn’t forgive that sort of thing.
Not content with having him out of the country, the State Department eventually forced his resignation from Unesco and refused to renew his passport. In 1953 he applied unsuccessfully for political asylum in Britain. It was never probable that London would provoke Washington by agreeing, though Winston Churchill later bought the new version of Malina’s rocket to serve as Britain’s first tactical nuclear weapon. Bradbury’s difficulties with the FBI were minor by comparison. They certainly didn’t dent his reputation.
A few months before Malina died in 1981, Bradury visited him in Paris, where he had founded the arts-science journal Leonardo. Bradbury wrote to him afterwards to say that the technology developed by Parson and Malina
changed the destiny of people on Earth forever, and this is not said idly. A million years from tonight, when future historians speak of the most important years in the history of the thinking beasts, your name will be there with von Kármán’s and the rest.
In a million years time, maybe.