JPL traces its roots to a small band of young experimenters who started testing their handmade rocket engines in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco on Halloween day in 1936. The crew initially came together at Caltech, with the core group consisting of Frank Malina (MS ME ’35, MS AE ’36, PhD AE ’40), a graduate student who worked for Theodore von Kármán, then director of GALCIT (at that time the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech); and two local, self-taught rocket enthusiasts, Jack Parsons and Edward Forman.
According to JPL’s historian, Erik Conway, after the rocketeers completed a number of successful tests in the Arroyo, von Kármán was encouraged enough to give them space for a test facility at Caltech. When the group set off a couple of explosions there, including a detonation that launched a piece of a gauge straight into one of GALCIT’s walls, Conway says, people on campus started referring to them as the Suicide Squad. Soon enough the squad was asked to do their work elsewhere and landed back in the Arroyo, where they leased some land from the city of Pasadena.
The crew went on to secure funding from the National Academy of Sciences to develop what would be known as Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO) rockets, which gave airplanes extra oomph while taking off from short runways. That work eventually led, in 1944, to the formation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
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Photo: Courtesy NASA/JPL/Caltech