becoming involved in planetary exploration, JPL was
conducting rocket research for the Army. On October
11, 1945, a small group of JPL engineers led by Frank
Malina launched the 16-foot WAC Corporal rocket at the
White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. The rocket
was tracked by radar and reached a height of 43.5 miles,
setting a new world record. With a flight time of 7.5
minutes, the rocket crashed only 3,500 feet from its
launch pad. The WAC Corporal is credited as being the
first man-made object to escape Earth's atmosphere.
Frank Malina stands next to his 1945 WAC Corporal.
Texas Rocket Grandmaster
Al Jackson, TRA#1625
travel from Houston to Austin by highway 290 fairly often,
and sometimes I stop at Brenham, Texas for lunch. I skip the
fast food joints on 290 and go downtown. It is a beautiful
small town with a charming old downtown (founded in 1844).
Only recently have I become aware that a native Texan from
Brenham fulfilled a dream started by Robert Goddard, in fact
doing in 10 months what Goddard had for twenty years tried
to accomplish. Even more than that he was co-founder of the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL, and co-founder of Aerojet
General. By 1945 he had eclipsed Goddard as the most important
American rocket scientist. He was a consummate researcher
in the theoretical engineering of rocketry and a master manager
of several rocket and rocket vehicle projects for the U.S.
Army. So who was the Texas pioneer 'Wernher von Braun'? He
is Dr. Frank J Malina from Brenham, Texas.
was the originator and leader of a project that has an important
anniversary on October 11 this year. It will be the 55th anniversary
of the first full up launch of a Wac-Corporal sounding rocket.
We tend to forget that Goddard had a solid scientific use
for his development of rockets, that was to sound the upper
atmosphere. We all love Goddard for his inventiveness in rocket
hardware and his stubborn individualism, and given time he
may have realized his sounding rocket dream. However while
he struggled in the New Mexico desert in 1936 Frank Malina,
still a graduate student at Cal Tech, had put on the wall
of his office a chart of how a successful sounding rocket
project might be accomplished. Unlike Goddard he recognized
the need for a team and a choice of team captains.
dream was interrupted by World War II. Along with his mentor
Theodore von Karman (the great 20th century aerodynamicist)
he directed the development of the Jet Assisted Take Off,
JATO, rockets for use by the Army Air Force. This work for
the U.S. Army lead to the formation of JPL, and when von Karman
moved the Pentagon as a consultant Malina became the first
director of JPL. There is a straight line heritage from these
solid rocket motors to the intercontinental missiles in the
American defense arsenal and even up to the current Space
Shuttle booster motors. His involvement in this project alone
is enough to have made him a famous rocketeer.
1944 Dr. Malina was sent to England and France to inspect
salvaged V2s and V1 launch sites. Returning by plane over
the Atlantic he decided to ask the Army ordnance Department
to fund his cherished goal of building and launching a vehicle
to sound the upper atmosphere in regions that could not be
reached by balloons. This was December of 1944. From designs
by H.S. Tsien and Malina, he and Homer Stewart submitted and
got approval on a proposal to launch a sounding rocket with
a 25 lb payload to 100,000 ft.
had already been a program started at the newly founded JPL
to build military rockets. Malina organized a team to use
components developed from this program. It is amazing that
the Von Karman-Malina program at JPL during WWII accomplished,
on a smaller scale, almost the same technical objectives as
von Braun's huge V2 project. A viable liquid rocket motor
using nitric acid and aniline with 1500 lbs of thrust was
developed and the Private-series of missiles. The main difference
being the V2's much larger rocket motor and especially the
guidance system which was still being researched at JPL by
the end of the War.
the project was approved Malina and his JPL crew turned over
several ideas for the sounding rocket. It turned out that
the solid rocket motors would be too heavy for the flight.
They needed a long burn light weight rocket. So a liquid motor
powered vehicle boosted quickly to a high speed was decided
upon. They needed the initial boost in order to gain a sufficient
amount of stability from the vehicle fins since they had yet
to developed an active onboard guidance system. The booster
system used some of the solid rocket technology in the JATO
units that JPL had already fashioned. The booster and 2nd
stage liquid rocket were to be launched using a 60 ft tower.
July of 1945 the flight characteristics of the booster were
tested with a 1/5 scale model at Goldstone Lake, California.
The tests showed the viability of the solid booster system
and a three fin stabilization system rather than four fins
favored by ordnance experts. One wonders did any copies of
this 'baby Wac Corporal' survive to the present?
months after Malina had proposed it the vehicles were taken
to the new facility at White Sands Proving Grounds, New Mexico.
rounds of the booster called Tiny Tim were launched off the
tower. Two dummy rounds of the WAC were boosted and then two
with only partially filled fuel tanks were flown to get experience
with the radar tracking.
must have been counted as rounds 1 through 4 because on October
11 1945 a fully loaded round 5 was made ready. The 16 foot
long 1 foot in diameter rocket stood flight ready. It weighed
665 lbs and would be boosted by 50,000 lbs of thrust before
the 1500 lb thrust liquid motor took over. In Malina's words
the flight went like this:
October 1945 became our great day for the first flight of
the WAC (round 5) fully charged with propellant. It was a
clear day. We craned our necks to watch the WAC's smoke trail
until the engine stopped at around 80,000 ft. On the basis
of radar tracking data for the 6th round of the WAC, it was
estimated that the maximum altitude reached was between 230,000
and 240,000 ft. The total time of flight was about 450 sec.
or 7.5 min. the velocity of the WAC at the end of the burning
was about 3,100 ft per sec. The impact point of the first
round was around 3,500 ft. from the launcher, which meant
that the WAC had maintained a very satisfactory vertical path.
43 mile flight was a world record, for even the more advanced
V2 had not been launched to such an altitude yet. It was an
amazing achievement. In 10 months Malina and his crew had
convinced and built the sounding rocket Goddard had dreamed
of and made such a contribution to. Soon there followed the
captured V2 flights from New Mexico and other sounding rocket
who had visited Goddard in New Mexico, and had been invited
by Goddard to work for him before WWII intervened, noted something
about attaining hard technological goals. He had headed a
large team of people working together just as von Braun had
run a much larger team in Germany (Malina and von Braun were
both almost the same age). Malina remarked, " The large
number of people involved in this (WAC Corporal) program indicates
why the dreams of individuals and small groups of rocket enthusiasts
in the 1920's and 1930's to design, construct and test a high
altitude sounding rocket had little chance of success. Fortunately,
most pioneers do not foresee all of the practical implications
of their dreams. No doubt if they were able to do so, few
new wild ideas will ever be tried."
will be good to remember a fellow Texan Dr. Frank Malina,
a man not as well known as Dr. Goddard, or Dr. von Braun,
but a rocketeer who had profound and lasting impact on the
American development of rocket vehicles, astronautics and