The Scotsman

Rocket men

Declassifi­ed documents and meticulous research reveal the secrets and lies around the US’S first guided missile system, writes Vin Arthey


Research is an adventure and for Fraser Macdonald this particular adventure began when he was a student undertakin­g cultural landscape fieldwork on North Uist. He was denied access to the hilltop of Cleatrabha­l. Why? Seeking the answer to this question was the first step to this absorbing and stimulatin­g book.

Cleatrabha­l, it turned out, was part of the UK’S secret 1950s testing range for the Corporal, America’s first guided missile approved to carry a nuclear warhead. Macdonald’s

journey of curiosity continued: what was the Corporal? Where was it designed? Who were the designers? How was it built?

As you turn each fascinatin­g page the answers are to be found, but the real treasure for the reader is Macdonald’s exploratio­n of the lives of the men and women behind the missile’s creation, particular­ly Texasborn Frank Malina, who enrolled for graduate studies in Mechanical Engineerin­g at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1934. Along with colleagues like Jack Parsons, an eccentric amateur with a penchant for the occult (Aleister Crowley, L Ron Hubbard’s Scientolog­y and even the North Berwick witch trials come into this part of the story) and igniting explosives in his back yard, Frank conceived the idea of a multi-stage rocket and the right fuel to get a payload out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Over the next ten years of calculatio­ns and experiment­s, Malina tested the prototype of the Corporal, but during this time he had become a member of Caltech’s radical discussion group, Unit 122, and then, secretly, of the Communist Party. To Malina, Marxism was the logical, scientific path for the running of an internatio­nal economy and along with that, the party was committed to improving the lives of the deprived, and in the mid-1930s it stood for “antifascis­m”. There is scant evidence that Unit 122 or its communist off-shoot was responsibl­e for passing any rocketry secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1930s or 1940s, although the fact that the Soviets were in space before the Americans must have intensifie­d suspicions that there might have been some leak from the Caltech team. Malina, who was a marked man, came to Europe in 1947 to work for UNESCO in Paris and he and his role in rocketry were effectivel­y wiped from the records. One consequenc­e of this has been the inflation of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun’s reputation as the mastermind behind America’s space rockets. He wasn’t.

Macdonald’s research to reveal this story has been meticulous, imbuing his book with the excitement and humility he has clearly felt. A meeting with Malina’s son at an academic conference spurred Macdonald’s interest and gave him access to boxes of family documents, particular­ly letters, which provide a poignant insight into Frank’s first marriage and his close relationsh­ip with his parents. There are 28 photograph­s, all superbly reproduced, which show both rocket testing, as well as snapshots and portraits of the people

we meet in the text. Macdonald’s Freedom of Informatio­n access to FBI documents that have been declassifi­ed, albeit gradually and usually with the key names redacted, are added testimony to a hidden history that is both frightenin­g and shameful. The surveillan­ce of suspected “communists” hardly ever revealed espionage and served mainly to feed prejudice. Marriages along with careers were ended, mental breakdowns were not uncommon and when cases went to court, the guilty were punished for perjury – denying that they had been Communist Party members – not treason. Frank himself eventually turned his engineerin­g into a Paris career in mixed-media art and was only rehabilita­ted by induction into the Internatio­nal Space Hall of Fame in 1990, nearly a decade after his death.

Escape From Earth is a superb book which sheds new light on the conflicts of the mid-20th century.

 ??  ?? Escape From Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket
By Fraser Macdonald Profile Books, 371pp, £20
Escape From Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket By Fraser Macdonald Profile Books, 371pp, £20

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom