Rockets, Art, & Other Roads Taken

One of the most read – and misread – poems of the 20th century is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Pervasive in high school English courses, titles of self-help books, and even car advertisements, Frost’s poem may have been a celebration of individualism. Or, if read more cruelly, it is a reflection on self-deception used to rationalize one’s life choices.

Engineer Frank J. Malina certainly knew of Frost’s poem. Indeed, in the spring of 1953, Malina – then just forty years old – may have been experiencing the hesitation tempered with anticipation that Frost’s stanzas expressed. For the third time in his life, Malina found himself at a critical crossroads in his professional career.

In 1936, while a graduate student working with the famed Hungarian engineer Theodore von Kármán at Caltech, Malina abandoned a conventional research topic to pursue rocketry. During the Great Depression, especially, this was a risky career choice. The risks were real in other ways. People called Malina’s team of rocket builders the “suicide squad” for a reason.

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The “Suicide Squad” testing a rocket engine at Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, 1936. Left to right: Rudolph Schott, Apollo Smith, Frank Malina, Edward Forman, Jack Parsons

Malina’s gamble paid off. During World War Two, Caltech’s rocket group developed and built thousands of rocket motors for assisting airplane take-offs. Before peace broke out, Malina co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as a company, Aerojet, which became wildly successful during the Cold War. And the WAC Corporal, a sounding rocket Malina imagined and designed, flew to over 240,000 feet in October 1945.

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Malina (left) with the WAC-Corporal, 1945.

Malina’s conscience and the destruction he saw during tours of Europe brought him to a second crossroads. Despite his accomplishments in rocketry – certainly on par with those of the soon-to-be-more-famous Wernher von Braun – and considerable military interest in his work, deepening ideological tensions of the Nuclear Age distressed Malina. In 1947, he left Caltech, moved to Paris, and took a position with the newly formed United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

However, the United States government, and many of its citizens, viewed UNESCO with suspicion. A 1948 article in the Saturday Evening Post, for example, mocked the organization’s altruistic goals and made not-so-subtle digs at the left-leaning inclinations of employees like Malina. The FBI had been surveilling the American rocketeer since 1942 and Malina, while a graduate student at Caltech, had openly criticized capitalist economic systems. More likely than not, in fact, Malina was a member of the Communist Party before World War Two started.

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1939 Malina’s application (left) for Communist Party membership – aka Frank Parma – from his FBI file (cover, right). The handwriting, however, is not Malina’s.

Any lingering FBI suspicions were confirmed the following year when physicist Frank Oppenheimer and his wife Jackie testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about Communist activities around Caltech. According to one Washington paper, at the HUAC hearing “the name of Frank J. Malina” was “thrown at them [the Oppenheimers] again and again” by investigators. FBI scrutiny intensified and, when Malina’s passport expired in 1951, the State Department refused to renew it, stating that his travels would harm American interests.

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November 1951 letter informing Malina that his passport would not be renewed; 15 months later, he resigned his UNESCO post

The FBI issued a warrant for Malina’s arrest and explored the possibility of extraditing him from France. At the same time, American pressure on UNESCO curtailed the scope of his travel and research activities. In February 1953, Malina resigned from UNESCO.1 At just about the same time. the value of his Aerojet stock began increasing in value and he decided not to sell it.

Malina, now a middle-aged expatriate living in Paris with his second wife and two young sons, was at his third crossroads. Instead of clutching to the familiar – more scientific research, maybe a professorship somewhere in aeronautics – Malina veered to a very different path. He became a professional artist.

Malina’s choice was not as rash as it might seem. He had long been interested in art, both the making of it as well as pondering the similarities and differences art shared with science. As a graduate student, he made professional-quality engineering drawings for von Kármán. Malina also kept a “Book of Life” where, among other things, he kept track of what he read. It’s a wonderful resource that lists many art history books.

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Cover and page from Malina’s Book of Life. My thanks to Fraser McDonald for sharing a copy of this with me.

Moreover, Frank’s first wife, Lilian, was an artist who, in the late 1930s, did works in a “social realist” fashion before trading California for New York and new artistic styles.

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Lilian Darcourt, Malina’s first wife; they met in 1938, married 1939.

Around the time Malina married Lilian, he wrote a short statement setting out his opinions about art and science. In it, one finds seeds of the ideas that Malina later expressed in the pages of Leonardo, the international art-science journal he founded in 1968. Art, Malina opined, was “entirely separate from science.” Science deals with things by test and observation where art does the same but via feeling and emotion. Not solely a product of the intellect, art’s function was to create “emotion or mood in its object,” serving as an expression of the artist’s emotions and values.

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From 1938, Malina’s musings on art v. science

In 1953, after deciding to explore the path of the professional artist, Malina quickly became skeptical of the Parisian art world which, to his mind seemed set up to promote certain styles and artists. He also found himself soon saturated by the plentiful “nudes, flowers, landscapes, and dead fish” on the walls of French galleries and museums. Instead, he turned to subjects he knew well – shock waves, fluid flow, and rocket motors – along with scientific phenomena, particularly those drawn from physics or astronomy, for inspiration.

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1953 work – Cosmic Ray Showers – made by Malina using painted string.

After he was established as a professional artist, Malina imagined how art could serve as a probe of sorts. It could, he wrote in 1966, provide material for psychologists who wanted to understand how and what people saw. The result might be a better theory of aesthetics which could, in turn, make the arts “richer and much more effective.” For many years, he retained this curiosity as to why people saw what they did.

This interest manifested itself in one of Malina’s early art experiments. These were works made using the moiré effect. For instance, when there are two superimposed wire grids, one may sense visual patterns or even movement as the eye passes over them.

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Illuminated Wire Mesh Moiré, detail, an electro-painting from 1955.

Malina wanted increased contrast between the moiré patterns made via wire mesh and their backgrounds. Getting frustrated, he tried back-lighting his works. The effect gave him a “feeling of ecstasy that one experiences” when “making a discovery.” This led to a series of experiments with low wattage bulbs behind compositions of superimposed painted wire mesh. Malina began to call his new works “electro-paintings.”

In the months that followed, Malina increased his pace of experimentation. He started a new series of electro-paintings, using incandescent lights but with the flashes controlled by thermal interrupters added to the circuitry. As a result, the composition – like the one shown below, a piece Malina titled Jazz – changed over several minutes.

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Jazz (1955), 20” x 28”; an early electro-painting done via Malina’s “interrupter system”

As the title suggests, Jazz was meant to have a certain rhythm, something Malina said was especially noticeable when “viewed while listening to music with a rapid tempo.” I spent an evening a few years ago, watching Jazz at the Malina family’s Paris apartment…even without some bebop playing, it created a dynamic yet contemplative mood.

Malina’s success encouraged him to think more about incorporating actual motion into his works. The electrical systems he was working with were starting to become more complex so he began to collaborate with assistants, including Jean Villmer, a young electronics engineer. They first tried working with systems with varying light output.

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Malina, working on electro-kinetic piece, mid-1950s

This proved excessively complicated and Villmer suggested an alternate approach: an electromechanical system that would give the visual effect of continuous movement combined with changing light. Malina experimented with this approach for years and even patented it. Along the way, he made over 200 electro-kinetic paintings, including (my favorite piece) Cosmos from 1965.

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Cosmos, an 8′ by 9′ kinetic artwork Malina made for Pergamon Press in 1965.

By the time he died in 1981, Malina had created over 2600 works of art. These ranged from simple sketches and paintings to complex pieces that combined light, motion, and sound into – using the language popular at the time – a cybernetic system. His techniques fit with both the 1960s Op Art style as well as the kinetic art movement of the mid-20th century.

A museum curator recently asked me if Malina was an important artist. I’m not an art historian and I’m uninterested such judgments. But we know Malina was a professional artist, selling dozens of works and participating in scores of group and solo shows in the US and Europe. What especially intrigues me about Malina are the different roads he took during his life – from pioneering rocketeer to championing science as a force for international cooperation to artist and then publisher at the art-science interface. In retrospect, we can see how these choices and options complemented and built on one another.

There is some irony inherent in Malina’s choices and the contingencies around them. He chose a new research trajectory in the 1930s because he wanted to build rockets for peaceful scientific research. But military interest during World War Two provided the necessary resources and the arena to demonstrate rocketry’s potential. Malina quit building rockets in 1946 because he could foresee their destructive potential. Nonetheless, Aerojet, the company Malina helped start, made rocket motors that powered weapons of mass destruction. FBI pressure on Malina was motivated by the Cold War politics yet the same twilight conflict drove Aerojet’s stock ever higher, enabling, maybe encouraging, Malina to follow a new road as an artist.


Malina, 1957…perhaps reflecting on other roads untraveled?

Would Malina have become a professional artist were it not for the FBI’s harassment or in the absence of his financial independence? That’s hard to say. But, unlike Frost’s traveler in the woods confronting two seemingly equal routes, Malina expressed no regrets about the roads he took and those he wandered away from.2

  1. James L. Johnson has written an excellent 2012 article on Malina’s travails with the FBI. []
  2. The research for this blog post was done while I was the Lindbergh Chair at the National Air and Space Museum in 2015-2016.  I’d also like to acknowledge a giant debt to three other researchers interested in Malina’s life: Fraser MacDonald, Ewen Chardronnet, and Fabrice Lepelletrie. []

Frank Malina’s Cosmos

Frank J. Malina had three careers. His first, the one he is best known for – but not nearly well enough – was as an aeronautical engineer. Although Wernher von Braun received the press attention and Time magazine covers, it was the American-born Malina who researched and developed the U.S.’s first space-capable rockets.1


Malina, handsome as a young man, Caltech days.

Jules Verne’s classic book De la Terre à la Lune inspired Malina to think seriously about space exploration. He read the book in Czech when his family relocated from Texas back to Europe when he was a young teen. After returning to the U.S., he attended Texas A&M as an undergraduate – he paid for his tuition, in part, by bugling reveille to the student body – before a graduate fellowship brought him to Caltech in 1934. He stayed in Pasadena for 13 years, designing and building rockets and the motors that propelled them. Then project started small – the original team is shown below – but, driven by wartime concerns, expanded quickly into a multi-million dollar effort employing scores of people.

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Iconic image of the early American space program. 1936 – Malina – third from left – with other members of the Caltech rocket project at the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena. A rocket engine test stand is behind them.

While based at Caltech, Malina worked under the tutelage of Hungarian-born research engineer Theodore von Kármán who became his close friend and business partner – the two of them helped start a soon-to-be-very-profitable company called Aerojet. The two engineers also started the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with Malina serving briefly as the lab’s first director.

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Malina, left, with von Kármán, 1961.

The apogee of Malina’s rocket career happened at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The site was close to where Robert Goddard had once tested his rockets and, more ominously, only about 70 miles from where the U.S. Army had exploded the Trinity device three months earlier. Malina visited the Trinity site, in fact, soon after the test and the experience sobered him about the potential realities of future wars.

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Malina (left) with the WAC-Corporal, 1945.

In October 1945 at White Sands, a yellow and black sounding rocket called the WAC-Corporal roared from a launch pad.2  Radar tracked it as it soared to about 240,000 feet, escaping the immediate confines of the earth’s atmosphere.3

Despite technical accomplishments and considerable military interest, the deepening ideological tensions of the Nuclear Age distressed Malina. Ironically, the success of Aerojet, catalyzed by Cold War funding and military demands, would also make him quite wealthy, free, in fact, to pursue other more peaceful paths. In a few short years after 1946, he left Caltech, moved to Paris, got divorced, and remarried. A strong believer in international cooperation, Malina also joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), eventually becoming head of its Division of Scientific Research.

Malina could not escape the Cold War, however, and its McCarthy-era suspicions. He had colleagues at Caltech with pink, if not red, pasts and his own FBI file was of considerable heft. Government harassment coupled with financial independence prompted him to quit the UNESCO post in 1953 and start a new career as an artist.


Malina in his studio, a few years after he transitioned to being a professional artist.

In this, Malina resembles another Frank – Frank Oppenheimer. Younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Frank O’s encounters with the national hysteria state were much more severe. After losing his post at the University of Minnesota, the younger Oppenheimer wandered the wilderness, literally, before reinventing himself as the founder of the Exploratorium, an innovative art-science institution, in 1968.

Malina had long been interested in art – his parents were both professional musicians – and he put himself through school by sometimes doing engineering drawings. Malina started his new career with traditional painting and quickly secured a one-man show at a Paris gallery. Less enthused about painting as a medium, around 1955, he turned his attention to making light-based and kinetic art works.4


Malina in his studio, circa 1957.

Malina was especially keen to introduce material from science and technology, particularly space exploration and astronomy, into contemporary visual arts. Even his early forays into painting incorporated “shock waves and fluid flow and paintings of airplanes and rockets.” As he moved away from traditional art techniques, Malina spent considerable time experimenting with new ways to create novel visual effects. In the mid-1950s, for example, Malina worked with a French electronics student to create what he called his Lumidyne technique. He made his first pieces using it in 1956.

Lumidyne, which Malina described in scientific-like style in journal articles as well as patent applications in the U.S., France, and the U.K., gave him a systematic approach to making art using movement and light.

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Illustration from one of Malina’s patents for Lumidyne.

The Lumidyne system was based on several interrelated parts: Light bulbs and electric motors were fixed to a wooden backboard. There were moving parts, which Malina called “rotors”, made of Plexiglas that he painted and connected to a motor. Fixed pieces of Plexiglas – the “stators” – were also painted. These parts were sandwiched between the backboard and a diffuser screen that faced the viewer.

When switched on, a shifting subtle effect was created by the painted parts moving slowly in concert with the static pieces with light shining through them. The title of a 1961 patent application describes the resulting visual effect with Malina’s characteristic terse style: “Lighted, Animated, and Everchanging Picture Arrangement.” As was the case with his other techniques, the titles and topics of his art works using Lumidyne reflected his persistent engagement with scientific and space themes. The Arc, Orbiter, Sun Sparks, and Jodrell Bank are among the nearly 200 works Malina made using his Lumidyne system before he passed away in 1981.

Voterx and 3 Molecules (1965)

Still image of Malina’s Vortex and 3 Molecules (1965)

In 1965, the flamboyant millionaire (and socialist MP) Robert Maxwell commissioned Malina to make a statement piece for the entrance lobby of his company, Pergamon Press, a fast-growing British publisher of scientific journals based on Oxford. The result was a massive lumino-kinetic work Malina called Cosmos. Weighing several hundred pounds, Cosmos’ sheer size –over 70 square feet – commanded the attention of Pergamon’s visitors and staff.

1965 Malina CosmosMalina began crafting Cosmos with sketches in his Paris workshop in the spring of 1965. A video has even survived which captures the process. Aided by a few technical assistants – the whole team signed their names inside the piece – Malina completed Cosmos in early July.

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Signatures inside Cosmos

Small electric motors slowly turned each of the rotor parts painted by Malina. 120 fluorescent tubes and light bulbs lit up the work. All of this was encased in a relatively thin wood and metal frame.  When Malina had achieved the visual effects he wanted, the entire piece was disassembled and shipped to Oxford for a week-long installation at Pergamon’s building. And it’s still there today…

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Installing Cosmos at Pergamon, 1965.

In September 2015, I went to Oxford to see Malina’s Cosmos. It’s not an easy thing to do. Pergamon is no longer in business, Robert Maxwell is dead, and the building housing Cosmos is now part of Oxford Brookes University. The artwork resides in a small room, partitioned off from the original main lobby. It’s used – from what I could tell – as a storage place for the campus radio station. Since it’s in a locked room on a private campus, I needed help getting access. Roger Malina, Frank’s son, put me in touch with Chris Jennings, an art professor at Brookes. Jennings knew the right people with the right keys and after a heroic effort with little advance notice, he met me at Brookes’ gate on a grey windy afternoon lightly whipped by rain.

Imposing even when turned off, Cosmos is hardly recognizable at first as an art work. An electrician from campus came to switch Cosmos on for us. The lights switched on and immediately the many small electrical motors inside began to turn the painted rotors. For such a giant mechanical piece, it was surprisingly quiet. All I heard was the slight hum of fluorescent lights and an occasional click as one of the gears proved momentarily obstinate.

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Interior detail.

Frank Malina made Cosmos at the height of the Cold War-era space race. Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard had flown four years earlier and a satellite-based infrastructure was beginning to take shape. Astronomers were looking forward to an era of space telescopes observing across wavelengths inaccessible from earth and giving unparalleled resolution. This new techno-scientific activity meant that people were, as Malina wrote in 1966, “more conscious of the universe, both intellectually and visually” than at any other time since the Copernican Revolution. Malina imagined Cosmos as a reflection of a universe that he knew as neither static nor quiescent.

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Malina making Cosmos, summer 1965.

The controlled motion of light and color reflected a view of an orderly Cosmos, however, one knowable to humans who were slowly starting to explore it. Malina abstracted his design from celestial shapes starting with the band of color at the bottom which Malina intended to represent colors seen by astronauts when orbiting the earth. Nine painted circular shapes represent the planets – Neil deGrasse Tyson & co. hadn’t yet killed Pluto – which hover below an abstracted sun presented in slowly changing shades of red, white, and orange.

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Cosmos, detail.

Sitting between the sun and planets are three “nebulae,” executed in a manner similar to some of Malina’s earlier works – filaments of light moving back and forth. Finally, above the sun are scattered star clusters, another theme from Malina’s prior pieces, that slowly oscillate and pulse. The overall effect is elegant, continuous yet stately motion and shifting color.

Malina wanted the piece to be an “expression of a ‘peaceful Cosmos’” while noting, of course, that the universe is anything but. “Events of cataclysmic proportion are constantly occurring” yet people were still willing to dare to “venture forth farther and farther” from the “planetary cradle,” he wrote. This profound shift in position and perspective was something that should challenge the artist. Either they would “find aesthetic significance” in explorations of space or “mock them in despair.”

We also opened up Cosmos to inspect its interior. 1960s-era lights and switches share space with parts added during occasional repairs and upgrades. Malina had signed the various rotors and stators that he painted.

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Looking inside Cosmos.

But their paint is beginning to flake and peel, presenting a challenge to the art conservator. And few of the rotors weren’t turning well.

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One of the signed parts of Cosmos

The complexity of the art work – an ensemble of gears, chains, lights, switches, fuses, plastic disks, with wires running everywhere – surprised me. Compared with the quiet, contemplative mood the piece fosters, the inside of Cosmos is a very busy place.

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Author inside Cosmos, September 2015.

Malina created Cosmos as “silent almost static” panoramic view of the universe centered around our solar system. I stood in front of it for several minutes, watching the colors slowly form, dissolve, move, and shift. I took some last photos. And then, with a flick of the switch, Cosmos was dark again.

  1. MG Lord’s excellent book Astro Turf discusses the historical injustice of a former Nazi getting the attention while U.S.-born Malina’s accomplishments were sidelined during the McCarthy era. []
  2. “WAC” stood for “Without Any Control” or, since it was the “little sister” of the larger Corporal rocket, which followed an earlier rocket named Private, “Women’s Army Corps.” []
  3. In the years that follow, JPL advocates sometimes misstated Malina’s accomplishment, considerable though it was. While doing research for his excellent book The Rocket and the Reich, historian Michael Neufeld learned that one V-2 launch in 1944 went as high as 109 miles. Even routine V-2 launches at London exceeded 240,000 ft.  As he told me in an email: “There is a whole history of exaggerated assertions about the WAC and the Bumper [a combination of a V-2 + WAC Corporal] being the first human objects in space.  As to the Bumper claim, this also involves the changing definition of what is space. There was a tendency after the war more often to put it rather high because of the tenuous outer atmosphere. Only over decades did we settle on 100 km as the unofficial but widely accepted number.” []
  4. A catalog, compiled by Fabrice Lapelletrie, of Malina’s artwork is here. []