The spark of a new era

Oct 20, 2011 By DC Agle
One of the early rocket motor experiments in the Arroyo Seco. Credit: JPL

Seventy-five years ago this Halloween, at 9 a.m., a truck from the California Institute of Technology turned on to a road owned by the Pasadena Water Department and after heading down a small hill came to a stop. Its tired occupants - they had spent the night before preparing and had only three hours sleep - clambered out and began the laborious job of carrying a truck full of cumbersome test equipment another 400 yards into the dirt and scruffy brush of Pasadena's Arroyo Seco.

They were there in an isolated, dry, scrub-strewn gulch three miles north of the Rose Bowl to scientifically measure the thrust developed by one of the world's first liquid-fueled . They were there to accurately calculate the efficiency of the motor. They were there because, there, they most likely would not kill anyone - except perhaps themselves.

The "they" were Frank Malina, Jack Parsons, Ed Forman, A.O. Smith, William Bollay, Carlos Wood and William Rockefeller. Malina was a graduate student at nearby Caltech. He had read as a child and considered propellers to be an unnecessary limitation to the potential of aircraft. His associate Parsons was a freethinking explosives expert who dabbled in pagan rituals and liked to keep volatile fuels in his home. And Forman was an area mechanic who, like his friend Parsons, liked to see things go boom.

Forman and Parsons met Malina through Caltech professor Theodore von Karman. Although both Parsons and Forman's education ended at the high school level, their enthusiasm for the new field of rocketry won over von Karman. But the methodical professor realized the young duo's 'kick the tire and light the fire' attitude had to be tempered. To achieve breakthroughs in , von Karman appreciated, would require a healthy respect for the scientific method. He pointed them in the direction of Malina, who was also quickly won over by their passion. In February 1936, Malina requested the two assist him in his doctoral thesis on rocket propulsion.

The spark of a new era
A successful test shows a rocket motor firing. Credit: JPL

Nine months of hard work later, Malina, Parsons and Forman were standing in the dusty gully in the Arroyo Seco with Smith, Bollay, Wood and Rockefeller - all inquisitive, aeronautically minded Caltech graduate students willing to break a sweat.

By one in the afternoon the now sweaty septet had had their fill of the lugging and assembling of heavy cylinders, gauges and hoses. Before them stood a nearly five-foot-tall rocket motor made of duralumin, surrounded by a water jacket to keep the combustion chamber cool. The rocket nozzle pointed skyward and, when firing, the plan was it would push down on a diamond tipped arm that would scratch a clock-driven glass drum, providing the experimenters with an accurate assessment of the motor's thrust. All this was attached by a series of rubber tubes to a mélange of valves, flow meters, pressure regulators, pressurized bottles of fuel and oxidizer, and surrounded by sandbags.

Nine months of work led to this moment. Most in attendance huddled behind a wall of sandbags. A few took refuge behind a nearby trash dump. All waited anxiously. A lit fuse quickly covered the distance between sandbag and rocket. It entered the rocket chamber and then - nothing.

After confirming it was relatively safe to approach, the team gathered by the rocket engine and attempted some on-scene analysis. Soon after, two more attempts led to the same humbling result. Prior to the fourth and final attempt of the day the team made a modification to the fuse. The fuse was lit. When its flame entered the combustion chamber the regulators for gaseous oxygen and methyl alcohol were opened.

Ignition

A foot-long plume of fire rose from the engine's nickel-plated nozzle only to be quickly snuffed out when the oxygen hose broke loose. The intrepid rocket pioneers ran for the hills as the hose snaked across the ground spouting flame. When the coast was clear they compared notes. All in attendance that October day agreed the motor had only fired for only three seconds. But they also agreed that the most important thing was that they had fired a liquid rocket engine -- and history had been made.

Malina's drawing of how to set up the rocket motor test. Credit: JPL

One month after their initial success, the team more than quadrupled their initial firing time; and by January of the following year the rocket motor was putting out between 5 and 8 pounds of thrust for up to 44 seconds. Rocket propulsion, and more importantly, the science of rocket propulsion, had come to Pasadena.

Today, space probes designed, built and managed within earshot of that first Arroyo rocket firing have reached every planet in our solar system and peered well beyond its boundaries. Each probe carries on it the logo of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But more importantly, each probe carries with it the legacy of scientific and engineering excellence that began some three-quarters of a century ago in an isolated, scrub-strewn gulch in the Arroyo.

Explore further: NASA team lays plans to observe new worlds

Provided by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

4.8 /5 (8 votes)

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User comments : 11

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hard2grep
5 / 5 (2) Oct 20, 2011
That's it.. Bottle rockets for Halloween!
Skepticus
5 / 5 (5) Oct 20, 2011
But more importantly, each probe carries with it the legacy of scientific and engineering excellence that began some three-quarters of a century ago in an isolated, scrub-strewn gulch in the Arroyo.

A sly obfuscation of history. Uncritical readers may think the article implies America's rocketry lineage traced directly to this test. America's rocketry was nowhere until it military got itself a catch of V2 and "recruited" Nazis scientists such as von Braun to continue to work on them. The Chinese may say the better, that their current space rockets follow the first rockets they invented thousand years ago!
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (1) Oct 20, 2011
The Chinese may say the better, that their current space rockets follow the first rockets they invented thousand years ago!
As if... Chinese rocket tech is mostly based on Soviet/Russian designs.
Skepticus
5 / 5 (1) Oct 20, 2011
The Chinese may say the better, that their current space rockets follow the first rockets they invented thousand years ago!
As if... Chinese rocket tech is mostly based on Soviet/Russian designs.

Exactly. You proved my point.
FrankHerbert
1 / 5 (7) Oct 20, 2011
Von Braun built his work upon (an American) Robert Goddard's.
Skepticus
not rated yet Oct 21, 2011
Von Braun built his work upon (an American) Robert Goddard's.


ha ha ha. Operation Paperclip is some dumbfornicate's office stationery bulk purchasing order. The Redstone rockets were made from designs by the Flintstones...
Skepticus
2.5 / 5 (2) Oct 21, 2011
Von Braun built his work upon (an American) Robert Goddard's.


ha ha. Operation Paperclip is some dumbfornicate's stationery bulk order. The Redstone rockets were designed by the Flintstones.
I guess there's no shame in ripping off, exploiting and whitewash your defeated foe's intellectual and hardware resources to make it pretty.
Same goes for sexed-up The Gulf of Tonkin Incident for LBJ to plunge the US into the VN War. The WMDs by GWB to go Iraq to kick asses, and Afghanistan for revenge. The cheering, back-pushing on NATO to help finish off Gaddafi of oil-rich Libya. The clear and present danger of unacceptable stockpile of nuclear weapons the Iranians are building. The treacherous back-stabbing Pakistanis. Shall I go on? Cooked up info and false alliances last as long as they serve the US's interests and image, and quickly whitewashed if the situation warranted. You will be busy helping to write Afghanization, Iraqization, Pakistanisation for a looong time on Wiki...
dutchman
not rated yet Oct 25, 2011
The Chinese may say the better, that their current space rockets follow the first rockets they invented thousand years ago!


Just like the Greeks invented a steam engine, but limited it's uses to some toys, this is a similar story:

Actually, the Chinese invented GUNPOWDER, but limited the use of their discovery to fireworks. The existence of an early Chinese "rocket" is pure speculation and the the contraption (a gunpowder-powered chair) has been shown to be totally unstable - as might be expected.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (2) Oct 25, 2011
As if... Chinese rocket tech is mostly based on Soviet/Russian designs.

Which in turn is based on the work by other scientists captured from the V2 project. The US wasn't the only country hunting for rocket scientists post WWII.
PinkElephant
not rated yet Oct 25, 2011
Not entirely, AP. The Russians had their own indigenous rocket program going all the way back to Tsiolkovsky:

http://en.wikiped...olkovsky

and in WWII one of the most fearsome weapons deployed by the Soviets was the Katyusha mobile rocket battery:

http://en.wikiped...launcher

Yes, I'm sure the Russians appropriated whatever German tech they could get their hands on (and later, through espionage, whatever Western tech they could steal.) But it was the Americans who actually got most of the German rocket scientists and related know-how. And the Cold War-era aerospace R&D was done in Russia mostly by indigenous rather than trophy talent -- people like Korolyov, Tupolev, etc.

http://en.wikiped..._Korolev

http://en.wikiped..._Tupolev
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Oct 27, 2011
The russian rocket technology pre WWII was solid booster types. The liquid booster types (like the one described in the article) were only developed in the US and Russia with the help of german scientists recruited from the V2 project post WWII.

http://books.goog...q=german