Not exactly rocket science

By Joar Kvamsås

When a rocket belonging to Elon Musks’ Space X programme exploded upon launch in September of last year, it was a PR disaster. Not only did it cause the destruction of a $200 million satellite financed by Marc Zuckerberg that was meant to expand internet services in Africa, but Musk himself has gone out and called it the «toughest puzzle» the Space X programme has had to solve – a programme which ambition is to eventually develop affordable interplanetary travel between Earth and Mars.

Today, the idea of a rocket misfiring and exploding for unknown reasons appear deeply unsettling. NASA has given us the impression that launching rockets is an exact science, the purview of only the brightest minds of physics and engineering. In the public imagination, rocket science is seen as the ultimate achievement of modern physics; the practical application of an exact mathematical understanding of the laws of nature, put in use to explore the outer frontiers of our universe.

However, this conception of rocket science is a surprisingly recent one. By most accounts, modern rocket science originated with a small group of graduate students known as the ‘Rocket Boys’ working at Caltech in the 1930s. At the time, rocket science – or ‘rocketry’, as it was commonly known – was not regarded as a respectable scientific area of study. Toying around with explosive substances in the hope of launching objects into the air was an idea reserved for science fiction writers and lunatics. The Caltech group soon earned the nickname the ‘Suicide Club’, which became particularly popular once they were booted off campus after blowing up part of a university building in one of their experiments.

Getting thrown off the premises did not deter the group, however. Taken under the wing of renowned aeronautics professor Theodore von Karman, the group was soon allowed back on campus, before (after more explosive accidents) they were given their own premises consisting of tarpaper shacks, far from any valuable buildings. The Rocket Boys were given a space to fail, to fail spectacularly and loudly. And fail they did; through a series of mislaunches and explosions, the group used trial and error to explore the principles of rocket science that would one day be used to land people on the moon. By 1944, the group had attracted both interest and funding from the US Armed Forces, and had taken on the more respectable name the Rocket Propulsion Laboratory.

In accordance with the popular conception at the time, the Suicide Club was populated by its fair share of eccentric characters. Among these was the larger-than-life personality Jack Parsons, a high school drop-out and self-taught chemist who became a central figure in early rocket fuel research. He was recognised for his talents as an amateur rocket enthusiast and his expertise on powder explosives, the latter of which he enhanced by visiting industrial accidents to determine the cause of explosions. Parsons was also an avid occultist, and was in 1944 discharged from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories for his involvement in the Thelemite group Ordio Tempio Orientis. Having been ousted from the rocketry community after being accused of espionage during the 50’s McCarthyism, he died at age 37 from an explosion in his home laboratory. While his importance to the US rocketry programme was long downplayed, it has in later years been recognised in a series of biographies with titles such as Sex and Rockets and Strangle Angel: The Otherwordly Life of Jack Parsons.

The story of Parsons and the Caltech Rocket Boys gives us some perspective the most recent developments of modern-day space travel. While Elon Musk’s dream of a colony on Mars seems like the works of science fiction now, the idea is nowhere near as outlandish as the idea of rocketpropelled travel was in the 1930s. And while it might seem far-fetched that interplanetary travel should spring from the dreams of an internet billionaire, Musk would certainly not be the most eccentric character to have a defining impact on human space travel. Lastly, failed attempts and unforeseen setbacks are an integral part of research and invention. And when you are researching rocketry, you should not be surprised to see those mistakes come in the form of great big explosions.