Tolman/Bacher House

Caltech and JPL

The California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) share a long and complex history of research, innovation, and technological advance. The first rocket motor tests in the history of the lab were carried out in the Arroyo Seco in 1936 by a team of “rocket boys” led by Frank Malina, a Caltech graduate student at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT). Malina’s graduate advisor, Theodore von Kármán, arranged for research space on campus for the group and secured funding from the U. S. Army to pursue rocket propulsion for airplanes, or Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO). The nation’s entry into World War II prompted further support for rocket research and development, and in 1943, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory gained its current name and officially became an Army operation. Following the war, development and testing of high-altitude sounding missiles continued, finding success with the WAC Corporal in 1945, and then with the Sergeant, which used a solid rocket fuel.

Rocket test in the Arroyo Seco in 1936, with Rudolph Schott, Apollo Smith, Frank Malina, Edward Forman, and Jack Parsons.
Early JPL buildings near the time of its founding, c.1936.

Despite the lab’s Caltech roots and its operational ties with the Institute, relations between the two organizations grew distant in the postwar period, as JPL concentrated more and more on classified military endeavors and Caltech encountered increasing tensions over the appropriate acceptance and use of federal funds for education and research. In the face of mounting political pressures to contribute to Cold War national service, as well as apprehensions over Communist sympathizers on campus, President Lee Dubridge accepted JPL’s focus on classified military goals and agreed to host Project Vista, a summer study aimed at advancing military technologies, at Caltech in 1951.

Caltech graduate student Frank Malina with a WAC Corporal: a high-altitude sounding rocket developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, c.1945.

Groundbreaking for the JPL wind tunnel, including Clark Millikan, A. E. Puckett, Louis Dunn, Lee DuBridge, Major General Everett S. Hughes, Theodore von Kármán, and Robert A. Millikan, 1947.

When the USSR successfully launched Sputnik in 1957 during the International Geophysical Year, the United States raced to respond quickly, but the Naval Research Laboratory’s Vanguard project failed in December of that year. Collaboration between JPL and the Ballistic Missile Agency of the U. S. Army resulted in the launch of Explorer I only a few weeks later, making it the United States’ first successful satellite. In December of 1958, JPL formally transitioned to the newly-organized National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.

1966: “First picture transmitted to Earth by the Surveyor I 11:52 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time shows a number of parts of the spacecraft. Easily identified are one of the three landing legs, its foot pad (#2), an omnidirectional antenna boom, and at lower right, the top of a helium container. Surveyor I touched down on the moon 35 minutes earlier – at 11:17 p.m. PDT. Exposure was set for the spacecraft itself so that the lunar surface does not show up well.”

JPL Director William H. Pickering, James van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hold aloft a full-scale model of Explorer I, the United States’ first satellite, at a press conference announcing its successful entry into orbit.

Throughout the following decades, JPL shepherded many developments in space exploration, including the Ranger and Surveyor programs, which paved the way for Apollo’s ascent to the Moon. Today, the Keck Institute for Space Studies incorporates ideas and inspiration from both Caltech and JPL to pursue new initiatives in space science and technology, drawing from the long and fruitful history of interaction between the two organizations.

Group shown at JPL during inspection of the Ranger project, June 1960. Robert Bacher is third from the right.
Theodore von Kármán receives the first National Medal of Science from President Kennedy in 1963.