Historians have an unromantic term for describing what the rest of us would call a series of lucky coincidences. These moments when an idea takes root amid just the right people, when a decision is made with fortunate foresight, when some rocket enthusiasts find just the right spot outside of town to test their novel inventions—these are the “contingencies” in history. “And the development of anything like this is a very contingent process,” says Erik Conway, who has the enviable job as the historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “It’s contingent not just on things that go well but on things that don’t.”
Pasadena, a quaint city of 138,000 about 10 miles northeast of L.A., has long been synonymous with the lab, which the California Institute of Technology manages for NASA. Pasadena and the Jet Propulsion Lab are probably also synonymous in your mind with the Mars Curiosity rover. If you watched any of the deliriously happy YouTube videos of NASA flight controllers cheering Curiosity’s touchdown on August 6, that happened here.
But Conway’s story of how this place came into being—and how Southern California came to be home to many of JPL’s more earth-bound spinoff technologies—is full of those quirky contingencies of weather and land and ideas and people. “If you removed the availability of the land,” Conway says, “or the availability of Caltech’s expertise and the wind tunnel infrastructure it had—any of those things, it might not have happened.”
The story begins in the 1930s with a Caltech graduate student named Frank Malina who was studying at the university’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory under the engineer Theodore von Kármán. In 1936, Malina happened to meet two other young men from outside of the university who were equally intrigued by the relatively new notion of rocket science. Ed Forman was a machinist and John Parsons was, in Conway’s words, “a self-taught explosive wizard.” The three formed a kind of ad-hoc band to begin testing their own rockets.
“But they weren’t allowed to do it on campus,” Conway says. They were sent instead about 7 miles away to the Arroyo Seco on the edge of Pasadena at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. The spot, now a sacred site in rocket lore, was near the back end of a mostly empty flood control reservoir. Today JPL dates its origins to Halloween of 1936, when the three attempted the first tests of an alcohol-fueled rocket engine that, Conway says, “kinda, sorta worked.”
Malina, Forman, and Parsons weren’t the only Americans trying to develop rockets at the time. Physicist Robert Goddard had been at work on the idea in Roswell, New Mexico, where he was infamously secretive about his progress. The Pasadena research, in contrast, was much more transparent. “In a sense, that’s part of their contribution: the recognition that they needed a team,” Conway says. “And so they had to make some concessions to their own potential personal fame. Goddard was a loner, and they just weren’t.”
Kármán was a well-connected technical advisor to the Army. And with his own protégés eager for funding, he helped convince the military to finance their rocket projects now underway on the Arroyo. Such rockets, they argued, could enable heavy aircraft to take off from shorter runways. And with World War II on the horizon, this seemed like a useful development. In the early 1940s, the project formally became an Army research lab, under the name—for the first time—of the Jet Propulsion Lab.
During World War II, the aerospace industry expanded throughout the region, thanks to California’s ideal flying conditions and ample land. Pasadena expanded as well. The city was home to about 80,000 people on the eve of the war, back when orange groves grew on Orange Grove Boulevard.
The main lab, still located within sight of the spot of those 1936 rocket tests, spent the 1950s developing missiles for the Army. Then nearly 25 years after those first tests here, NASA came into being in 1958. JPL had already presided over the country’s first satellite in space, Explorer 1, America’s response to Sputnik. At the same time, JPL was falling behind newer aerospace companies in developing cutting-edge rocket technology. As a non-profit, it couldn’t pursue the millions—even billions—in capital needed to continue that work. But there was little deep-pocketed competition in planetary exploration, so it seemed like the right moment for the lab to dramatically shift its identity. In December of 1958, the JPL was transferred from the Army to NASA, still under Caltech management, to pursue an entirely new mission. “In the space of about five years, the lab goes form making relatively reliable weapons to making fairly unreliable spacecraft, to then figuring out how to do reliable spacecraft,” Conway says. “To me, that’s kind of an amazing conversion.”
During the years that followed, this place would become a public face of the space program—so much so that the neighboring towns of Pasadena and La Cañada Flintridge would argue over which one could rightly claim to be the parent of the famous lab. Technically, the property sits on the border between the two towns, with much of its land in La Cañada. But the front entrance opens into Pasadena, where its parent institution Caltech is also located, and so the two have remained intertwined.
Pasadena has long owed this fame to another quirk of history. During the Cold War, the Soviets hid their space program and only publicly announced missions once—as with Sputnik—they had succeeded. “Everything JPL did was in full view of the public,” Conway says. “Both our successes and our failures were very, very public.”
The region around Pasadena (and Caltech itself) would also come to further develop many of the innovations that were first born here to fuel the space program. JPL helped pioneer digital image processing, new telescopes, cameras and telecommunications technology. “Those things became Southern California things,” Conway says. In the mid-1990s, JPL engineers founded a local company called Photobit that commercialized some of the digital photography image sensors first used in space that are now ubiquitous in the miniature cameras inside your cell phone. Another telecommunications spinoff, called Linkbit, later evolved into the much better-known Southern California company (and stadium namesake) Qualcomm.
Meanwhile, NASA’s most spectacular public events—the rocket launches—have typically taken place far from Pasadena in Florida. But over the years, the JPL has managed spacecraft that have flown by Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune; orbited Mars and landed on it; studied the sun’s poles; and photographed asteroids and comets. The lab, now home to about 5,000 workers on 177 acres, barely has room to let anyone in for the show when an event like the Curiosity landing happens. But if you watched it live from anywhere else, that was made possible in part by technology that was born at JPL, too.
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[Inline images: NASA-JPL/Caltech]