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BOOK REVIEW: Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket by Fraser MacDonald

| 10 October 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket by Fraser MacDonald

Profile Books
August 2019
Hardcover, $39.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Non-Fiction / Space / Science / History


ESCAPE FROM EARTH is the untold story of the engineers, dreamers and rebels who started the American space programme. In particular, it is the story of Frank Malina, founder of what became NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the scientist who cracked the, as he called it, problem of escape from the Earth by rocket.

It’s a wild ride. Jack Parsons, Malina’s chemistry-expert research partner, was a bed-hopping occultist with delusions of grandeur. We get all the horrible details: drug parties and sex magic, cameos by Aleister Crowley and L Ron Hubbard, and an ill-fated attempt to start a mail-order religion.

Armed with hitherto unpublished letters, journals, and documents from the Malina family archives, Fraser MacDonald reveals what we didn’t know. Jack Parsons betrayed Frank Malina to the FBI, cooperating fully in their investigation of Malina for un-American activities. The Jet Propulsion Lab’s second director secretly denounced Frank as a Communist. Frank’s research group had close ties to the spy network of the infamous Rosenbergs – the only Americans executed during the Red Scare. This is a story of soaring ideals entangled in the most human of complications: infidelity and divorce, betrayal and treason.

These days ‘rocket science’ is a cliché for complexity, a shorthand for engineering brilliance. In the 1930s, however, the opposite was the case: rocketry was so discredited that it didn’t belong anywhere near the word ‘science’. Yet it was Frank Malina, arguably more than anyone else in the United States, who made it respectable. Why then was his name absent from histories of space flight?

Escape from Earth mostly follows the story of Frank Malina, though it does sometimes side-step a little to fill us in on what the rest of the Suicide Squad (so named for the volatility of their experiments, prior to starting JPL) got up to in addition to their rocket-science pursuits. 

This is the story of how Malina and a close circle of friends pursued two strains of twentieth-century optimism: space flight and socialism. These were connected in remarkable ways, not least in that they purposes of both movements became corrupted, and many of their advocates were persecuted and forgotten.

The story takes us from Malina’s early days, when he defied his family’s wishes and went on to study something as disrespected as aeronautics and rocketry, through his life, a lot of which focused on rocket science, through to his later years as an artist. We’re also privy to information surrounding Jack Parson’s extracurricular activities including occultism, involvement with the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis) specifically, and seemingly rather important relationship with L. Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology.


This book is loaded full of factual information portrayed in a colloquial manner, meaning it doesn’t feel quite as bogged down as it could. But the main short fall for this reader was the hopping around through time, which could make it rather difficult to form a clear of correct mental timeline. There’s no doubt the author is passionate about the subject, and it can be quite difficult to know the best point to jump back and have a look at what was going on with a different person at the same time. MacDonald did an admirable job, but this will likely be of more interest to the history-minded folk (those who don’t mind reading occasionally dense matter), than fans of popular science. 

But it was definitely interesting to see the way rocket scientists were looked down upon a mere 85 years ago, and how far scientists and the societal opinion of scientists have come.



Category: Book Reviews

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