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Book review: ‘Escape from Earth’ by Fraser MacDonald

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'Secret history' of early rocket research provides a very different take on the pioneers of US space exploration.

It’s 50 years since Armstrong and Aldrin became the first men from Earth to land on the Moon and this incredible engineering feat is, quite rightly, a cause for celebration. But if you’re with the late President Kennedy in saying “I’m not that interested in space”, then ‘Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket’ (Profile Books, £20, ISBN 9781610398718) could be the book for you.

It’s less about rockets, more about some rather unusual actors on the stage of Cold War America: Frank Malina, maverick rocketeer and eventual director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and his friend Jack Parsons, whom author Fraser Macdonald calls “a grandiose explosives enthusiast with a taste for the occult”. I mean, why has no-one made a film of this story?

First, let’s cut through the unavoidable hype of the tell-all ‘secret history’ of ‘almost unknown’ characters and ‘explosive revelations’. Malina is well known within the space community and Parsons has whole books dedicated to him, the titles of which tell a story in themselves; there’s ‘Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of John Whiteside Parsons’, for example, and ‘Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons’. Even E&T ran a feature on the ‘Geek Rocketeer’ https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2014/10/geek-spirit-the-man-who-kick-started-the-us-rocket-programme/ in 2014.

That said, we can never quite get enough of “a paranoid world of surveillance and betrayal, bizarre delusions and all-too-justified fears”, and this is a fascinating account by a dedicated writer. As the 60 pages of chapter notes show, Macdonald has done his research. For example, he “found Frank Malina’s FBI file” and even submitted Freedom of Information requests “to declassify the FBI files on Malina’s friends”.

What he ended up with was an image of America’s Space Age pioneers somewhat different from the ‘steely-eyed missile men’ that popular histories have promulgated. “I saw something else,” he says. “Something repressed and unspeakable, something hidden and shameful. Something secret.” You can see how easy it is to get drawn into such a murky world.

Parts of the text are novelistic – with sections beginning “The phone rang. The caller didn’t identify herself…” and “At 1746 Winona Boulevard, a gong signalled the start of the Gnostic Mass” – but most is ‘standard reportage’. It is strange to see reference indices in the dramatic text, but they help to remind the reader that the context has been researched. The 16-page photo-insert also confirms that these were real people, albeit in the case of English occultist and magician Aleister Crowley (aka ‘The Beast’) somewhat strange.

The story of Hsue-Shen Tsien gets a fair airing too. This Chinese immigrant studied at MIT, co-founded JPL and became Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion at Caltech. Following years of investigation and house-arrest under anti-communism legislation, Tsien returned to China in 1955 and, in addition to working on nuclear weapons development, was instrumental in developing the Chinese space programme – to the extent that he is known as the ‘father of Chinese rocketry’ – a classic case of ‘America shooting itself in the foot’!

Ultimately, if you like your rocketry garnished with a side order of sex and questionable relationships and smothered in a sauce of shadowy federal agents and McCarthyism, this is the book for you.

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