The American Rocketeer

The 75th anniversary of the first rocket experiments at the site that became NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. was celebrated with the premiere of  “The American Rocketeer.” This  film is the first installment in a multi-part documentary series chronicling the history of JPL.


On Halloween day in 1936, a group of Caltech students, led by Frank Malina, conducted the first stand-up rocket engine test in a dirt gulch known to the residents of Pasadena as the Arroyo. Little did they know that this day would go down in history as the beginning of what is now JPL, the world’s leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system and beyond. The 90-minute episode takes viewers on a journey through Malina’s life using personal letters, video footage, drawings and paintings to reveal an extraordinary story of how JPL came to be.

“This is a very personal story about a person few even know,” said Blaine Baggett, JPL’s director of communications and education. “Yet Malina was a major pioneer in American rocketry. This film attempts both to shed light on his important contributions, while revealing the reasons why he has been forgotten. The time is long since past that the public should know the name Frank Malina.””The American Rocketeer” tells the controversial story of aviation engineer Frank Malina, whose fundamental role in the evolution of American rocketry is largely forgotten. Malina, along with a motley crew of amateur rocket enthusiasts and fellow California Institute of Technology students, conducted the first stand-up rocket engine test on Halloween in 1936 in the Pasadena Arroyo. On this 75th anniversary of those tests, this 90-minute, intensely personal documentary explores the complexities of Malina’s life and the profound ramifications his work had on Caltech and the nation. “Though there are many fascinating characters in the American Rocketeer, at its core, this film is a personal story of one man’s dreams,” noted producer Blaine Baggett, “and how his ideas and idealism put him on a collision course with the world.”  – KCET/Los Angeles

Click here for American Rocketeer reviews

Click here for public radio KPCC interview with Blaine Baggett

Click here for podcast interview with Blaine Baggett