Warning: Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen “The Martian” movie.
In the new sci-fi blockbuster movie “The Martian,” there’s a critical scene involving rocket fuel and an explosive fireball.
The blast happens when astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) tries burning rocket fuel to make water, which he then uses to grow food on Mars. Shortly before the fateful scene, though, Watney claims NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory came into existence after some Caltech students similarly lit part of their dorm on fire with a rocket test gone wrong.
We looked into it, and it turns out that this story is completely true.
Back in the 1930s, a group of graduate students known as “the rocket boys” set off a small explosion in their dormitory building during a fuelled rocket test, according to NASA’s history archive.
The original group included aerodynamics student Frank Malina, self-taught chemist Jack Parsons, and mechanic Ed Forman, pictured below:
After the explosion the university kicked the men off the campus. However, this didn’t stop their rocket testing.
The group moved their amateur rocket operation into the San Gabriel mountains in California and they came to be known as the “Suicide Club,” says NASA.
Their tests didn’t go very well at first. In 1936, during one of the very first tests, they accidentally lit an oxygen line on fire that fed the rocket test itself. Thankfully, no one got hurt.
Despite the near-disaster, they pressed on with the tests, and actually got pretty good at building working, non-exploding rockets.
They were eventually allowed back on Caltech, but were booted out again (for what we can only assume was more explosions).
But instead of trekking back out the desert, the group set up their own lab in the “foothills of Pasadena.” By the 1940s it had secured funding and an official name: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Since it’s founding, JPL has either led or been involved with more than 125 NASA missions, many of which have explored the Solar System beyond Earth.
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