On October 31, 1936, six young tinkerers nicknamed the “Rocket Boys” nearly incinerated themselves in an effort to break free of Earth’s gravity. The group had huddled in a gully in the foothills of California’s San Gabriel Mountains to test a small alcohol-fueled jet engine. They wanted to prove that rocket engines could venture into space, at a time when such ideas were widely met with ridicule. That goal was disrupted when an oxygen line caught fire and thrashed around wildly, shooting flames.
The Rocket Boys’ audacity caught the attention of aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman, who already worked with two of them at Caltech. Not far from the location of their fiery mishap, he established a small test area where the Rocket Boys resumed their experiments. In 1943, the site became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and von Karman its first director. JPL has since grown into a sprawling NASA field center with thousands of employees, yet it has managed to retain its founding motivation: test the limits of exploration, convention be damned.