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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

The ARS - Early Years – (1930 to 1944)

In sharp contrast to the IAS, the American Rocket Society (ARS) started in a very different way.  It began in Nino and Nella’s, an Italian restaurant/speakeasy in the West Chelsea section of New York City.  There, the Pendrays, Gawain Edward (1901-1987) and his wife, Leatrice (Lee) Gregory, met with their friends to talk enthusiastically about the possibilities of space travel.  The Pendrays regularly contributed to Science Wonder Stories, a science fiction magazine owned by Hugo Gernsbach, best known for starting the first science fiction publication, Amazing Stories.  Ed and Lee often invited David Lasser, the editor of Science Wonder Stories, and other contributors, to story conferences at Nino and Nella’s.  From there they would adjourn upstairs to the Pendray’s apartment to continue their discussions on the prospect of space flight. At some point one evening, David Lasser suggested that they organize, and the American Interplanetary Society was born.  On April 4, 1930, eleven men and one woman signed their names to a sheet of typing paper, making them the official founding members, with David Lasser as the first president.  They quickly signed up other members, using Gernsbach’s publications for recruitment.  One early member, listed as having joined while “at sea,” must have been Midshipman Robert Heinlein; the future science fiction writer was serving at the time on board the USS Lexington.  By the end of 1931, the society had 100 members.  The society had already begun to publish, starting with a four-page mimeographed newsletter offering a mix of news and information in June 1930.

Pendray replaced Lasser as president in 1932, and the AIS Bulletin changed from a mere mimeographed version to the more formally printed Astronautics. The AIS itself was also changing.  Ed and Lee Pendray took a trip to Europe, where they visited with rocket enthusiasts there.  They were particularly excited to meet members of the German Rocket Society, which at the time was starting to build and test liquid propellant rockets. Ed Pendray returned to the U.S. determined to do the same, and the AIS began redefining its central purpose. From a society that existed to promote the wonders of space travel, it had become a society seriously building and testing small rockets. 

AIS #1, as their first rocket was called, was to be launched on November 12, 1931.  It had cost the grand sum of $49.40 - $30.60 for the rocket and $18.89 for the test stand, propellant, batteries, and other supplies. Most of their supplies were donated, or improvised – the aluminum can that served as a water jacket for the motor was actually a malted milk shaker, for example. The launch site chosen was an empty farm field near Stockton, New Jersey.  Unfortunately, the rocket slipped while being mounted, fell to the ground and was twisted out of alignment, ending its short career.

AIS #2 was built of salvaged parts from #1, along with bailing wire, razor blades, and other cast-offs.  It had balsa wood fins and valves scavenged from gas light fixtures. The group received permission to launch the rocket in Great Kills Park, on Staten Island, and on 14 May 1933, they held the first public launch of a rocket, captured by crews from both Acme and Universal Newsreels. The rocket roared 250 feet into the air, where the oxygen tank burst and fell into lower New York Bay.

Due to these continuing experiments, the society decided to rename itself the American Rocket Society (ARS) in 1934.  Most of the original science fiction crowd had left, to be replaced by scientists and engineers.
The ARS continued their experiments, off an on, throughout the decade, refining and adding to their designs.  Several young engineers, including James Wyld, Franklin Pierce, John Shesta, and Lovell Lawrence, had contributed many refinements to the motors and designs. On December 18, 1941, they formed Reaction Motors, Incorporated, the first American company founded to produce liquid-propellant rockets, based on the work the group had done with the ARS. They had formed the company in order to do business with the U.S. government, which would not contract with individuals.

Information taken from Rocketeers and Gentlemen Engineers: A History of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics…and What Came Before by Tom Crouch. (Link to Bookstore)


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