TCS Daily

The Devil's Rocketeer

By Kenneth Silber - March 1, 2005 12:00 AM

John Whiteside Parsons, an early innovator of rocket technology, is not widely remembered today. Insofar as he is remembered, moreover, it is often not in connection with rocket science but rather with cultism, mysticism and black magic. Parsons was a figure of two worlds. He helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the aerospace company Aerojet, and also engaged in arcane rituals and mysterious practices. He died gruesomely in a perplexing explosion in his home laboratory in 1952 at age 37.

Strange Angel: The Otherworldy Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, by George Pendle (Harcourt) is an intriguing biography that casts light on a shadowy corner of the origins of the space age, and on various cultural and intellectual currents of the first half of the 20th century. Parsons' life makes for a colorful, if sometimes disturbing, story. Its diverse cast of characters includes rocket pioneer Theodore von Kármán, science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, mystic Aleister Crowley (reputed to be "the wickedest man in the world"), and L. Ron Hubbard, who subsequently founded Scientology.

Jack Parsons, as he was known, was born in October 1914 shortly before his father was forced to leave because of adultery. He was raised by his mother and grandparents in affluence in Pasadena, California, but the family wealth was battered by the Depression, and Parsons never received a college degree. He began making a living as an explosives expert and developed a loose affiliation with the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, a local school that was emerging in the 1930s as a prestigious science institution. Inspired by pulp science-fiction magazines, Parsons set out to perform rocket research -- a field then regarded with disdain by mainstream scientists.

Parsons and several associates formed a research group that tested crude rockets in the desert (or on the Caltech campus, to the dismay of school authorities). As World War II approached, the military took an interest in their work, and new funding and facilities became available. The group ran tests of prototype jet airplanes with rockets attached to their wings. Parsons, moreover, came up with the first "castable" rocket fuel (so called because it could be cast in a mold), replacing conventional black powder with an asphalt mix. This innovation made rocket fuel safer and easier to handle, and set the stage for the use of solid fuels by the space shuttle and other spacecraft in later decades.

While making progress in rocketry, Parsons was becoming drawn to another type of experimentation. He and his wife Helen became attendees of the Church of Thelema, an organization that held secret rituals in a Hollywood attic. The leader of this group, who oversaw it from London, was Crowley, whose mystical writings and sinister demeanor gave rise to public perceptions that he was a Satanist. Before long, Jack and Helen were living in a group home along with other followers of Crowley.

The house members increasingly moved away from conventional lifestyles. Parsons had an affair with Helen's 17-year-old half-sister Betty, and encouraged Helen to take up with one Wilfred T. Smith, his mentor in the house. Smith eventually was banished by Crowley, taking Helen with him. Hubbard arrived and performed rituals with Parsons, one of which had the seeming result of summoning a red-haired woman named Candy to the house as Parsons' new partner. The future founder of Scientology then left with Betty and most of Parsons' savings, the latter for the stated purpose of a business partnership involving yacht sales. Parsons later sued to retrieve the money but had little success.

Parsons' later years were difficult. Parts of the rocket project had evolved into the Jet Propulsion Lab (now part of NASA) and Aerojet, but he was eased aside as these grew into major institutions. Rumors of his eccentric lifestyle, combined with suspicions that some of his friends were Communists, resulted in the loss of his security clearance, leaving him unable to perform rocket work in the postwar years. He married Candy, but they had lengthy separations. For a while, he became even more immersed in mysticism, attempting to summon a goddess named Babalon. After flitting through some odd jobs, he found new employment providing explosions for the motion-picture industry.

The explosion that killed him on June 17, 1952 was puzzling. Parsons, who had extensive experience with explosive materials, evidently had been working in his home lab in an uncharacteristically sloppy manner. Could this have been suicide or murder? The explanation, as Pendle shows, is probably less sinister. Parsons seems to have been distracted by an imminent trip to Mexico, and he was stirring chemicals in a tin coffee can because much of his equipment had recently been moved and was still packed away.

Parsons' life was a sustained struggle against conventional thinking. He rightly saw that rocketry had enormous potential, even as the scientific establishment scoffed. He grasped for the unorthodox in the mystical and personal as well, with far less to show for it. Still, his strange


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