Jack Parsons (rocket engineer) | WIKIPEDIA | APR 30, 2017
Jack Parsons and the Occult Roots of JPL | SPACE SAFETY MAGAZINE | AUG 2, 2013
Almost everyone in the fields of space and aeronautical engineering are aware of the names of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Werner Von Braun. These men undoubtedly laid the groundwork in rocket development which allowed mankind to leave the cradle of Earth, and take our first small steps into the cosmos.
But very few people are aware of Marvel Whiteside Parsons (a.k.a Jack Parsons), co-founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Parsons made major contributions to rocket development, particularly in the area of solid fuel propellant. The solid motors on the Space Shuttle and the motors in the Minuteman missile were based on the solid propellant technology that he invented. He was a founding member of Aerojet Corporation, and he even has a crater on the dark side of the moon named after him. So why isn’t he as celebrated as the other founding fathers of spaceflight? And what was that about the occult?
Parsons was born in Pasadena, in 1914, to a wealthy but troubled family. His father, Marvel Senior, walked out when his son was young, after having an affair with another woman, leaving young Marvel Junior in the charge of his doting mother, Ruth. His mother promptly filed for divorce, and began referring to her son, as “John,” which is the name he is referred to by the scientific community who worked with him later in life. As he grew older, other family members and close friends would refer to him as “Jack,” as would his occult buddies in his later years.
In 8th grade, Parsons met another boy, named Edward Foreman, and the two became friends. Both were fans of Jules Verne and the new Amazing Stories science fiction magazine. Undoubtedly, these works of fiction shaped the minds of Parsons and Foreman, as soon they were experimenting with fireworks in Parsons’ back garden. This need for experimentation grew, and in 1928 the pair began constructing their own solid fuelled rockets. Neighbours at the time had reported that the Parsons’ back yard was full of scorched craters from some of the less successful rocket trials. According to Forman, it was at this time that Parsons had begun experimenting with glue as a binding agent for the loose powder in their DIY rockets.
In 1932, whilst still in high school, Parsons began working for the Hercules Powder Company. In 1933, he graduated from high school and began studying at Pasadena Junior College along with Forman. During this time, the pair entered into written correspondence with Robert Goddard, Herman Oberth, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, but later commented that due to the state of the art at the time, nothing of any real value could be gleaned from the correspondences, so the letter writing ceased.
Both Parsons and Forman failed to graduate from college. Instead both found employment with Halifax Explosives, a company based in the Mojave Desert.
In 1935, Parsons married his high school sweetheart, Helen Northrup. The marriage lasted a few years, but ended when Parsons began an affair with Helen’s half-sister…but more on that later.
One day, in 1937, Parsons and Forman attended a lecture on rocketry at Cal Tech, where they became acquainted with student Frank Melina. Melina was a theorist and mathematician, studying Mechanical Engineering at the time. The three men began making enquiries around the Cal Tech campus with regards to establishing a rocket development program, but were constantly refused opportunities as rocketry was still largely seen as science fiction at that time.
However, legendary aerodynamicist Theodore Von Kármán was working at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratories of the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), and listened to the plans of the trio. He heard of their plans for sending liquid and solid fuelled rockets high into the atmosphere, and finally approved their proposal in the form of Melina’s proposal for a PhD in rocket design. This opened the doors to the academic world, and made available the full resources of Cal Tech and GALCIT for Melina and his new pals.
It didn’t take long for the group to run into trouble on campus. A misfired rocket forced the group to move outside of the Aeronautics Laboratory and work on a concrete platform away from the main building. A second accident, an explosion that caused a piece of steel to become impacted into a wall, saw Von Kármán move the group out into the desert to avoid further mishap and potential fatalities.
At this point, the group became known to other students as the “Suicide Club,” and began their experiments in the Arroyo Seco area, close to the ironically named “Devil’s Gate Dam” at the edge of Pasadena. JPL is now located on that exact site.
Research For The US Army
Then, in 1938, the United States Army offered two research projects, one for windshield de-icing on aircraft and another for rocket engines to launch small aircraft. MIT had the first pick, and feeling that the research into rocketry was a “Buck Rogers” project, left rocket development to the members of the Suicide Club.
Early tests of the rocket engines relied upon powdered fuel but, due to the contents of the canisters settling, the rockets were unstable. Parsons, who had already developed a passion for mythology, was allegedly watching a roofer applying hot asphalt to the top of a building, and was reminded of the “Greek Fire” incendiary weapon, used by the ancient Byzantine empire. Thinking back to his earlier experiments using binding agents, Parsons decided to mix some of this hot tar-like substance with potassium perchlorate powder. After several experiments, it was demonstrated that this binding agent provided a clean and even burn, and could allow the canisters to be stored safely, without the contents settling. The military saw the potential for this “JATO” canister, short for “Jet Assisted Take Off,” and injected a small amount of money into the group for further development. The solid rocket fuel would become the basis of the Minuteman missile, the Titan rocket, and the Space Shuttle solid rocket booster, and would ultimately help push humankind into the solar system…but not before some “staring into the abyss” from Parsons….
The Influence Of
In 1939 Parsons became acquainted with the works of English occultist Aleister Crowley who referred to himself as “The Great Beast 666,” and was referred to by the English media as the “wickedest man in the world.”
Crowley was the founder of the Thelemic religion whose practitioners lived by the motto “do what thou wilt.” He had previously enjoyed some success as a mountaineer, having scaled K2 and Kanchenjunga, the 2nd and 3rd highest mountains in the world, respectively. During the Kanchenjunga expedition in 1905, Crowley’s fellow mountaineers fell victim to an avalanche. They called to Crowley for help, and rather than assist his dying comrades he did what any good Englishman would do…he put his feet up, made a cup of tea. He then sat and watched them die on the mountain, later claiming that he had “no sympathy” for his chums.
Afterwards, in 1910, hooked on mysticism and debauchery, Crowley was admitted to another secret society, this time into a group known as the Ordo Templi Orientis, or O.T.O. Crowley quickly rose through the ranks of the O.T.O. and became leader of the English speaking fraternities. Although the O.T.O. was originally modeled on principles of Freemasonry, with Crowley at the helm it quickly reinvented itself with the beliefs of the Thelemic religion at its core, along with its ideas of free love, debauchery, and “Sex Magick.”
Fast forward back to 1939… Parsons and his wife Helen joined the O.T.O.’s Pasadena chapter, known as the Agape Lodge, which was led by Wilfred Smith. He began correspondence with Crowley, and quickly became Crowley’s American representative for the O.T.O.
Parsons pursued his occult interests and scientific interests with equal intensity. He purchased a large house on South Orange Grove Avenue, Pasadena, and created a commune, inviting actors, actresses, poets, and writers (including sci-fi master Robert Heinlein and ultimately, sci-fi minor L. Ron Hubbard) to participate in his wild parties. He nicknamed the house “The Parsonage.” The police were frequent visitors to The Parsonage, receiving reports of naked pregnant women dancing through fire in the garden, loud music, and consumption of illegal substances. Parsons always greeted them at the door and assured the officers that he was a respectable Cal Tech scientist, and therefore they had no cause for alarm, so they duly left him and his entourage in peace.
At work, Parsons was excelling in his rocket developments, and blending his newfound occultism with his work practices by dancing and chanting Crowley’s “Hymn to Pan” before the launch of every test rocket. Nobody batted an eyelid at the time, and Von Kármán, who had just arranged government funding for the “GALCIT Rocket Project” regarded him as a “delightful screwball.”
By 1941, the Suicide Club had demonstrated the functionality of the JATO canister to the US military by strapping one of the boosters to a small aircraft, and igniting it. The resulting thrust generated from the rocket allowed the aircraft to take off in half of the distance usually required.
The military were impressed, and funding for the group went through the roof. The US Air Force (USAF) placed a large order, and in 1942 the Aerojet Engineering Corporation was founded to meet the demands of production.
The Birth Of JPL
In 1943, seeing the true value of the GALCIT Rocket Project, the military took over operations and changed the name to “Jet Propulsion Laboratory.” Despite the fact that they were not researching jet engines, the concept of rockets still contained a certain stigma, so the alternative name was selected and remains to this day.
Whilst under military control, JPL developed several weapon deployment systems based on the liquid and solid fuel technology devised by Parsons and his group, one of which was the WAC Corporal sounding rocket. Once WWII had ended, the military attached one of these to the top of a V-2 rocket and achieved an altitude of more than 70 kilometers, becoming the first American rocket ever to exit the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Occult Rocket Scientist Who Conjured Spirits with L. Ron Hubbard | MOTHERBOARD | JAN 2, 2015
Born 100 years ago, Jack Parsons seemed devoted to reconciling opposites, smashing together the technical and the spiritual.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the world leader in space exploration. JPL scientists have put robots on Mars, sent probes into interstellar space, and collected dust from the tails of comets. But what if the real purpose behind its mission was something darker?
What if the lab was less interested in exploring outer space than the depths of the void? What if its researchers huddled around their computer screens in search of paranormal entities or dark gods crawling clear of the event horizons of nearby black holes?
Of course, that’s not the case. JPL is not part of some Joss Whedon-esque occult-industrial complex. It does not mingle science with the supernatural. Yet one of its founders did.
“Slain Scientist Priest in Black Magic Cult” read one headline after the death of John Whiteside Parsons on June 17, 1952.
“John W Parsons, handsome 37 year old rocket scientist killed Tuesday in a chemical explosion, was one of the founders of a weird semi-religious cult that flourished here about 10 years ago,” read a report.
The rhetoric got more lavish as the days went by.
“Often an enigma to his friends [he] actually led two lives….In one he probed deep into the scientific fields of speed and sound and stratosphere—and in another he sought the cosmos which man has strived throughout the ages to attain; to weld science and philosophy and religion into a Utopian existence,” wrote one paper.
Soon the newspapers were at fever pitch with talk of “sexual perversion,” “black robes,” “sacred fire,” and “intellectual necromancy.” At the heart of every story was one simple question: Who the hell was this guy?
It’s hard to find as weird and tragic a tale in the annals of science as that of John Whiteside Parsons. Born 100 years ago, Parsons seemed devoted to reconciling opposites, smashing together the technical and the spiritual, the white lab coat and the black robe, fact and fiction, science and magic.
When he died in a mysterious explosion at his home laboratory, the tabloids weren’t the only ones to label him a mad scientist. So too did the scientific establishment. The story of Parsons was locked in the attic, hidden in the footnotes, swept under the launchpad of the US space program.
But Parsons’ scientific legacy is impossible to ignore. He forced the United States government to explore a science it had previously mocked, and laid the foundation for the rockets that carried man into outer space. He was one of America’s greatest space pioneers. He just happened to also be one of its greatest occultists.
If you were to tell someone you were a rocket scientist during the 1920s and 1930s, they’d have either laughed at you or backed away with a worried expression on their face. No universities taught rocketry courses and there were no government grants allotted to rocketry research. To the public, rockets were pure science fiction, and in established scientific circles, they were even worse, synonymous with the ridiculous, the far-fetched, the lunatic, a byword for insanity.
It was the very fantastical nature of rockets that first drew the young Parsons to it. Inspired by the stories in pulp science fiction magazines like Astounding and Amazing, he began building simple gunpowder rockets in his Pasadena backyard and peppered the upscale neighborhood with burned out cardboard tubes and flaming paper.
When Parsons realized he needed some theory to bolster his experimentation, he and his friend, Ed Forman, calmly strode into the halls of the nearby California Institute of Technology and asked for it. Parsons was lacking any scientific qualifications beyond high school, but his enthusiasm piqued the interest of a broad-minded graduate student named Frank Malina. Together the three formed what was disparagingly known as the Suicide Squad, a ragtag group of rocketry enthusiasts whose volatile experiments threatened to kill them.
At Caltech, Nobel prizewinners rubbed shoulders with one another on a daily basis. Despite this fact, the prejudice against rockets was still strong. Fritz Zwicky, a renowned physics professor, became a particular bugbear of the group.
When Malina and Parsons approached him for some help, Zwicky erupted. “He told me I was a bloody fool,” Malina recalled, “that I was trying to do something that was impossible, because rockets couldn’t work in space.”
This was absolutely incorrect, directly contravening Newton’s Third Law of Motion. (When rocketry godfather Robert Goddard proposed in 1920 that rockets could reach the Moon, he was mercilessly, incorrectly mocked in similar fashion.) Zwicky’s response made abundantly clear that although Parsons had been brought into the fold, he was by no means part of the established scientific flock.
Parsons made this fact even clearer when he started to develop a growing interest in magic and the supernatural. By the late 1930s, he had begun frequenting nightly meetings of the Ordo Templi Orientis, an occult society that met in nearby Los Angeles. The OTO, as it is known, was created by the English occultist Aleister Crowley, a heroin-addicted, sexually adventuresome, God-profaning master of the dark arts, who the tabloids had christened “The Wickedest Man in the World.”
At these gatherings Parsons watched as strange rituals were performed, most notably the ‘Gnostic Mass’, a weird take on the Catholic mass. On a black and white stage stood an altar embossed with hieroglyphic patterns, a host of candles and an upright coffin covered with a gauze curtain out of which the group’s caped leader would appear. Poetry was read, swords were drawn, breasts kissed, and lances stroked. It was a highly charged sexual atmosphere. Wine was drunk and cakes made out of menstrual blood were consumed.
It was here that Crowley’s philosophy of Thelema was propounded. Thelema was a type of religious libertarianism that spoke of radical individualism and self-fulfillment. Its creed was “Do What Thou Wilt.” Parsons was immediately hooked. He became especially intrigued by Crowley’s belief that sex could be an intrinsic component of magical rituals, lifting the practitioner onto a higher plane of consciousness. What 24-year-old wouldn’t be?
While some of his Suicide Squad colleagues saw Parsons’ incipient occultism as kooky—communism was the preferred diversion of most Caltech students in the 1930s, according to period stories from school newspaper The California Tech—it did not prevent them from recognizing his genius at manufacturing rocket fuels. At the group’s testing ground Parsons could be heard chanting Crowley’s pagan ‘Hymn to Pan‘ prior to igniting his rockets. And the scorching flames and frequent explosions added a suitably infernal backdrop to his interests in the supernatural.
In 1941, Parsons and the Suicide Squad founded the Aerojet Engineering Corporation to sell their rockets to the military. Scientists who had previously derided Parsons’ work now queued up to join this boom industry. In 1943, with the need for advanced research into rockets growing exponentially, Parsons co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to continue the study of his one-time backyard playthings. At the same time as he was reaching his professional peak, he also found himself moving up the ranks of the OTO, corresponding with the aged Crowley in England, and eventually becoming the group’s leader on the West Coast.
Just think about that for a second: one of the top minds driving America’s early rocket program, a program that helped fuel the space race and the Cold War, was at the same time a leading figure in the world of the occult. By day he built rockets for the government, by night he emerged from a coffin to perform sex magic with his followers.
But for Parsons it didn’t seem strange at all. He treated magic and rocketry as different sides of the same coin—both had been disparaged, both derided as impossible, but because of this both presented themselves as challenges to be conquered.
Rocketry postulated that we should no longer see ourselves as creatures chained to the Earth, but as beings capable of exploring the universe. Similarly, magic suggested there were unseen metaphysical worlds that existed and could be explored with the right knowledge. Both were rebellions against the very limits of human existence; in striving for one he could not help but strive for the other.
Three years before his death he wrote of his unusual position in terms that would have astounded any of his backers in the US military, but which for him seemed totally sane.
“It has seemed to me that if I had the genius to found the jet propulsion field in the US, and found a multimillion dollar corporation and a world renowned research laboratory, then I should also be able to apply this genius in the magical field,” he wrote in a letter to a fellow OTO member. He was shooting for the Moon.
With the money he had earned from Aerojet’s booming rocketry business, Parsons bought a mansion on Pasadena’s Millionaire’s Row and moved the OTO’s operations into it. “It was a huge wooden house,” remembered Liljan Wunderman, Frank Malina’s wife, in an interview years later. “A big, big thing, full of people. Some of them had masks on, some had costumes on, women were weirdly dressed. It was like walking into a Fellini movie. Women were walking around in diaphanous togas and weird make-up, some dressed up like animals, like a costume party.”
When she told her husband about it, Malina simply rolled his eyes, saying, “Jack is into all kinds of things.”
Nicknamed “The Parsonage,” the house became a natural magnet for all sorts of eccentrics, from professed witches and Manhattan Project scientists, to science fiction writers thrilled by their discovery of Parsons, a figure seemingly ripped from the pages of the pulps.
The sci-fi author Jack Williamson remembered Parsons as “an odd enigma.” A young Ray Bradbury, still years from writing Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, recalled Parsons as being “wonderful” and dazzled him with his descriptions of space rockets. Sprague de Camp, author of over a hundred fantasy and sci-fi books, declared him, “an authentic mad genius if ever I met one.”
Increasingly the scientific establishment was beginning to agree with de Camp. Parsons’ work on rocket fuels, mixing and melding chemicals to create something that was both highly explosive and yet controllable, had helped make rocketry a viable science, but he was increasingly perceived as being too weird, too eccentric, to keep working within it.
He was accused of seducing Aerojet’s secretaries by inviting them back to his mansion where debauchery, drugs, and fire dancing ruled. He met visiting scientists at his front door with a snake curled around his shoulders. At work he would arrive late and bedraggled in the mornings in a beaten up Packard and would treat the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as if it was his own private playground.
Fritz Zwicky, who had dismissed Parsons out of hand a few years earlier, had by now eaten his words and begun working for Aerojet. However, he still held huge contempt for the untrained Parsons and his unconventional lifestyle. Zwicky later remembered him as “a dangerous man” in an oral history interview by R. Cargill Hall and James H. Wilson.
“We told him all the time, I mean, all these fantasies about Zoroaster and about voodoo and so on, this is okay; we do that too in our dreams,” he said. “But keep it for yourself; don’t start impressing this on poor secretaries. I mean he had a whole club there you know.”
But Parsons wouldn’t slow down. He and Forman were renowned for holding duels on the rocket testing range, firing guns at each other’s feet and trying not to flinch. When Zwicky insisted that Parsons try a type of rocket fuel that Parsons disapproved of, Parsons discovered where the fuel was kept and blew up the whole batch in a mammoth explosion, “blowing up half the business,” according to a furious Zwicky.
It was stuff he’d been doing since he and Forman were youngsters, back when nobody but they took rocketry seriously. Now, however, a lot of people were taking rocketry very seriously indeed. The FBI began investigating him as a possible security risk.
In 1943 Parsons was gently squeezed out of the very science he had created. He was offered $20,000 for his shares in Aerojet and, feeling the cold shoulder from the increasing number of scientists involved in rocketry, decided to leave. He was 30 years old.
He threw himself into his magic—not just Crowley’s magic, but strange new rituals of his own creation. Ever the scientist, he strived for physical proof that his magic was working by straining to obtain visitations, phenomena, and manifestations.
Without his rocketry work to act as a counterbalance, even his fellow OTO members started to worry about his growing magical intensity. “There is something strange going on,” wrote Jane Wolfe in a letter to fellow OTO member Karl Germer. “Our own Jack is enamored of witchcraft, the houmfort, voodoo. From the start he always wanted to evoke something—no matter what, I am inclined to think, so long as he got a result.”
His fortunes were not helped by the arrival at his house of a hugely charismatic young science fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard was a teller of exceptional tall tales, which he insisted his audience believe. His fellow sci-fi writers viewed him with suspicion.
“I recall his eyes, the wary, light-blue eyes that I somehow associate with the gunmen of the old West, watching me sharply as he talked as if to see how much I believed,” recalled Jack Williamson. “Not much.” But Parsons, who was always more than willing to believe, fell under his spell.
They fenced together, discussed magic together, and even performed magical rituals together. Hubbard moved into Parsons’ mansion and, taking to the air of free love like a fish to water, worked his way through the denizens’ girlfriends, wooing them and wowing them in equal measure. Whether you were an OTO member or a sci-fi writer, no wife or girlfriend was safe from Hubbard’s seductive pull. Not even Parsons’.
But Hubbard made up for it by helping Parsons on the grandest magical working he had yet attempted. This was known as the Babalon Working, an attempt by Parsons to incarnate an actual goddess on Earth. For weeks the two of them engaged in ritual chanting, drawing occult symbols in the air with swords, dripping animal blood on runes, and masturbating in order to ‘impregnate’ magical tablets.
When news got to Crowley in England he was appalled. On May 22, 1946, he wrote a telegram to one of the OTO’s other members: “Suspect Ron playing confidence trick—Jack Parsons weak fool—obvious victim prowling swindlers.”
At the end of it Parsons believed the magical working had been a success, declaring it the greatest achievement of his life. But Crowley was right about Hubbard. In a July 1946 letter to Crowley, Parsons wrote that, under the guise of investing in a business venture, Hubbard had run off with Parsons’s girlfriend and $20,000 of his money, sending Parsons into a spiral of doubt and depression.
He managed to obtain some consulting work on rockets, but was swept up in in the Red Scare of the post-war years. He was accused of consorting with communists in the pre-war years and of being involved in what the FBI termed was a “love-cult.” He had his security clearance stripped from him. He was forced to pump gas, fix cars, and eventually ended up using his incredible scientific knowledge to make explosive squibs for Hollywood movies. Throughout it all he was insistent that his magical works were as real as his rocketry work.
On June 17, 1952, a huge explosion ripped through his home laboratory. Arriving police found Parsons still alive, although half his face had been ripped off, exposing the skull beneath. His right arm was missing. Surrounding him were rocketry papers and pentagrams, occult drawings and chemical formulae. He died shortly afterwards. He was just 37 years old.
George Pendle is the author of Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons.