He was an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, an employee of Howard Hughes, a victim of L. Ron Hubbard, and an enthusiastic phone buddy to Wernher Von Braun. He was an only child, his adulterous dad booted by his angry mom. In seeking father figures and brotherhood, he became a vital link in two mighty chains in human history: rocketry and ritual magic. His science was built on intuition, and his magic on experiment.
John Whiteside Parsons was born in 1914 and died in 1952. His short life is a fascinating case study in the limits and the contradictions of unbounded amateur enthusiasts, no matter how bold or brilliant. It limns both the conflicts and the codependency between freewheeling innovators and hidebound institutions, both governmental and private.
Though obscured by wild rumor and sinister presumptions, Parsons' reputation has survived, clandestinely, among devotees of rockets and of magic. Those passions are united, notes Parsons' new biographer George Pendle (a science writer for the London Times), by their "rebellions against the very limits of human existence."
Pendle's book, Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (Harcourt), tells the bizarre tale of a character whose innovations in rocket fuel design were vital to mankind's leaving the surface of the planet. Simultaneous with his more material scientific pursuits, he also tried with painstaking ritual–but apparently failed–to create a "Moon Child," a magic being conjured via mystic ritual who would usher in a new age of unfettered liberty and signal the end of the Christian era and its outmoded morality.
Parsons had no successful formal education beyond high school. Yet his deep knowledge of explosives, formed through early issues of Amazing Stories and stints with explosive powder companies, earned him a leading role in a small gang performing rocketry experiments at and around Caltech in the '30s. In those days, rocket science was the province mostly of twisted dreamers, not serious scientists. His gang was not-so-affectionately dubbed the Suicide Squad for the series of alarming explosions they caused on campus. Eventually they were exiled to the Arroyo Seco canyon to conduct their experiments in discovering stable, usable rocket fuels. (They discovered plenty of unstable, unusable ones along the way.)
Caltech didn't want to fund this reckless gang, drunk on the barely-controlled power at their fingertips. "With no official funding they had to pay for every bit of material they needed out of their own pockets," Pendle notes. "They scoured junkyards for tube ends and pressure gauges and stripped old ovens bare for dials and piping."
World War II changed that. The well-endowed U.S. military called upon these smoke-streaked stepchildren of Caltech, hoping to use their crazy rocket gadgets to propel planes into the air in places without adequate runways. Gradually the little gang of misfits evolved into the Jet Propulsion Laboratories. (JPL has far exceeded its humble origins. As Pendle notes, it "manufactured lunar landers and Mars landers, as well as…Voyager 1 and 2″ and now employs 5,500 scientists on an annual budget of $1.4 billion.) Parsons designed new rocket fuel after rocket fuel, and eventually they succeeded in inventing jet-assisted take-off.
The military wasn't designed for Parsons' unconventional life- and workstyles. Neither was Aerojet Engineering, the company he founded with his Suicide Squad pals to make and sell rockets. It took staid money boys and military discipline to turn his ideas into an industrial machine. Parsons was bought out of Aerojet in 1944 for $11,000. (By the mid-'60s alone, Pendle notes, his shares would have been worth $12 million.)
While inventing the castable rocket fuel that made the space age possible, Parsons simultaneously explored the frontiers of inner space, building the other half of his weird reputation. He became enraptured with the writings of the British occultist Aleister Crowley and joined the L.A.-based Agape Lodge of Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis. Crowley's American lieutenants seized on the charismatic and successful scientist as a potential savior for their movement; he began donating almost all his salary to the upkeep of his lodge brethren. His Crowleyan adoration of the unfettered human will inspired a fierce political libertarianism as well, best expressed in his essay "Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword." (The other edge is responsibility.)
After the war his occult activism attracted the young L. Ron Hubbard into his life and home. The scalawag pulp writer, pre-Dianetics, took off for Florida with Jack's girl and most of his money, supposedly to buy boats to bring to California and launch a business operation they'd jointly own. Hubbard never came back. The official Scientology line –unsupported by any evidence–is that Hubbard was sent by Naval Intelligence to break up Parsons' evil occult sex ring.
As the '40s wound down Parsons was stripped of his security clearance and almost prosecuted for treason for slipping classified documents from his then-employer, Hughes Aircraft, to the nascent Israeli government, with whom he was negotiating for a rocket guru gig. During his last days Parsons was reduced to working for Hollywood movies, making tiny explosive squibs that mimicked a man being shot. This from a man who once dreamed of blasting man into outer space. Some people regard the 1952 explosion that killed him in his Pasadena backyard lab as mysterious. One close pal, though, didn't see much of a puzzle. He noted that "Jack used to sweat a lot and [a coffee can in which he was mixing explosives] just slipped out of his hand and blew him up."
Parsons the science-fiction fan didn't live to see the children of his greatest fuel invention bring man to the moon and man's machinery to far planets. But some people remembered. A crater on the dark side of the Moon has been named after this man who believed he could summon spirits and who hoped to propel himself into space.
Parsons may not have had the discipline to get there. But the men and systems who did could never have done so without his reckless imagination–his belief that even the risk of blowing himself to pieces was worth it to propel humanity to what he saw as the next stage of its physical and spiritual evolution.?