Sex, cults, black magic, Aleister Crowley, Scientology and…rockets? Really?
Jack Parsons was a hell of a strange guy. He's been written about (but not as much as I'd expected, given…well, what we're going to talk about), and even had his life dramatized by a short-lived television show (but I'm not sure WHY it needed the fictional treatment when the truth is so strange). What fascinated me the most about Parsons' story was how his brilliant scientific mind got twisted around by beliefs in things with no proof - the very opposite of the scientific method. So strap in, we're exploring science, space, and black magic with a dash of some of the messiest personal drama I've seen outside of a reality show.
Jack Parsons was born Marvel Whiteside Parsons on October 2, 1914 in Los Angeles. Despite, or maybe because, of the shelter that their money provided them, Jack's parents (Ruth and Marvel Senior) were pulled into the strange world of new-age spiritualism and occult beliefs that swept across LA at the turn of the century. LA was definitely the place to be even then if you were looking for a…good time, and soon Ruth discovered that Marvel Senior was a philanderer. She outed him, exposing how he'd even been visiting a local sex worker around the time leading up to and following Jack's birth (super nice guy, that Marvel Senior). Ruth gave Marvel the boot and even went as far as changing Marvel Junior's name - John Whiteside Parsons - and had him rechristened.
Ruth raised Jack on her own, with help from her parents (who had their own wealth from the manufacturing industry), and the doting grandparents moved Ruth and Jack to Orange Grove Avenue, known as Pasadena's "Millionaire's Mile". Jack was an only child and, like so many only children, spent a lot of time alone. With a big imagination and the urge to experiment driving him, Jack became fascinated by the stories of Jules Verne and what he read in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. The cover illustrations alone are pretty spectacular, and the stories inside by Verne, Poe, Wells, and many others were meant to, in the words of the magazine's founder Hugo Gernsback, "...impart knowledge…without once making us aware that we are being taught."
Right around this same time, Parsons had taken to doing backyard experiments with close friend and classmate Edward Forman. Parsons and Forman were from totally different backgrounds, but Forman defended Parsons from bullies and together they discovered a like-mindedness where rocketry was concerned. It would be a fateful match.Parsons and Forman were passionate about one thing only - rockets. During this time, rocketry and rocket "science" was largely mocked by the greater scientific community. It was a strange time - only a few years before the Great Depression, while science was ever-expanding, and yet rockets were deemed ridiculous. Something straight out of those pulp magazines Parsons loved so much. The pair of would-be scientists used gunpowder in homemade rockets, testing them in Parsons's backyard until the entire place was pockmarked with craters. They got the gunpowder from cheap fireworks, like cherry bombs, making compounds out of what little they could scrape out of the firework shells. During this time, Parsons also became interested in the occult, an interest that would continue through his life.
Parsons struggled in school (it has been assumed, not without evidence, that Parsons had undiagnosed dyslexia) and, frustrated, his mother sent him to Brown Military Academy for Boys in San Diego. There, Parsons gained an affinity for blowing up toilets with his homemade compounds. He and Forman kept up their friendship and their dreams of rockets reaching the stars.
Ad astra per aspera (through difficulties, to the stars)
But Forman and Parsons kept at it. They knew they could get a rocket off the ground (they didn't…not during those years anyways). After barely graduating high school, Parsons took some classes at USC (University of Southern California) and eventually did a year at Stanford. But he was deeply preoccupied with his experiments, and college was expensive. His wealthy grandfather had lost almost everything during the Great Depression, so Parsons took a job at the Hercules Powder Company. Surely just to help with family finances and his own education, right?
Well, the Hercules Powder Company was also a great source for all those expensive chemicals Forman and Parsons needed for their experiments.
Fun side note: The Hercules Powder Company only came into existence in 1912, one year after the Supreme Court decision that broke up the DuPont explosives monopoly. Hercules became one of the major producers for smokeless powder for warfare during the 20th century. And in case it needs to be said, DuPont was and is a horrible company that naturally lobbies against taking action on climate change and has been accused of many acts against environments and people.
After much trial and error, Parsons and Forman eventually constructed what's known as a solid-fuel rocket engine, with help from correspondence they had with people like Robert H. Goddard (built the world's first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926); Hermann Oberth (considered one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics; he also supported Nazy Germany's Aggregat rocket program); Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (a Russian and Soviet rocket scientist who pioneered astronautics); Willy Ley (a German and American science writer and proponent of cryptozoology; the crater Ley on the far side of the Moon is named in his honor); and of course, we can't leave out Wernher von Braun (the "father of space travel" and known Nazi who surrendered to the Americans at the end of WWII and was then transferred into a work contract that eventually led to a career with NASA). Parsons and von Braun talked for hours on the phone over the course of their correspondence.
School continued to be a struggle, even at a university setting, and Parsons would never obtain a degree; something that came to bite his reputation in the ass more than a few times. He kept working at the Hercules Powder Company, but began to suffer from headaches due to the exposure to nitroglycerin. Those headaches would plague him for the rest of his life.
Parsons and Forman saw Caltech doing interesting things with science adjacent to their own experiments, and they attended a lecture on the work of Austrian rocket engineer Eugen Sanger. They approached the lecturer for help, but were redirected to a man named Frank Malina, a PhD student, mathematician, and mechanical engineer. The three of them immediately got on and began to apply for funding from Caltech together, but without mentioning that their ultimate goal was to send rockets to space. Malina was a perfect fit for the duo - he was the mathematician, Forman the machinist, and Parsons the explosives and chemical expert. Eventually, the trio won over Malina's doctoral advisor, who let them operate within the confines of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT) on the Caltech campus. This was despite the fact that Parsons and Forman were not students. This did not come with money, only facilities and some resources, so the trio had to finance all their experiments on their own. Parsons took more shifts at the Hercules factory, leading to even more headaches and exposure.
Thus began several years of experimenting, arguing, failing, going back to the drawing board, and starting it all over again. They shared socialist values, with Parsons even flirting with Marxism for a time.
Eventually, Parsons' social life flourished, even when his rocketry experiments failed again and again. He met Helen Northrup at a local church dance and quickly fell head over heels. He proposed in July 1934 (he was 20, she was a few years older), and they were married in April 1935. Parsons took a new, better paying job at the Halifax Powder company, but that extra money didn't go to Helen or the household. It went right into Parsons' experiments, his endless need to achieve more, faster, better. He spent most of their money funding their rocket group, and when that wasn't enough, he made nitroglycerine in their home, right on the front porch, to get extra cash. He also pawned Helen's engagement ring and hit up her family for money.
Even cash-strapped, the GALCIT group grew to encompass more students, and they tested their first liquid-fueled motor near the Devil's Gate Dam in the Arroyo Seco on Halloween 1936. The attempt failed spectacularly, with the oxygen line igniting and spewing fire at the group. They kept testing through the remainder of the year and in January 1937, they had a successful test. Malina's PhD advisor, who had given them some standing through Caltech, said they could test on campus.
This group, which included Caltech mathematician Qian Xuesen and a Caltech laboratory assistant named Weld Arnold (who was also the group's photographer), became known as the Suicide Squad. One notable test happened in August 1937, where they ruined the lawn in front of the university's Gates Chemistry Lab by "accidentally siphoning too much nitrogen tetroxide, a highly corrosive liquid", turning the lawn brown and endangering many on campus. Another truly epic failure happened when their rocket apparatus inside one of the buildings "leaked a toxic cloud of nitrogen tetroxide and alcohol that rusted scientific equipment throughout the building". The GALCIT group spent many days after that polishing off the rust.
Explosive became par for the course for the group, until they had to move their operations to the upper Arroyo, which is strangely where the massive JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) now stands (more on that later). Interestingly, it wasn't an actual rocket engine that caught outside attention, but Parsons' expertise. He was called in as an explosives expert in the trial of Captain Earl Kynette, the head of police intelligence in L.A. The City of Angels was a den of corruption even then, and Kynette stood trial for conspiring to set a car bomb meant to kill private investigator Harry Raymond, a former LAPD detective who was fired after whistleblowing on police corruption. Parsons had no formal education in chemistry, just his own (often explosive) experience and experiments, but he was so charming and thorough on the stand, that even the press and public eye couldn't ignore him.
Thelema, Black Magic, and Aleister Crowley
Let's talk about Thelema, which really ought to be its own topic in a future episode because wow.
From Thelema's The Book of Law, I give you the three axioms, or tenets, central to this belief system.
The statement of primary importance in Thelema, the Law of Thelema—"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law"—is supplemented by a second, followup statement: "Love is the law, love under will." These two statements are generally believed to be better appreciated or better understood by considering a third statement: "Every man and every woman is a star."
"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law", meaning that adherents of Thelema should seek out and follow their true path, i.e. find or determine their True Will.
"Every man and every woman is a star" is a reference to the body of light, said by Plato to be composed of the same substance as the stars; and that persons doing their Wills are thereby like stars in the universe: occupying a time and position in space, yet distinctly individual and having an independent nature largely without undue conflict with other stars.
"Love is the law, love under will", i.e. the nature of the Law of Thelema is love, but love itself is subsidiary to finding and manifesting one's authentic purpose or mission.
This comes to us from Aleister Crowley - THAT Crowley, yes, not the one from Good Omens (as much as I love David Tennant). Crowley claimed that The Book of Law was written in Egypt during his honeymoon with his new wife in April of 1904. Crowley's influence spread in surprising ways during his life, and it was this influence that snared Jack Parsons in its web. He and his wife Helen attended a Church of Thelema in Hollywood in January 1939 and were swept up in it immediately. The Church appealed to their modern, one might even say libertine, ways (the Church welcomed actors, gay people, and many others). Parsons would sporadically attend Thelema events and began to read Crowley's works.
This is where his brilliant mind became susceptible to his own superstitions and occult leanings. The more Parsons read Crowley's writings, the more he became to believe that Thelema magick was a force that could be explained through quantum physics. That science and magic were one and the same. And in some regard, science oftentimes does feel sort of magical - it is incredible the things we can do now, from transplanting organs to exploring the stars and distant planets, to finding ways to turn sunlight into energy.
Jack and Helen were eventually initiated into the Agape Lodge, the renamed Church of Thelema, in February 1941. They were in deep, especially Parsons. He and Crowley began to write to each other and explore deeper meanings in Thelemic beliefs, and Parsons went as far as to send Crowley money he eventually became seriously dependent on. None of this is really shocking if you think about how esoteric and magical rocket science and "jet propulsion", as it eventually became known, must have seemed to those like Parsons. Rocket science wasn't taken seriously at an academic level, but Parson and the GALCIT team knew it was possible. What else was out there that they hadn't yet discovered?
But this is where it turns dark, as so many stories about geniuses do.
With Parsons donating the bulk of his salary to Crowley and the Lodge's endeavors, and recruiting new people into the church, his personal life was starting to fall apart. Helen left their home for a while, frustrated with Jack's endeavors, and Jack, spurred on by the Lodge's sexually permissive "rules", started dating Helen's 17 year old sister Sara. When Helen came back, Sara said she was Jack's new wife, Jack admitted he found Sara more sexually appealing over his current wife (yikes…just yikes, all of it). And Helen decided to start dating someone else, with whom she would eventually have a child. The two couples remained friends, however. All of this was fine with the rules of Thelema, and of course, under Crowley's watchful eye.
Together with Helen and her new beau, Wilfred Talbot Smith (a high leader in the Thelema Church), Jack and Sara and several others in the Thelema Lodge moved into a house together. This house formed the base for their Lodge, where they stewed in their beliefs and went as far as slaughtering their own livestock for meat as well as blood rituals. Parsons decorated he and Sara's room with a collection of swords and daggers, then turned the garage and laundry room into a chemical laboratory and held science fiction discussion meetings in the kitchen. There were children who were moved in with their parents, and Jack often led fairy hunts for them in the 25-acre garden.
Jack's enthusiasm for Thelema kept bleeding into his work. He frequently went in hungover and sleep-deprived due to Lodge activities (again, "Do what thou wilt" meant a lot of depravity). But it all started to crash down around him when the Pasadena Police Department and the FBI began to investigate the Lodge, on the basis of a "black magic cult" involved in sexual orgies; one complainant was a 16 year old boy who said he was raped by Lodge members. Neighbors complained of seeing naked pregnant women jumping through fire (as far as I can tell, the fire jumping pregnant woman was true, as she believed the fire would bless her and her child. I have not found evidence for or against the rape allegation). Parsons played it all off as the Lodge being "an organization dedicated to religious and philosophical speculation", and eventually both the Pasadena Police and the FBI closed their investigations.
Parsons, however, was on the downslide. He was habitually using cocaine, amphetamines, peyote, mescaline, and opiates. He slept with multiple women and got at least one, the fiance of another Lodge member, pregnant. She went on to have an abortion.
Parsons tried to write poetry to add into Thelemic beliefs:
I hight Don Quixote, I live on Peyote,
marihuana, morphine and cocaine.
I never knew sadness but only a madness
that burns at the heart and brain,
—Excerpt from an untitled poem published in Parsons' ill-fated Oriflamme journal
As Parson's professional life circled the drain, and the money he and the others who founded the company Aerojet increased, WWII struck. The U.S. Navy gave them a $3 million grant to develop rocket-based weapons, and the business was eventually renamed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The Navy was ordering 20,000 rockets a month from them, and the business flourished. But Parsons' disregard for safety became a sticking point, and he eventually was removed from the company when a buyout came knocking.
Now without a business, Parsons and his friend Edward Forman founded the Ad Astra Engineering Company, under which Parsons founded the chemical manufacturing Vulcan Powder Company. Ad Astra quickly fell under FBI scrutiny, for suspicion of espionage when security agents from the Manhattan Project "discovered Parsons and Forman had procured a chemical used in a top secret project for a material known only as x-metal," but they were later acquitted. (X-metal is known now as natural uranium.)
Money was tight, so Parsons began renting rooms in the Lodge to non-Lodge members, including journalist Nieson Himmel, Manhattan Project physicist Robert Cornog, and science fiction artist Louis Goldstone. The house became known as a spot for "bohemians" - artists, musicians, anarchists, any exotic types.
Eventually science fiction writer and U.S. Navy officer L. Ron Hubbard moved in. He and Parsons developed a deep and close friendship. Parsons wrote of Hubbard: "[he has] no formal training in Magick he has an extraordinary amount of experience and understanding in the field. From some of his experiences I deduce he is in direct touch with some higher intelligence, possibly his Guardian Angel. ... He is the most Thelemic person I have ever met and is in complete accord with our own principles."
Parsons and Sara had an open relationship, and she became fascinated by Hubbard, and Parsons fell into the trap of jealousy. Parsons worried he might not find a new partner through typical means, so he started to conduct black magic rituals, which worried other members of the Lodge. They thought Parsons might attract, or even anger, spirits, which would infect the house and impact everyone. Parsons also reported witnessing paranormal events in the house, like poltergeist activity, orbs and strange lights and apparitions, and even strange symbols showing up on random surfaces.
In December 1945, Parsons began a series of rituals based on Enochian magic during which he masturbated onto magical tablets, accompanied by Sergei Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. Describing this magical operation as the Babalon Working, he hoped to bring about the incarnation of Thelemite goddess Babalon onto Earth. He allowed Hubbard to take part as his "scribe", believing that he was particularly sensitive to detecting magical phenomena. As described by Richard Metzger, "Parsons jerked off in the name of spiritual advancement" while Hubbard "scanned the astral plane for signs and visions."
Crowley fell into deeper Thelemic beliefs and his own paranoias - a woman named Marjorie Cameron had come to visit the Lodge, and Parsons fully believed she was the elemental woman and manifestation of Babalon he had invoked in a ritual in the Mojave Desert, they started to perform sex magic rituals together. While most of the Lodge watched. Their aim was to conceive a "magical child" through immaculate conception.
"[T]he purpose of the Babalon Working was 'a daring attempt to shatter the boundaries of space and time' facilitating, according to Parsons, the emergence of Thelema's Æon of Horus", which was a core of Thelemic beliefs.
"Dark Angel", a painting by Marjorie Cameron portraying Parsons as the "Angel of Death"
Parsons and Hubbard became even more embroiled by starting a company called Allied Enterprises, in which Parsons invested his life savings of $20,970. The goal was to go to Miami to buy 3 yachts, then sail through the Panama Canal to the West Coast, where they could sell the yachts for a profit. Hubbard, on the other hand, had in secret requested permission from the U.S. Navy to sail to China and South and Central America on a mission to "collect writing material", but he really just planned to cruise around on the yachts (Hubbard had a thing for sailing, which we see in Scientology even now). Essentially, Parsons was ripped off as Hubbard and Sara took off with $10k of his money, but Hubbard talked him down. When Parsons later found out that Hubbard did buy 3 yachts but tried to flee without taking Parsons, Parsons cursed them via black magic. Their company was dissolved, with Hubbard required to reimburse Parsons, but Jack took no further action. Sara threatened to report him for statutory rape.
Sara went on to be Hubbard's new "wife" even though Hubbard was already married to Margaret Grubb.
The End Times
The years between 1946 and 1952 were career-ending for Parsons. He was investigated again by the FBI and stripped of his security clearance because of his "subversive" character, which included his sexual promiscuity and black magic rituals at the Lodge. The FBI was also concerned about Parsons' connection with Marxists - this all happened during the Red Scare in post WWII America. Parsons took his ambitions abroad, which failed, and he resorted to bootlegging nitroglycerin for money.
Everything he had was gone, so Parsons returned to black magic, occultism, and now embarking on a sexual journey mostly with sex workers. Parsons also began having visions based in his Thelemic beliefs, and he swore he embodied "an entity named Belarion Armillus Al Dajjal, the Antichrist 'who am come to fulfill the law of the Beast 666'" aka Aleister Crowley. Parsons wrote prolifically during this time, but none of those writings were ever published. Acquaintances during this time called Parsons "an authentic mad genius if I ever met one."
Interestingly, Parsons did testify to a closed federal court that the moral philosophy of Thelema was both "anti-fascist and anti-communist", and this, along with references from former coworkers, allowed his security clearance to be reinstated. Through his connections and old mentors, Parsons was offered a job with the Israeli rocket program in 1950, and decided to migrate to Israel. But a secretary he asked to type up technical documents turned him into the FBI on suspicion of espionage. The FBI suspected Parsons of spying for the Israelis, and some of his colleagues came to his defense once more.
In October 1951, the U.S. attorney decided that his reports didn't constitute state secrets, so Parsons was cleared once again of espionage charges.
Rocket Man No More
Marjorie Cameron, Parsons' former "Babalon", came back to him and they decided to travel to Mexico. The trip also allowed Parsons to take up a job opportunity establishing an explosives factory for the Mexican government. They hoped to move to Israel and start a family, and reestablish his rocketry career. But Parsons was becoming convinced that the FBI was spying on him.
On June 17, 1952, a day before they were set to leave for Mexico, Parsons received a rush order for explosives for a film set and started work in his home laboratory. An explosion rocked the building, leaving Parsons with fatal wounds. "His right forearm was amputated, his legs and left arm were broken and a hole was torn in the right side of his face." And he was still alive and found conscious by neighbors. He tried to talk to the ambulance workers who arrived, but by the time they got him to the hospital, Jack Parsons was declared dead. And when his mother learned of her son's death, she took a fatal overdose of barbiturates.
The official investigation by the Pasadena Police Department concluded that Parsons had been mixing fulminate of mercury in a coffee can, which he accidentally dropped, causing the explosion, which became a fireball when it came into contact with the other chemicals in the room. Many of those who knew Parsons rejected this, saying he would never make such a rookie mistake. But the police said Parsons had stored his chemicals in a criminally negligent way, and that he had been previously investigated for illegally storing chemicals at the Lodge house in Pasadena. They also reported finding a morphine-filled syringe at the scene, suggesting drug use. The police closed the case as an accidental death.
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 ... Old police reports yesterday pictured the former Caltech professor as a man who led a double existence—a down-to-earth explosives expert who dabbled in intellectual necromancy. Possibly he was trying to reconcile fundamental human urges with the inhuman, Buck Rogers type of innovations that sprang from his test tubes.
—Parsons' obituary in the June 19, 1952 edition of The Pasadena Independent
Theories about Jack Parsons death continued - suicide? Murder? An assassination planned by Howard Hughes in response to Parsons' "suspected theft of Hughes Aircraft Company documents". Others became convinced the police had a role in Jack's death, or those who opposed Jack's work for Israel. But Jack Parsons death has never been definitely explained.
A private prayer service was held for Parsons at the funeral home where his body was cremated. Cameron scattered his ashes in the Mojave Desert, before burning most of his possessions. She later tried to perform astral projection to commune with him.
The Remains and Reminder of An Innovator
To end this, I can't express more how much Jack Parsons influenced the scientific and space community in America and around the world.
In December 1958, JPL was integrated into the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration, having built the Explorer 1 satellite that commenced America's Space Race with the Soviet Union.
Wernher von Braun—who was nicknamed "The Father of Rocket Science"—once argued that Parsons was more worthy of this moniker.
Among the aerospace industry, JPL was nicknamed as standing for "Jack Parsons' Laboratory" or "Jack Parsons Lives"
The International Astronomical Union decided to name a crater on the far side of the Moon Parsons after him in 1972.
In 1999, Feral House published the biography Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter, who opined that Parsons had accomplished more in under five years of research than Robert H. Goddard had in his lifetime, and said that his role in the development of rocket technology had been neglected by historians of science; Carter thought that Parsons' abilities and accomplishments as an occultist had been overestimated and exaggerated among Western esotericists, emphasizing his disowning by Crowley for practicing magic beyond his grade.
In 2005, Weidenfeld & Nicolson published Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle, who described Parsons as "the Che Guevara of occultism". Pendle said that although Parsons "would not live to see his dream of space travel come true, he was essential to making it a reality." Pendle considered that the cultural stigma attached to Parsons' occultism was the primary cause of his low public profile, noting that "Like many scientific mavericks, Parsons was eventually discarded by the establishment once he had served his purpose." It was this unorthodox mindset, creatively facilitated by his science fiction fandom and "willingness to believe in magic's efficacy", Pendle argued, "that allowed him to break scientific barriers previously thought to be indestructible"—commenting that Parsons "saw both space and magic as ways of exploring these new frontiers—one breaking free from Earth literally and metaphysically."