The San Francisco Chronicle includes an interesting review of George Pendle’s excellent Strange Angel biography of Jack Parsons…
A follower of English mystic Aleister Crowley and the occult society the Ordo Templi Orientis, he often presided over a world of chants and prayers, of black magic and sexual excess. It took a rocket scientist
Research pioneer also delved into the occult
Reviewed by Christina Eng
Sunday, February 20, 2005
The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist
John Whiteside Parsons
By George Pendle
HARCOURT; 334 PAGES; $25
Unlike contemporaries who believed science and magic were inherently contradictory, John Whiteside Parsons considered the two endeavors complementary, “different sides of the same coin.”
An early pioneer in the field of rocket science and one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, he helped to create engines that improved the performance of military aircrafts. At 25, he and colleagues Ed Forman and Frank Malina, both 27, became the country’s first government- sanctioned rocket group.
But he also experimented with the supernatural, becoming a key figure in the occult community that thrived in Los Angeles in the 1930s. A follower of English mystic Aleister Crowley and the occult society the Ordo Templi Orientis, he often presided over a world of chants and prayers, of black magic and sexual excess.
In “Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons,” George Pendle brings to light both segments of Parsons’ work. A journalist for the Times of London and the Financial Times, he discusses with ease and confidence the research Parsons undertook and the accomplishments he made. He explains Parsons’ fascination with spiritualism as well:
“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 … [In] striving for one challenge he could not help but strive for the other.”
Parsons dreamed as a child of space flight. He grew up in Pasadena in the 1910s and ’20s an enthusiastic reader, devouring Arthurian legends, Greek and Norse myths and stories of ancient battles. He dug into pulp fiction for science and space-travel adventures and flipped through issues of Amazing Stories, a magazine devoted to space-age fantasies. He found himself intrigued by their technological settings.
With an indulgent grandfather, he built and launched small rockets from the backyard, filling paper or balsa wood casings with black powder scraped from fireworks and cherry bombs he collected. “With a fizz and a roar,” Pendle writes, “the rocket would shoot into the sky, scorching the grass as it left, diminishing in size rapidly until a second later, its charge spent, gravity would drag the empty casing back down to earth.”
He and Forman, a friend from junior high, pushed each other to create increasingly complex and powerful devices. In high school, they remained mischievous and reckless, “a couple of powder monkeys,” one classmate recalls. “They would go out into the desert and make rockets and do all sorts of explosive stuff.”
In 1932, in the throes of the Depression, Parsons began to work part time to support his family. He found a job at an explosives firm in Los Angeles, a place that piqued his curiosity to no end. There — and later in its primary manufacturing plant in Pinole — he learned chemical lore. He discovered the differences between low explosives and high explosives. He developed an encyclopedic knowledge of scientific compounds.
Back in Pasadena, Parsons and Forman continued to experiment with rockets. They spent time at nearby Caltech, where they met Malina, a graduate student with similar interests. The three men eventually formed the Rocket Research Group at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, an early incarnation of JPL, with access to campus equipment and resources.
They conducted studies with little faculty supervision or bureaucratic control over the next four years. “For Parsons the project was the culmination of a dream from his childhood,” Pendle writes, “to belong to a group of men who were doing something noble and wonderful, an Arthurian band of adventurers making a quest into space.”
In due time, Parsons and his colleagues were approached by the U.S. government to help develop jet-assisted takeoff rockets, useful in combat situations. The group formed Aerojet Engineering Corporation to do so. The organization would establish itself as a viable aerospace and defense contractor in the decades to come.
To his credit, the author effectively chronicles Parsons’ affinity for rocket science and space travel. He successfully breaks down complicated concepts, making technical theories accessible to everyday readers.
Pendle depicts his subject as an idealist, a young man who dreamed big dreams, a sympathetic character who died too soon. (Parsons was killed in an explosion in his home at age 37.)
He provides fascinating snippets of Pasadena and Los Angeles in the early parts of the 20th century as well, when aviators such as Glenn Martin, Donald W. Douglas, John Northrup and Allan and Malcolm Loughead (later Lockheed) set up shop in Southern California. This information helps to give the book a cultural and historical context.
Unfortunately, not every section of “Strange Angel” is as compelling as the next. Chapters on the scientist’s interest in the occult, on incantations and seances — though necessary in this properly balanced biography — are harder to comprehend. They become intangible and alienating.
Parsons’ involvement in these activities will likely remain somewhat inexplicable. But it will also keep him from getting the serious respect and recognition he deserves, despite a lifetime of good work and significant achievement.
Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland.