Chaos magic. Aleister Crowley. Rocket science.
Jack Parsons was one of the most influential figures in the history of the American space program. He was also a Marxist, stood accused of espionage, and held a deep fascination with the occult. His interest in the supernatural went far beyond vaudeville magicians and astrology. By 1939, Parsons and his wife Helen Parsons-Smith had fully embraced the teachings of the Ordo Templis Orientis, a central hub for Aleister Crowley’s spiritual and religious philosophy — Thelema.
Aleister Crowley taught that a Thelemite’s central ambition was to achieve a higher state of existence by embracing one’s “True Will,” or one’s ultimate purpose beyond selfishness or ego. In pursuit of that goal, many aspects of Parsons’s life blurred the boundaries between science and mysticism. As a Thelemite, he performed ritual magic, including banishing impure elements with pentagrams, invocating the power of the “Holy Guardian Angel,” and offering daily adorations to the sun.
All while pushing the limits in the nascent field of rocket science.
Jack Parsons was born Marvel Whiteside Parsons on October 2nd, 1914, to Ruth Virginia Whiteside and Marvel H. Parsons in Los Angeles, California. For the first two years of their marriage, the Parsons were swept into a dark whirlwind romance in the heart of the City of Angels. By the 1900s Los Angeles had become a hotbed of new-age spiritualism and occult fascination, in which the Parsons were active participants. It was turn-of-the-century America’s Williamsburg, perfect for the upper-middle-class pseudo-bohemian who wanted a crystal ball that matched their silverware set.
Jack’s father was perhaps too taken by the city’s attractive social loosening. He made his rapid exodus from California after Ruth exposed him as an adulterer, who had frequented a local prostitute in the months leading up to and following their son’s birth. After the newlyweds' bitter split, Ruth excised the elder Parsons from their son’s life both physically and legally, insisting her son be referred to as “John Whiteside Parsons” on all legal documents. The rechristened Parsons was brought up by his mother and his maternal grandparents. Using their wealth from the manufacturing industry, the Whitesides moved Ruth and John, or “Jack”, to Orange Grove Avenue, Pasadena’s “Millionaire’s Mile.”
Spending a majority of his childhood in solitude, Parsons soon found a personal hideaway in science fiction. Enraptured by Jules Verne and the pulp magazine Amazing Stories, Parsons developed an interest in rocketry at a young age.
By age 12, the future father of modern rocketry was conducting backyard experiments with his classmate Edward Forman. The two boys designed gunpowder-based rockets with aluminum foil, cherry bomb fireworks, and glue. Around the same time, Parsons was performing bedtime incantations to invoke the Devil - another practice he’d learned from reading Amazing comics. In an effort to “straighten out” her wayward son, who was so distracted that he started flunking out of grade school, Parsons’s mother sent him to the Brown Military Academy for Boys in San Diego—a sprawling, 100-acre private boys’ school known as “The West Point of the West.”
It didn’t work. Parsons was expelled for blowing up the toilets.
With a renewed confidence that only vandalizing private property can give, Parsons resumed his rocket engineering experiments at home. After a brief stint back in school and a year at Stanford University, Parsons was forced to take up working weekends, holidays, and eventually full-time employment at the Hercules Powder Company after his family experienced financial losses during the Great Depression. He was no older than 19. Directly dealing with chemicals and munitions, Parsons not only learned more about the properties of gunpowder and its potential as a rocket propellant, but he also occasionally stole materials from work for his and Forman’s experiments. Parsons and Forman continued these after-hour experiments well into their mid-to-late 20s.
By 1933, Parsons had constructed his first solid-fuel rocket engine. He was only 29 years old. His boyhood interest in magic and the supernatural only grew stronger as he delved further into rocket science. That same year, Parsons turned his Orange Avenue estate into a bohemian haven, renting rooms out to artists, occultists, and dropouts galore. In 1934, Jack Parsons and Edward Forman met PhD candidate Frank Malina at a public CalTech lecture. The trio soon managed to impress Malina’s supervising professor Dr. Theodore van Kármán enough that he allowed the young engineers to conduct experiments at the university’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory—GALCIT.
With access to CalTech’s resources and equipment, the trio formed the GALCIT Rocket Research Group. Thus, the blueprint for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab was born. What resulted was a bachelor pad for rocket pioneers.
Between rocket experiments, the trio would wax poetic about their shared socialist values, smoke marijuana, and drink to excess. Parsons and Malina even wrote a sci-fi screenplay and pitched it around to several Hollywood production companies. Making it big on the silver screen was starting to seem like a more viable option than rocket engineering for the GALCIT Group. Most of their experiments increasingly ended in violent explosions, that terrified neighboring CalTech academics so much the three researchers were nicknamed the “Suicide Squad.”
Parsons came to a crossroads during his later years with GALCIT. On the one hand, he integrated himself into the academic fold. While working with GALCIT by day, Parsons studied chemistry at USC by night. On the other hand, the wild rocket scientist was falling further into his obsession with Thelema. By 1939 he was enraptured with Aleister Crowley’s revival of what began as a sixteenth-century philosophy. Thelema was by this time a sprawling esoteric movement, incorporating ancient Egyptian deities, sex rituals, and a range of Eastern and Western mysticism. Eventually, Parsons was forced to choose between his new religious craze or pursuing his degree at USC. Ultimately, Parsons dropped out of school and chose to dedicate himself to Thelema, becoming a member of the local California chapter: the Ordo Templis Orientis.
Parsons’ own religious and scientific pursuits have proven screen worthy. His life has recently been adapted in the CBS All Access series, Strange Angel, based on the biography Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle. Supercluster sat down with Pendle and show creator, producer, and writer Mark Heyman for exclusive interviews about the life of this rocket-scientist-genius-occultist-playboy.
“I first came across a mention of him in reading that book Going Clear, which you know is about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. It was a fascinating moment in that book, and I sort of just filed it away,” says Heyman. The occult is no real shock to one of the minds behind Academy Award-nominated Black Swan. “I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my parents were involved in a sort of new-age religion that some people would call a cult. I always felt like it was more cult-ish, but it wasn’t like a full-blown cult. So I’d always been interested in those sorts of organizations and groups, which is why I was reading “Going Clear” in the first place. A year or two after that, I was sent the book for Strange Angel by a producer. It was my first real deep dive into who Jack Parsons was and my first introduction to him, and it blew my mind on multiple levels.”
“We tend to think of the 30s and 40s as a more buttoned-down time, a more conservative time, but they were as wild and crazy as anything that happened in the 60s and 70s. And then, there was this sort of intersection of that with the sciences, and the birth of this new fangled science—rocket science. Which, back then, was not taken seriously at all and was considered just as fringe and out there as some of [Parsons’] religious preferences.”
Pendle had this to say about the era, “Because [Jack’s] personal life and personal interests were so at odds to the time he lived in, his scientific work—which was so groundbreaking—was kind of swept under the carpet… A lot of people who are very interesting are forgotten by history because they don’t fit into the pigeon holes we view history through. I often think you can get a better view of history from the edges rather than from the middle.”
Parsons without a doubt existed on the fringes. When the GALCIT Group first formed, aerospace engineering hadn’t even been invented yet. The first definition of the phrase would crop up in 1958, more than 20 years after GALCIT Group’s experiments started, and 6 years after Parsons’ death.
“Now, rocket science is sort of synonymous with the most esoteric of sciences. We have that expression, ‘It’s not rocket science.’ It’s implied that it’s meant to be the stuff of really, really educated experts,” says Heyman, “Whereas, back then, it was almost the opposite where it was the stuff of science fiction. It existed in popular culture, but in the way that dragons and time travel existed. It was actually the stuff of entertainment. So, it wasn’t taken seriously not because it was too complicated or too difficult. It wasn’t taken seriously because it was seen as imaginary.”
A figure like Parsons might seem to presage later eccentric innovators like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. For Pendle, the parallel isn’t totally accurate. “Imagine like a Musk without a fortune, without people backing him, basically plucking spare parts from the garbage to build his electric cars. That’s the kind of thing you’d be looking at if you wanted to make them equal."
The scientific community took notice of Jack’s rag-tag methods in 1938 when his group successfully tested a static motor rocket that could run for over a minute. With funding from the federal government (and at the request of their CalTech peers), the Group relocated to Arroyo Seco to investigate the possibility of Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO). In those hot musty sheds made from corrugated iron, the Jet Propulsion Lab was born. There, Parsons would invent the first rocket engine to use castable composite propellant - a mixture of fuel that allowed rockets to harness enough force to finally make it into space.
All was not well in rocket paradise. Despite his work on the solid-fuel designs for JATO, Parsons was a serious liability. His behavior in and outside the lab was a major concern for the federal bodies funding the JATO experiments. Rebuffing lab protocol, Parsons still largely wanted to carry out experiments with the reckless abandon of his grade school days. Moreover, Parsons was donating most of his salary to the Ordo Templis Orientis and attempting to recruit new church members from JPL. Plus, Parsons had just left his wife and childhood sweetheart Helen Northup for her 17-year-old younger sister, Sara. At Ordo Templis Orientis’s recommendation, Parsons was engaged in several sexual liaisons and had taken up cocaine, methamphetamine, and opiates. A polyamorous, drug-friendly, college dropout was not super high on the government’s list of potential poster kids for rocket science.
For writers like Heyman, that’s the stuff of great television. Here was this 1930s Heisenberg, practically primed for an episodic drama. “He was an anti-hero in a lot of ways. A lot of the things he got involved in are a little unsavory, to say the least. The cultish stuff, the polyamory and, drug use — there were a lot of questionable decisions, especially for someone who was pursuing something where there were real lives on the line and real stakes.”
But like Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and all the early 2000s ghosts of anti-heroes past, Jack Parsons presented big shoes to fill. “For the show, we needed an actor who could possess that sort of darkness and that we would believe could go down this rabbit hole, but ultimately was also someone we were rooting for, It was a challenge to find someone who could check all the boxes,” said Heyman.
Strange Angel found that living contradiction in Jack Reynor, who film fans might recognize as Christian Hughes from Ari Aster’s pastoral horror, Midsommar.
“You know, Jack Reynor, he had this glint in his eye of mischief, and yet was just, like, inherently likable. He managed to have those somewhat contradictory qualities that wouldn’t feel too dark to alienate the audience, but also wouldn’t feel too clean-cut like you couldn’t buy someone like him going down and getting involved in something that’s as shadowy as Thelema.”
Parsons’ involvement with Thelema would come to cost him his career. By 1944, Parsons was booted from the nascent JPL and persuaded to sell his stock in the company. Thirty years old, unemployed, and without a college degree, Parsons used the proceeds to purchase 1003 Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena, California. This quaint property turned into a hub of occultist fanaticism and homegrown rocket science, with rooms rented out to bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, and anarchists. Eventually, Parsons would rent out a room in the Parsonage to U.S. Naval Officer and science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
The two counter-culturists became fast friends. Parsons wrote to spiritual mentor Crowley, “[Hubbard] has an extraordinary amount of experience and understanding in [Magick]. 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.”
Soon, Parsons and Hubbard were completely enveloped by Thelema. They embarked on Operation Babalon Working, a series of rituals and experiments intended to incarnate the Thelemite Goddess Babalon in the earthly realm. One of these rituals included Parsons masturbating onto magical tablets to Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto while Hubbard took notes and explored the astral plane. Another involved Parsons and Hubbard impregnating an anonymous woman somewhere on Earth through immaculate conception with a “magical child,” who would become Thelema’s messianic embodiment of Babalon. In Parsons’ case, these experiments would result in another case of successful manifestation—or confirmation bias.
“He and L. Ron went out into the middle of the desert to this magical place where power lines crossed. And who knows what they were doing,” says Heyman, referencing rumors of homosexuality that followed Parsons throughout his life, “[Parsons] had this vision of like, this red-haired woman, “Lady Babylon”, riding a beast. He was convinced that this was the person he was meant to end up with. And after three days of trying to summon Lady Babylon so they could birth the anti-Christ, Marjorie Cameron—this vividly red-haired woman—was waiting for them at the Parsonage looking for a place to stay. There was this crazy thing he was trying to manifest in reality, and reality ended up manifesting it.”
Things got too freaky even for Aleister Crowley. Of the duo’s experiments, Crowley remarked that he felt “fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts!"
By the end of his rendezvous, Hubbard ran off to Miami with Parsons’ ex-lover Sara and $10,000 of Parsons’s life savings. With a new wife and cash to spare, Hubbard bought three yachts and went on to found Dianetics and Scientology. Single and strapped for cash, Parsons began work on the Navaho Missile Program at North American Aviation in Inglewood. His stint there was short-lived. After the Second Red Scare, the House of Un-American Activities stripped Parsons of his security clearance due to his sexual “perversions.” Now unemployed, Parsons doubled-down on his occultist practices. He commenced a series of sexually charged “magical operations” with prostitutes and was intent on “Crossing the Abyss”, a Thelemic practice in which the practitioner could achieve union with universal consciousness.
From 1946 until 1952, Parsons entered a period of manic productivity. He wrote an autobiography, an occult text, and a personal essay condemning authoritarianism, corruption, antisexualism, and censorship—none of which would ever be published. On-and-off employment led Parsons to accept work with an Israeli rocket company writing technical documents.
Unfortunately for Parsons, even Jerusalem could not offer him any relief. A former coworker accused him of espionage after he requested a portfolio of technical documents prior to leaving for Israel, leading to a formal FBI investigation into Parsons’s activities. Although Parsons was found not guilty, the FBI banned him from working on classified projects, preventing him from working in US rocketry ever again.
The disgraced inventor of solid rocket fuel resorted to basement experiments. Parsons and his new wife Marjorie Cameron, converted their laundry room into a first-floor laboratory for his experiments (and also for brewing absinthe, because why not?) Yet this year — 1952 — seemed to hold promise for him. An opportunity lied ahead in Mexico, where the government was keen on utilizing Parsons’s engineering talents for establishing an explosives factory.
On June 17th, while filling a rush order for film explosives in his home laboratory, a fatal explosion gutted the lower half of the building. Parsons suffered mortal wounds. He was pronounced dead 37 minutes after the explosion, only a day before he and Cameron had planned to move to Mexico. What cost Parsons his life ultimately was the same thing that had given him his career: his unrestrained will.
“To me, [Jack’s] story was someone that starts out as a rocket and turns into a bomb,” says Heyman, “In both cases, you have fuel—the thing that will burn up and feed the combustion. In Jack Parsons’ case, and in all people’s cases, I saw that fuel as the will—as the thing that pushes you towards some sort of objective or purpose. What’s equally important in a rocket, and in life, is some sense of control and constraints. In a rocket, those things have to be very carefully kept in harmony and in balance. If the control and constraint is too strong… it won’t even get off the ground. It won’t go anywhere.”
“The same goes for Jack Parsons, or any person—that if there are constraints, whether they’re social or psychological, that are keeping you from pursuing what you want to pursue… you won’t do any of it. Conversely, in a rocket, if those constraints are not good enough, then the whole thing just explodes, and it does turn into a bomb. That’s ultimately his trajectory. More and more of those constraints come off of him as he leaves his best friend, he leaves his marriage, and he leaves his company. All of these things that were keeping him constrained in some way or preventing him from total self-destruction sort of come off him, and ultimately, there is this sort of final blow-up of life. Literally.”
There’s lots of controversy surrounding Parsons’s death. Pasadena Police Department criminologist Don Harding concluded that the explosion was caused by fulminated mercury, which Parsons had accidentally dropped onto the floor. Yes, Breaking Bad fans. That fulminated mercury.
Parsons’s work colleagues disagreed over the likelihood of his “accidental” death. Forman believed it plausible, recounting that Parsons had criminally sweaty hands. Colleagues from the Bermite Powder Company thought otherwise, describing Parsons’s work habits as “scrupulously neat.” Suicide, and even an assassination plot, were also popular theories among his peers.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Parsons’ untimely death is its role in effectively erasing him from JPL history. The most NASA mentions of the self-taught engineer is a generally vague sentence about amateur engineers working alongside CalTech researchers. Better known to history as a fanatic, the most space industry clout Parsons ever posthumously received was having a small crater on the Moon named after him. It’s on the far side of the moon; the one we rarely get to see.
Heyman thinks it’s obvious why we don’t hear more about Jack: “Drug use and orgies is just a hard thing to fold into NASA’s official story.” “As someone who works in storytelling, I was like, guys, don’t you see it? He makes you guys look cool! He was like a punk rocker scientist. Why wouldn’t you want to own that and bring all sorts of people into the fold who aren’t necessarily drawn to dry, academic scientists?”
“It allowed him to see anything as being possible,” says Pendle of Parsons’ off-beat mindset, “From an early age, he wrote about wanting to go to the Moon. Up until then, going to the Moon was what you said when somebody was crazy. Lunatic, the very word, comes from luna, the Moon."
Bucking the establishment is what got Jack Parsons, rocket science, and Strange Angel off the ground in the first place. “Being a writer, being a creative person, you are always coming up against the constraints of reality. You are always being told ‘no’ far more often than yes,” says Heyman, “We got no’s from like every possible network in town but still went forward, like really believing in this thing and still being invested in it. And lo and behold, there was this brand new streamer. Now, everyone has a streamer. Back then, we went like, ‘Wait, what? What is this?’ No one knew what that meant, for CBS to have a streaming service. It felt a little bit like reality sort of bending to my will. I think even this show coming into existence is a testament to the spirit of determination and pushing against constraints that Jack Parsons sort of embodies.”
Strange Angel seasons one and two are available for streaming on CBS All Access. Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle, is available on Amazon, Google Books, and Audible.