Published in Fortean Times, Issue 132, March 2000
Editor: One of the founding fathers of American rocket-science was a character strung between Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, and the Devil himself. Colin Bennett considers the short but remarkable life of a blazing star, Jack Parsons.
John Whiteside Parsons, born Marvel, known as Jack, writer, visionary, dedicated occultist, and chemist of genius, was born in 1914 and died in 1952 in a mysterious explosion, the cause of which has never been fully explained. He was a tall handsome Californian, whose early work on highly volatile rocket-motor fuels was regarded highly enough for French scientists of a later generation to name a crater on the Moon after him. Parsons introduced a range of exotic solid and liquid fuels into early American rocketry whose later forms were eventually to help drive Apollo 11 to the Moon.
He helped create the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, now a major industrial complex. In early colour footage from JPL archives, he looks like a better-fed James Dean in some 1950s road movie. In the manner of many mid-century heroes such as Dean, his life was more a script than a life. Today, over fifty years later, we can run Parsons in our heads, in torn jeans and greasy shirt, as he off-loads equipment from a hired pick-up truck in the baking dust of some remote desert arroyo, and gets ready for one of his many pre-war rocket experiments.
By August 1941, these tests had produced rockets stable enough to use as bolt-on jet-assisted-take-off (JATO)  units for military aircraft. Daring experiments, probably the first of their kind in the world, were also made with no less than 12 of these 28 lb (12.7 kg) per twelve-second thrust units fitted to an Ercoupe light aircraft. With its propeller removed, the hobby-plane soared and landed. Thus a mail-order aircraft became the first rocket aircraft of America, and therefore the direct primitive ancestor of the air-launched Bell XI which Chuck Yaeger took through the sound-barrier in 1947.
Pot-war, these JATO “bottles” grew into the liquid-fuel Corporal rocket and the solid-fuelled Sergeant. The much-vaunted Germans were surprisingly way behind in solid-fuel technology, which Parsons pioneered. From his work there arose a whole range of first-generation American missiles, including the solid-fuelled submarine-launched Polaris.
Parsons was certainly ahead of his time in things other than rocketry. Before each test launch, he was in the habit of invoking Aleister Crowley’s Hymn to Pan, the wild-horned god of fertility. Parsons was an active member of the California Agape Lodge of the sex-magickal group Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and in letters addressed The Great Beast as “Most Beloved Father.” Out of the inspirations of fire, dust, and grease came a visionary mystical writing formed out of conflicts with what he saw as an increasingly oppressive society. There are passages in his book, Freedom Is A Two-Edged Sword,  very similar to Timothy Leary’s much later book, The Politics of Ecstasy. His style also predates the “beat” poetry of Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the New Age views of Wilhelm Reich. Parsons had the kind of hallucinatory visions about spirit, magic, and human freedom which were to rocket Californian culture headlong into the 1960s, causing a world revolution in thinking which, alas, Parsons was never to see.
Parson’s home, 1003 South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena, was a vast old pre-war mansion populated by his own Addams Family selection of the free and the inspired, the mad and the lost. Local advertisements for rooms specified that only bohemians, musicians, artists, atheists, and anarchists need apply. Rumours of black magic, orgies, and other strange goings-on abounded. One evening in 1942, several police appeared at the door to investigate reports of a pregnant woman jumping naked through a fire in the back yard. Ever the gentleman, Parsons convinced the officers of his status as a respectable scientist and the affair was laughed off.
As a scientist, a prototype hippy poet-anarchist, and romantic occultist, Parsons and his beliefs appear sculpted out of the mysteries and conflicts of the California landscape and the renowned scientific culture it nourishes. In his experiments, like a desert prophet of old, he performed miracles with strange mixes of explosive substances in remote locations, often at risk to his life. Outside chemistry, he was somewhat less sure-footed. He practised “sex magic” but was so lacking in occult disciplines that his early “workings” more resembled early free-love orgies than anything else. Outside of these “religious” activities, Parsons was an incorrigible womaniser, who also blithely styled himself as the Antichrist. This title was lightly assumed, compared with Crowley’s earlier self-christening as the Beast of Revelation. It was also an ambitious title for someone who was, for the most part, far too nice a person for such an exalted position in infernality. Like many enthusiasts before him, Parsons failed to distinguish between Paganism and Satanism, and the many tricks that sprite called the Unconscious plays with that pair of duplicitous sirens. It was probably for such confusions that the far more sophisticated and mature Crowley criticised Parsons, probably causing Parsons’ resignation from the OTO in 1946.
British culture, with its infernal hatred of clever folk, would have got rid of Parsons if he had been born here. Like Alan Turing, he would have been ritually crucified. But in brilliant people we should not look for balance and democracy, for fairness and objectivity. If Parsons’ vital energies were confused, anachronists, and hypocritical, he nevertheless represents (and so does L Ron Hubbard, his partner in magical rituals) that seething undertow of light-and-dark contrast in American life which is connected in some vital formative sense with the prototype aircraft that barrel down American runways. This is the nightmare of every democrat and social psychologist: take away the nut-cases and anomalies, the contradictions, and even the criminality, and nothing works any more. A glittering madness is gone. True leadership and creation involves that higher disturbance whose “products” vary from spaceships to schoolyard shootings.
Parsons’ chemistry, like its parent alchemy, is by nature a thing very different from physics. It has colour, smell and taste, and depends on character and relation rather than the push-me-pull-you of nuclear forces. Chemistry therefore is linked not to momentum, or gravity, those arriviste “objective” harpies, but to a gentler world of homeopathy and pharmacy, to herbs, colour changes, and smells. It has no need to reduce the world to a cartoon in order to make the equations work out. The old alchemical idea of “affinity” rather than “objectivity” between compounds and elements suggests the operation of forces that the world well understood before the so-called “enlightenment.” In all likelihood, Parsons used his somewhat cavalier attitude towards occultism to activate those sympathies which got his early fuel combinations right, astonishing colleagues such as Frank Malina. But he may have found out that magic, once summoned, is far more volatile than even the most dangerous rocket fuel.
Of course, science, as Mr Straight would have us believe, has swept away all such “subjective” elements, along with religion, metaphysics, and mysticism. But deep inside any twentieth century product are schemes of product-agendas, those occult rituals of which the cultural “successes” of science are but the masks. We have only to scratch the paint off a twentieth century bus-stop, and we discover a conspiracy. The paint itself, the aluminium, the drilling, milling, and casting—all these things are, like the bus-stop, a temporary shelter in time, and finally vanish into that haze of mysteries we like to call Causation, if only to help us get some sleep at night. That old fraud called Official Reality would have us believe that American rocket technology and space-science was created by a bunch of apple-cheeked graduates tinkering with some wartime scrap but the face of that social-scientific conspiracy which took us to the Moon has the shape of that most occult of geometrical configurations—the triangle.
The Nazis were at one apex in Alabama (which is still the best place in America to put Nazis if you don’t want them to come to any harm). The doings in the arroyo, which became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, occupied another apex. Frank Malina, a powerful figure in GALCIT  and sometime friend of Parsons, was a secret communist who sat at the third remaining apex, along with Dr Hsue-shen Tsien, another fellow-traveller, who became Chairman Mao’s first Missile Godfather, and produced the Silkworm missile for him. In the centre of the triangle there is the winking eye of Aleister Crowley, and providing comic interest was a character no less fantastic than Crowley: namely L Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. After being demobilised in 1945, he appears in this network of forces as the Joker and only leaves the triangle after much occult, personal, and legal intrigue.
Jewish light relief was provided by Von Karman, Head of GALCIT, who claimed that his Rabbi father had actually created a golem, no less. Von Karman was a legendary figure, the protagonist of swept-back wings, a new technology in the early 1940s. Such was the regard of Von Karman for Parsons, he named him as the third most vital influence on space-science, and although Parsons did not have a degree, Von Karman gave him the run of Caltech. While this produced success, on at least two occasions Parsons and his equally part-qualified A-team nearly blew the whole place to pieces, before being rapidly moved back to the desert arroyo by popular request.
Knickers without mystique are no knickers at all. Similarly, with rockets, there has to be mystique, and the quietly imported Nazis formed the televisual part of our space-triangle. Like Hitler’s Armament Minster, Albert Speer (the acceptable face of Nazi bourgeois intelligentsia if ever there was one), the legendary Wernher Von Braun  looked good even on the low-definition TV of John Parsons’ last days. As the world rapidly became pure media in the decades succeeding 1945, it was looking good that was beginning to count. Von Braun’s glowing features lapped it up as the prime-time interviewers of the 1950s and 1960s just forgot to mention that he joined the SS in 1940 and personally ordered the public hanging of twelve slave-workers at Nordhausen in 1945.
The historians of rational causation who look at the costs and economies may have to get rid of every idea of what constitutes a life-form, never mind an economy. Our strange geometry, trailing twilight characters and full of advertising concentrate, dropped into the right cultural bio-soup, opened like a Chinese flower in water and became the great American Space Adventure.
Towards the end of 1943, the Von Karman group joined forces with the US Army Ordnance and the resulting project ORDCIT built the solid-fuelled Private A with a range of 54 thousand feet (16,549 m). This in turn evolved through Private F and Sergeant to become the WAC Corporal (still essentially a Parsons-type rocket). The Corporal was the first American ballistic missile to go into production and reach field deployment. While it could hardly match the V2, nevertheless, on 26 September 1945, a Corporal reached a height of forty-two miles (402km) above the Earth. In 1958, six years after Parsons’ death, this marriage of German and American ideas, occult and mechanical, ideological and political, good and evil, had given birth to America’s first satellite, Explorer I.
Not that after 1945 Parsons took much notice of these developments. Like many people after the war, he seemed to come apart, talking about investing in washing machines and fireworks. He was a hopeless businessman and, taking part-time jobs with various explosive and pyrotechnic companies, he became ever more deeply involved in occultism.
Like all dedicated occultists, he looked for bigger things than objective science. For those who wish to look for them, the rejected and abandoned systems of the Ancient World still lie about twentieth century consciousness like the ruins of Rome.
A character like Parsons could hardly avoid the FBI. From the early 1940s he was watched because of suspected communist affiliations, though we are left to speculate on what a communist occultist would sound like. A further FBI investigation of 1951 shows him still under investigation, this time for alleged espionage. While working for Hughes Aircraft, it was found he had taken some seventeen technical papers from research files. According to Sex and Rockets author John Carter, their titles are still censored from the FBI files. Carter suggests that Parsons used jargon associated with the Manhattan Project. At this time Parsons had formed strong sympathetic contacts with Israel, the implication being that he could have been the target of a covert effort to help Israel build a nuclear weapon.
Parsons’ security clearance was never reinstated. This, combined with several past investigations into his magical and sexual activities, two other separate charges of having taken classified documents, an investigation into alleged communist activities, and a previous loss of clearance, hastened his sad decline, though now he was reunited with Cameron. Reduced to working at a filling station and designing explosive effects for films, he wrote to Germer, Crowley’s successor at OTO, of his “depressing melancholy stupor.”
On Tuesday 17th June 1952 at 5:45 pm, Parsons died after two mysterious explosions devastated his home. He was consumed by flame, just as Hubbard’s “channelling” had prophesied some six years previously: “She (Babalon) is the flame of life…She shall absorb thee, and thou shalt become living flame before She incarnates.”  A few hours after Parsons’ death, his mother Ruth killed herself with a fatal overdose of Nembutal. Carter reports that, according to police investigator Donald Harding and George Santmyer, a close working colleague of Parsons, a box was found on the Parsons’ property which contained a film showing Parsons and his mother having sex. If this circumstantial evidence is true, we can now rest assured that American Space Science rests on good classical foundations.
The dynamic transformations of Jack Parsons’ life had become the evolution of the rocket: born in blood, violence and Faustian hubris – with not a little fun along the way.
- The Germans developed the JATO bottles quite independently (they were used on the heavy Gigant transport and the Arado 234 jet bomber) but apparently they were crude efforts compared to Parsons’ units.
- Parsons, John Whiteside, Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword. New York and Las Vegas: Ordo Templi Orientis in association with Falcon Press Las Vegas, 1989.
- Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.
- UFO Magazine (Sept / Oct 1999, p.71) carried a report by Michael Lindemann, Head of CNI News, on NASA UFO whistleblower Clark C McClelland, who claims that Von Braun “confirmed” that an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell. In this ever-thickening plot it is pertinent to mention that John Carter claims that Parsons told Jacques Vallee, author of the classic Passport to Magonia, that he had met a Venusian in the Mojave desert in 1946. This is most interesting, considering that George Adamski was only 100 miles south-east of the Mojave at that time.
- Carter, Jack, Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons. (Port Townsend: Feral House, 2005,