Jack Parsons (rocket engineer)
|John Whiteside Parsons|
Parsons in June 1943, standing above a JATO canister at JPL's Arroyo Seco test site
|Born||Marvel Whiteside Parsons
October 2, 1914
Los Angeles, California
|Died||June 17, 1952
|Other names||Jack Parsons|
|Occupation||Rocket propulsion researcher, aerospace engineer, chemist, occultist, writer|
|Organization||Jet Propulsion Laboratory
California Institute of Technology
Aerojet Engineering Corporation
University of Southern California
North American Aviation
Hughes Aircraft Company
(1946–1952; his death)
John Whiteside Parsons (born Marvel Whiteside Parsons; October 2, 1914 – June 17, 1952), better known as Jack Parsons, was an American rocket engineer, chemist, and Thelemite occultist. A pioneer in solid-fuel rocket research and development, he was affiliated with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and was one of the principal founders of both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Aerojet Engineering Corporation.
Born in Los Angeles, California, and raised into a wealthy family in Pasadena, Parsons developed an early interest in rocketry inspired by science fiction literature, in 1928 becoming an enthusiastic hobbyist in amateur experimental rocketry with school friend Edward Forman. He was forced to drop out of Pasadena Junior College and Stanford University due to financial difficulties in the Great Depression, but in 1934 united with Forman and graduate student Frank Malina to form the Caltech-affiliated GALCIT Rocket Research Group, supported by Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory chairman Theodore von Kármán. In 1939 they gained funding from the National Academy of Sciences to work on Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) for the U.S. military, renaming themselves the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 1942, they founded the Aerojet Engineering Corporation to develop and sell their JATO technology.
After a brief involvement in Marxism, in 1939 Parsons converted to the English occultist Aleister Crowley's new religious movement, Thelema, and in 1941 alongside his wife Helen Northrup joined the Agape Lodge, the Californian branch of the Thelemite Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). At Crowley's bidding, Parsons took over the position of lodge leader from Wilfred Talbot Smith in 1942, operating it from his manor home—nicknamed "the Parsonage"—on Orange Grove Boulevard, Pasadena. With L. Ron Hubbard he began the Babalon Working, designed to invoke the Thelemic goddess Babalon to Earth, continuing the procedure with his second wife Marjorie Cameron. After Hubbard stole his life savings, Parsons sold the Parsonage, resigned from the OTO and went through various jobs, while acting as a consultant for the Israeli rocket program. Amid the developing climate of McCarthyism and accusations of espionage, he lost his security clearance and was left unable to work in rocketry. In 1952, Parsons died in a home laboratory explosion at the age of 37; police ruled it an accidental death, but a number of his associates—including Cameron—suspected suicide or murder.
Parsons' death attracted national attention, and his occult and individualist writings were posthumously published. Parsons is widely recognized by Thelemites and occult researchers as one of the most significant figures in propagating the religion across North America, and by the scientific community for his contributions to rocket propulsion chemistry and design, along with his role as an early advocate of their utilization for space exploration and human spaceflight. He is cited as among the most important figures in the history of the U.S. space program, and is the subject of several biographies and fictionalized portrayals.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Personal life
- 3 Legacy and influence
- 4 References
- 5 External links
Early life: 1914–1934
Marvel "Jack" Whiteside Parsons was born on October 2, 1914 at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. His parents, Ruth Virginia Whiteside (c. 1893–1952) and Marvel H. Parsons (c. 1894–1947), had moved to California from Massachusetts the previous year, purchasing a house on Scarf Street in downtown Los Angeles. Their marriage broke down soon after Jack's birth, when Ruth discovered that her husband had made numerous visits to a prostitute; she filed for divorce in March 1915, and he returned to Massachusetts after being publicly exposed as an adulterer, with Ruth forbidding him from having any contact with Jack. Although she retained her ex-husband's surname, Ruth ceased to call her son "Marvel", instead referring to him as "John", whereas many other friends throughout his life knew him as "Jack". Ruth's parents Walter and Carrie Whiteside moved to California to be with Jack and their daughter, using their wealth to purchase an up-market house on South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena—known locally as "Millionaire's Mile"—where they could live together. Jack was surrounded by domestic servants and soon became spoiled. Having few friends, he lived a solitary childhood, and spent much time reading, taking a particular interest in works of mythology, Arthurian legend, and the Arabian Nights. Through the work of Jules Verne he became interested in science fiction (then known as scientifiction), and became a keen reader of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories. It was this interest in science fiction that led to his early interest in rocketry.
At age twelve, Parsons began attending Washington Junior High School, where he performed poorly—something biographer George Pendle attributed to undiagnosed dyslexia—and was heavily bullied for his upper class status and perceived effeminacy. Although unpopular, he formed a strong friendship with Edward "Ed" Forman, an individual from a poor working class family who shared his interest in science fiction and rocketry; in 1928 the pair began engaging in homemade rocket experiments. Parsons had also begun to investigate occultism, and independently performed a ritual intended to invoke the Devil into his bedroom; he worried that the invocation was successful, and was so frightened by the event that he ceased such activities for a number of years. After receiving his poor school results, Parsons' mother sent him away to study at a private boarding school in San Diego, the Brown Military Academy for Boys. He was expelled for blowing up the toilets and returned to Washington Junior High.
The Parsons spent the summer 1929 on a tour of Europe before returning to Pasadena, where the family moved into a house on San Rafael Avenue. With the onset of the Great Depression their fortune began to dwindle, and in July 1931 Jack's grandfather Walter died. After graduating from Washington Junior High in 1931, Parsons began studying at the privately run University School, a liberal institution that took an unconventional approach to teaching; here Parsons flourished, becoming editor of the school's newspaper El Universitano, winning an award for literary excellence, and focusing his attentions on the study of chemistry. With the family's financial difficulties deepening, Parsons began working during weekends and school holidays at the offices of the Hercules Powder Company, where he was able to learn more about explosives and their potential use in rocket propulsion. He and Forman continued to independently explore the subject in their spare time, building and testing different rockets, sometimes with materials that he had stolen from work. Parsons also underwent a brief correspondence with the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun; Pendle attributes its sudden dissipation to the men's mutual reticence about disclosing the technical details of their discoveries.
Graduating from University School in the summer of 1933, Parsons moved with his mother and grandmother to a more modest house on St. John Avenue, where he continued to pursue his interests in classical literature and writing poetry. In the autumn he enrolled in Pasadena Junior College with the hope of earning an associate degree in physics and chemistry, but was forced to drop out after only a term because of his financial situation and took up permanent employment at the Hercules Powder Company. His employers then sent him to work at their manufacturing plant in Pinole, San Francisco Bay, where he earned a relatively high wage of $100 a month, but he was plagued by headaches caused by exposure to nitroglycerine. He saved up in the hope of continuing his academic studies, and began a degree in chemistry at Stanford University, but again found the tuition fees unaffordable and returned to Pasadena.
Marriage and the GALCIT Rocket Research Group: 1934–1938
In the hope of gaining access to the resources of the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for their rocketry programs, Parsons and Forman approached the institute's William Bollay, who redirected them to a graduate student named Frank Malina, a mathematician and mechanical engineer who shared their interests and soon befriended Parsons. Together Parsons, Forman, and Malina applied for funding from Caltech, although they did not mention that their ultimate objective was to develop rockets for space exploration, realizing that most of the scientific establishment then relegated such ideas to science fiction. Caltech's Clark Blanchard Millikan immediately rebuffed them, although Theodore von Kármán saw more promise in their proposal, and agreed to allow them to operate under the auspices of the university's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT). Naming themselves "The GALCIT Rocket Research Group", they gained access to the university's specialist equipment, but the Great Depression made von Kármán unable to finance them. Sharing socialist values, they operated on an egalitarian basis, with Malina teaching the others about scientific procedure and they teaching him about the practical elements of rocketry; they often socialized together, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, while Malina and Parsons set about writing a novel—never finished—with strong anti-capitalist and pacifist themes.
Parsons had met a woman named Helen Northup at a local church dance, and proposed marriage in July 1934. She accepted, and they were married in April 1935 at the Little Church of the Flowers in Forest Lane Memorial Park, Glendale, before undertaking a brief honeymoon in San Diego. They moved into a house on South Terrace Drive, Pasadena, while Parsons gained employment for the explosives manufacturer Halifax Powder Company at their facility in Saugus; much to Helen's dismay, Parsons spent most of his wages funding the GALCIT Rocket Research Group. At one point he pawned Helen's engagement ring and would often ask her family for loans.
Parsons received a visit from his estranged father Marvel, who had become a major in the coast artillery corps, remarried, and had another son named Charles, whom he brought to visit Parsons. The meeting had little impact on Parsons, who would only meet his father once more before his death as a psychiatric patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington D.C.
The Group contacted liquid-fuel rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, and although he invited Malina to his facility, he was not interested in cooperating, having being subjected to widespread derision for his work in the field. They were instead joined by Caltech masters students Apollo M. O. Smith (known as "Amo"), Carlos C. Wood, and Rudolph Schott, with Schott being relied upon for the use of his pickup truck as means of transporting equipment. Their first motor test, using a duralumin rocket with methanol and gaseous oxygen as fuel, took place at Halloween 1936 near the Devil's Gate Dam in the Arroyo Seco. The motor exploded, but they learned much from the experiment. They continued their experiments throughout the fall of 1936, and after the fourth test was successfully completed, von Kármán agreed that they could perform their future experiments on campus.
In April 1937 the Group was joined by a Caltech mathematician from China, Qian Xuesen, and several months later were also joined by a Caltech laboratory assistant, Weld Arnold, who worked as the group's official photographer. They became well known on campus, earning the moniker of the "Suicide Squad" for the dangerous nature of some of their experiments, also attracting attention from the local press. Parsons himself gained further media publicity when he appeared as an expert explosives witness in the trial of Earl Kynette, the head of police intelligence in Los Angeles who was accused of rigging a bomb to kill private investigator Harry Raymond. When Kynette was convicted largely on Parsons' testimony, his identity as an expert scientist in the public eye was established, despite his lack of a university education. While working at Caltech, Parsons was admitted to evening courses in chemistry at the University of Southern California (USC), but distracted by his GALCIT workload attended sporadically and received unexceptional grades.
In May 1938, Parsons was invited by Forrest J Ackerman to lecture on the GALCIT Group's advances in rocketry at the Chapter Number 4 of Los Angeles Science Fiction League (LASFL), and although he never joined the society he did occasionally attend their talks, on one occasion conversing with a teenage Ray Bradbury. Another scientist to become involved in the GALCIT project was Sidney Weinbaum, a Jewish refugee from Europe who was a vocal Marxist; he led Parsons, Malina, and Qian in creating a largely secretive communist discussion group at Caltech, which became known as Professional Unit 122 of the Pasadena Communist Party. Although Parsons subscribed to the People's Daily World and joined the American Civil Liberties Union, he refused to join the American Communist Party, causing a break in his and Weinbaum's friendship. This ideological divide coupled with the need to focus on paid employment led to the disintegration of much of the Rocket Research Group by 1938, leaving only its three founding members.
Embracing Thelema and JATO: 1939–1942
In January 1939, John and Frances Baxter, a brother and sister who had befriended Jack and Helen Parsons, took Jack to the Church of Thelema in Winona Boulevard, Hollywood, where he witnessed the performance of The Gnostic Mass. Notable attendees of the church had included Hollywood actor John Carradine and gay rights activist Harry Hay. Parsons was intrigued, having already heard of Thelema's founder Aleister Crowley after reading a copy of Crowley's Konx om Pax (1907). Parsons' formative interest in esotericism was developed through his reading of The Golden Bough (1890), a work in comparative mythology by Scottish social anthropologist James George Frazer. With Helen he had attended a number of lectures on theosophy by philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, but disliked its sentiment of "the good and the true."
At the mass Parsons was introduced to leading members Regina Kahl, Jane Wolfe, and Wilfred Talbot Smith. Feeling both "repulsion and attraction" for Smith, Parsons continued to attend the Church's events sporadically for a year. He continued to read Crowley's works, which increasingly interested him, and encouraged Helen to do so too. Parsons came to believe in the reality of magic as a force that could be explained through quantum physics. He tried to interest a number of his friends and acquaintances in Thelema, at one point taking the science fiction authors Jack Williamson and Cleve Cartmill to a performance of The Gnostic Mass, and although they were unimpressed, Parsons was successful with a young Caltech student whom he had befriended, Grady Louis McMurtry, as well as McMurtry's fiancée Claire Palmer, and Helen's sister Sara "Betty" Northrup.
Parsons and his wife were initiated into the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis on February 15, 1941, with Parsons adopting the Thelemic motto of Thelema Obtenteum Proedero Amoris Nuptiae, a Latin mistranslation of "The establishment of Thelema through the rituals of love". The initials of this motto spelled out T.O.P.A.N, also serving as the declaration "To Pan." Commenting on Parsons' errors of translation, in jest Crowley remarked that "the motto which you mention is couched in a language beyond my powers of understanding." In the same vein, Parsons adopted the Thelemic title Frater T.O.P.A.N—with T.O.P.A.N represented in Kabbalistic numerology as 210 (the name with which he frequently signed letters to occult associates)—while Helen became known as Soror Grimaud. Smith wrote to Crowley, claiming that Parsons was "a really excellent man ... He has an excellent mind and much better intellect than myself ... JP is going to be very valuable", while Wolfe wrote to the Thelemite Karl Germer to comment that Parsons was "an A1 man ... Crowleyesque in attainment as a matter of fact." Crowley concurred with such assessments, informing Smith that Parsons "is the most valued member of the whole Order, with no exception!"
At von Kármán's suggestion, Malina had approached the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on Army Air Corps Research to request funding for research into what they now termed "jet propulsion". The military were interested in jet propulsion as a means of getting aircraft off the ground quickly where there was no room for a runway, and gave the Rocket Research Group $1,000 to put together a proposal on the feasibility of Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) by June 1939. In this way they became the first U.S. government-sanctioned rocket research group in history. Although a quarter of this funding went on repairing damage to Caltech buildings caused by their experiments, they submitted their June report, at which they showed the feasibility of the project and requested $100,000 to continue; they only received $22,000. Now calling themselves "GALCIT Project Number 1", they continued to be ostracized by other Caltech scientists and were made to relocate their experiments back to the Arroyo Seco, at a site of unventilated, corrugated iron sheds where JPL would be founded.
They were joined by Caltech mathematician Martin Summerfield, and 18 workers supplied by the Works Progress Administration. Former colleagues like Qian were prevented from returning to the project by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who ensured the secrecy of the operation and restricted the involvement of foreign nationals and political extremists. The FBI was satisfied that Parsons was not a Marxist, but were concerned when a Thelemite friend, Paul Seckler, used Parsons' gun in a drunken car jacking, for which he was imprisoned in San Quentin State Prison for two years. Englishman George Emerson replaced Arnold as the Group's official photographer.
The first JATO tests using a Ercoupe plane took place in late July 1941, with a number of static experiments resulting in explosions damaging the aircraft, which the Group realized was because of the unstable black powder in the rockets becoming dangerously combustible after temperature and consistency changes following overnight storage. Parsons and Malina accordingly devised a method in which they would fill the JATOs with fuel in the early mornings before tests, depriving themselves of sleep in doing so. On August 21, 1941, Navy Captain Homer J. Boushey, Jr. piloted the JATO-equipped Ercoupe at the March Fields Air Corps Base in Moreno Valley; watched by such figures as Clark Millikan and William F. Durand, it proved a success and reduced takeoff distance by 30%, although one of the JATOs partially exploded and damaged the fuselage in the plane's tail. The fuel was codenamed GALCIT-27, implying 26 failures beforehand. Over the following weeks, 62 further tests took place, with the NAS increasing their grant to $125,000.
Parsons was motivated to address the malfunctions observed during the Ercoupe tests, and focused his attention on developing an effective method of restricted burning; he eventually discovered the use of liquidized asphalt as an appropriate binding agent and potassium perchlorate as an effective oxidizer. Malina claimed that Parsons was inspired to use asphalt for the former purpose by the ancient incendiary weapon Greek fire, while Captain Boushey recounted in a 1982 talk for the International Association of Astronomical Artists that Parsons experienced an epiphany after having observed manual workers using molten asphalt to fix tiles onto a roof. Known as GALCIT-53, this fuel proved to be significantly less volatile than the Group's earlier concoctions, fulfilled Parsons' aim of creating a restricted burn rocket fuel inside a castable container, and provided a thrust 427% more powerful than the liquid fuel GALCIT-27. As these JATOs could be stored indefinitely, they set a precedent which according to Carter "changed the future of rocket technology" and allowed for mass-production of the Group's invention. Plasticized variants of Parsons' solid fuel design were subsequently used by NASA in Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), and by the Strategic Air Command in LGM-30 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The military, however, ordered a flight test using liquid fuel—rather than the preexisting solid fuel—by the Spring of 1942. Parsons, Summerfield and the GALCIT workers focused on the task, and found success with a combination of gasoline with red fuming nitric acid as its oxidizer. When this fuel proved too dangerous, however, Malina solved the problem by replacing the gasoline with aniline, resulting in a successful test launch of a JATO-equipped A-20A plane at the Mura Auxiliary Air Field in the Mojave Desert. Providing a thrust five times more powerful than the GALCIT-53 JATO and again reducing takeoff distance by 30%, Malina declared that "We now have something that really works and we should be able to help give the Fascists hell!"
The Aerojet Engineering Corporation: 1942–1944
Following the United States' entry into the Second World War in December 1941, the Group agreed to produce and sell 60 JATO engines to the United States Army Air Corps. To do so, they formed a company in March 1942, the Aerojet Engineering Corporation, into which Parsons, Forman, Malina, von Kármán, and Summerfield each invested $250, opening their office on East Colorado Street and bringing in Amo Smith in as their engineer. Parsons' official title at Aerojet was Project Engineer of the Solid Fuels Department. Aerojet's first contract was for a solid fuel JATO from the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, while its second was for a liquid fuel JATO from the Wilbur Wright Field. The Air Corps requested two thousand JATOs from Aerojet by late 1943, committing $256,000 toward Parsons' solid fuel type. Despite this drastically increased turnover, the company continued to operate informally and remained intertwined with the GALCIT project, with Caltech's Fritz Zwicky being brought in as head of the company's research department. Andrew G. Haley replaced von Kármán as Aerojet chairman and imposed payroll cuts instead of reducing JATO output. Parsons' newfound credentials and financial security gave him the opportunity to travel more widely throughout the U.S., meeting with other rocket enthusiasts. In New York he met with Karl Germer, the head of the OTO in North America, and in Washington D.C. he met Joseph Auslander, donating some of Crowley's poetry books to the Library of Congress. He also became a regular at the Mañana Literary Society, which met at the home of Parsons' friend Robert A. Heinlein in Laurel Canyon, and included science fiction writers such as Cleve Cartmill, Jack Williamson, and Anthony Boucher, the latter of whom would use Parsons as a partial basis for the character of Hugo Chantrelle in Rocket to the Morgue (1942).
In June 1941, Helen went away for a period, during which Parsons began a sexual relationship with her seventeen-year-old sister, Sara, encouraged to do so by the sexually permissive attitude of the OTO. Upon Helen's return, Sara asserted that she was Parsons' new wife, and Parsons himself admitted that he found Sara more sexually attractive. Conflicted in her feelings, Helen sought comfort in Talbot Smith, entering into a relationship with him that would last for the rest of his life; the four remained friends. Together the two couples, along with a number of other Thelemites, relocated from Winona Boulevard to a large Craftsman-style house at 1003 South Orange Grove Avenue, Pasadena. They all contributed to the rent of $100 a month, and lived communally in what became the new base of the Agape Lodge. Parsons decorated his new room with a copy of the Stele of Revealing, a statue of the god Pan and his collection of swords and daggers, which he hung on the walls, while he also converted the garage and laundry room into a chemical laboratory. Although there were many arguments among the commune members, Parsons remained dedicated to Thelema, giving almost all of his salary to the OTO and actively seeking out new members, among whom was Forman. He invited many of his colleagues to the lodge parties, but soon the group came under investigation by both the Pasadena police department and the FBI, who had received allegations of black magic and sexual orgies; neither found evidence of illegal activity and came to the conclusion that the lodge constituted no threat to national security. Having long made heavy use of alcohol and marijuana, Parsons now habitually used cocaine and amphetamines as well, and continued to have sexual relations with a large number of women, including McMurtry's fiancee Claire. When Parsons paid for Claire to have an abortion, McMurtry was angered, and their friendship broke down.
Crowley and Germer wanted to see Smith removed as head of the Agape Lodge, believing that he had become a bad influence on other lodge members; Parsons and Helen wrote to them to defend their mentor, but Germer nevertheless ordered him to stand down, with Parsons appointed temporary head of the lodge. Parsons soon created a Thelemite journal, Oriflamme, in which he published his own poetry, but Crowley was unimpressed and the project was soon shelved. In April, Helen gave birth to Smith's son, who was given Parsons' surname, being named Kwen Lanval Parsons. In May, Smith and Helen left for a two-room cabin in Rainbow Valley with Kwen. Back in England, Crowley undertook an astrological analysis of Smith's birth chart, and came to the conclusion that he was the incarnation of a god, greatly altering his estimation of him; Smith however remained skeptical. It is viewed by researchers including Carter and Pendle that this analysis by Crowley was devised in Parsons' favor, encouraging Smith to step down from his role in the Agape Lodge. Refusing to take orders from Germer anymore, Smith resigned from the OTO, while Parsons—who remained sympathetic and friendly to Smith during the conflict—ceased lodge activities and resigned as its head, a resignation that Crowley refused to accept.
As the U.S. became aware that Nazi Germany had developed the V-2 rocket, the military placed a renewed impetus on its own rocket research, reinstating Qian to the GALCIT project. They gave the group a $3 million grant to develop rocket-based weapons, with the group being expanded and renamed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). By this point, the U.S. Navy were ordering 20,000 JATOs a month from Aerojet, and to cope with the increased demand, in December 1944 the company sold 51% of its stock to the General Tire and Rubber Company, with Parsons selling all of his stock for $11,000. With this money, he would buy the lease to 1003, which had come to be known as "the Parsonage" after him.
L. Ron Hubbard and the Babalon Working: 1945–1946
Now disassociated from Aerojet, Parsons and Forman founded the Ad Astra Engineering Company. He continued to financially support Smith and Helen, although asked for a divorce from the latter, and ignored Crowley's commands by welcoming Smith back to 1003 when he had finished his retreat. Parsons continued to hold OTO activities at 1003, but began renting rooms at the house to non-Thelemites such as journalist Nieson Himmel, physicist Robert Cornog, and science fiction artist Louis Goldstone. Parsons attracted controversy in Pasadena for his preferred clientele. As Parsonage resident Alva Rogers recalled in a 1962 article: "In the ads placed in local paper Jack specified that only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or any other exotic types need to apply for rooms—any mundane soul would be unceremoniously rejected."
Science fiction writer and former United States Navy officer L. Ron Hubbard soon moved in to 1003; he and Parsons became close friends, with Parsons informing Crowley that Hubbard was "the most Thelemic person I have ever met." Although Parsons and Sara were in an open relationship, she became enamored with Hubbard, causing Parsons intense jealousy. Parsons began to devote increasing amounts of time to the 'dark side' of magic, becoming interested in the iconography of witchcraft, something that concerned many fellow OTO members, who believed that he had invoked troublesome spirits into the Parsonage. Parsons reported paranormal events in the house resulting from his rituals including poltergeist activity, sightings of orbs and ghostly apparitions, and disembodied voices. Pendle suggested that Parsons was particularly susceptible to these interpretations, and attributed the voices to a prank by Hubbard and Sara. One ritual allegedly brought screaming banshees to the windows of the Parsonage, an incident that disturbed Forman for the rest of his life. Deciding to use magical means to attract a new lover, Parsons performed a series of rituals based in Enochian magic during which he masturbated onto magical tablets, accompanied by Sergei Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto, using both his own semen and blood for this purpose. He allowed Hubbard to take part, believing that he was particularly sensitive to detecting magical phenomena.
Their final ritual took place in the Mojave Desert on 18 January 1946, and on return to the Parsonage Parsons discovered that a woman named Marjorie "Candy" Cameron had come to visit. Believing her to be the "elemental" woman that he had invoked, he began performing sex magic rituals with her. Describing this as the Babalon Working, he hoped to bring about the incarnation of a Thelemite female messiah, Babalon, onto Earth, with Cameron acting as the "Scarlet Woman" in these rituals. He also aimed to magically conceive a "Moonchild" (a reference to Crowley's 1917 novel of the same name), which when born would become the messiah of Thelema. Although Crowley warned him against the endeavor, Parsons was committed and retreated to the desert. He believed that a preternatural entity spoke to him there and provided him with Liber 49, which he believed to represent a fourth part of Crowley's The Book of the Law, the primary sacred text of Thelema, as well as part of a new sacred text he called the Book of Babalon. This accomplished, Parsons set about trying to sell the Parsonage for $25,000, on the condition that he could continue to live in the coach house, and he appointed Roy Leffingwell to head the Agape Lodge, which would now have to meet elsewhere for its rituals.
Parsons decided to co-found a company with Hubbard and Sara, Allied Enterprises, in which he invested his life savings of $20,970. Hubbard suggested that with this money, he and Sara travel to Miami, there to purchase three yachts that they would then sail through the Panama Canal and to the West Coast, where they could sell them on for a profit. Parsons agreed, but many of his friends thought it a bad idea. When Crowley informed him that it was an obvious confidence trick, Parsons changed his mind and flew to Miami, where he placed a temporary injunction and restraining order on them. Discovering this, Hubbard and Sara attempted to flee aboard their yacht, but hit a squall and were forced to return to port; Parsons was convinced that he had brought them to shore through a geomantic invocation of Bartzabel, a spirit Mars. Allied Enterprises was dissolved, and in a court settlement Hubbard was made to promise to reimburse Parsons. Parsons was discouraged from taking further action by Sara, who threatened to report their sexual relationship that took place when she was under the legal age of consent. Hubbard subsequently married Sara (making him a bigamist, as he was also married to Margaret "Polly" Grubb) and went onto found Dianetics and Scientology. In December 1969, The Sunday Times published an article about Hubbard's involvement with the OTO and Parsons' occult activities. In response, the Church of Scientology released a press statement claiming that he had been sent as an undercover agent by the U.S. Navy to intercept and destroy Parsons' "black magic cult", and save Sara (anonymously referred to as "a girl"). Returning to California, Parsons completed the sale of the Parsonage, which was then demolished, and resigned from the OTO, commenting in his letter to Crowley that he did not believe that "as an autocratic organization, [the OTO] constitutes a true and proper medium for the expression and attainment" of the Thelemic rites expressed in Crowley's Liber OZ (1941).
Final years: 1946–1952
Parsons obtained employment with North American Aviation at Inglewood, where he worked on the Navaho Missile Program. With Cameron he moved into a house on Manhattan Beach, where he began to teach her more about occultism. Four days after his divorce from Helen was finalized, they were married on October 19, 1946, with Forman as their witness. Parsons continued to be seen as a specialist in rocketry, in March 1947 being called as an expert in a police investigation regarding an industrial explosion, and in May 1947 giving a talk at the Pacific Rocket Society at which he predicted that rockets would take humans to the Moon. Although he had become distant from the now largely defunct OTO and had sold much of his Crowleyan library, he continued to correspond with Crowley up until the latter's death in December 1947.
At the emergence of the Cold War, a Red Scare developed in the U.S. as the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating anyone with perceived communist sympathies. Many of Parsons' former colleagues lost their security clearance and jobs as a result, and eventually the FBI also stripped Parsons of his clearance, leaving him unemployed. In reaction to this hostile treatment, Parsons sought work in the rocket industry abroad, seeking advice to do so via correspondence with Theodore von Kármán. He followed von Kármán's advice by enrolling in an evening course in advanced mathematics at USC to bolster his employability in the field, but again neglected attendance and failed the course. He managed to earn a wage as a car mechanic, a manual laborer at a gas station, a hospital orderly, and for two years was a faculty member at the USC Department of Pharmacology. Relations had been strained between Parsons and Cameron, and they agreed to a temporary separation; she moved to Mexico to join an artists' commune in San Miguel de Allende.
Parsons became disinterested in occultism following his defraudment by Hubbard and disenchantment with the OTO, but recounted as being called upon by Babalon at Halloween 1948 to continue his occult works alone; he embarked on sex magical operations with various prostitutes, intent on performing "the Crossing of the Abyss", thereby attaining union with the universal consciousness and becoming "the Master of the Temple." Following his apparent success in doing so, Parsons recounted of having had an out-of-body experience invoked by Babalon, who astrally transported him to the biblical City of Chorazin. Part of Parsons' "Oath of the Abyss" was an "Oath of the AntiChrist", witnessed by Talbot Smith, in which he professed to embody an entity named Belarion Armillus Al Dajjal, "who am come [sic] to fulfill the law of the Beast 666 [Aleister Crowley]." This name being a composite of alternate spellings referring to the Judeo-Christian demon Belial, and the false messiahs of Jewish and Islamic eschatology, Armilus and the Masih ad-Dajjal. Viewing these oaths as the completion of the Babalon Working, he authored an autobiography titled Analysis by a Master of the Temple and an occult text termed The Book of AntiChrist. In the latter work, Parsons (communicating as Belarion) prophesied that in seven years—on the condition that he lived—Babalon would manifest on Earth, superseding the Abrahamic religions and converting the United States and world to Thelema. Although Parsons would not live this long, Cameron claimed following his death that Babalon was successfully manifested in her person. Reinforcing his protestations about the Ordo Templi Orientis, Parsons describes the OTO as "an excellent training school for adepts, but hardly an appropriate Order for the manifestation of Thelema."
During this period, Parsons also authored an essay on his individualist philosophy and politics—which he described as standing for "liberalism and liberal principles"—titled "Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword". None of these works saw publication in his lifetime. He entered a brief relationship with an Irishwoman named Gladis Gohan, and together they moved to a house on Redondo Beach, a building known among them as the "Concrete Castle". Cameron returned to Redondo Beach from San Miguel de Allende and violently argued with Parsons upon discovering his infidelity, before again departing to Mexico. He responded by initiating divorce proceedings against her on the grounds of "extreme cruelty."
Through his connections, Parsons was able to have his security clearance reinstated by the Industrial Employment Review Board, who ruled that there was insufficient evidence that he had ever had communist sympathies. Von Kármán put him in touch with Herbert T. Rosenfeld, President of the Southern Californian chapter of the American Technion Society, a group dedicated to supporting the fledgling state of Israel. Rosenfeld offered Parsons a job with the Israeli rocket program, and hired him to produce a number of reports for them. Following his security reinstatement, Parsons had obtained a contract in chemical plant design and construction for the Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City. As the Red Scare intensified, Parsons decided to migrate to Israel to pursue Rosenfeld's offer, but an alerted Hughes secretary Parsons had asked to type up a portfolio of technical documents reported him to the FBI. She accused Parsons of espionage and attempted theft of company documents on the basis of some of the reports that he had sought to submit to the Technion Society. Parsons denied the allegations, insisting peaceful intentions in the former and error of judgement in the latter. In October 1951, the U.S. attorney decided that because the contents of the reports did not constitute state secrets Parsons was not guilty of espionage.
The Review Board nevertheless still considered him a liability because of his historical Marxist affiliations and investigations by the FBI, and in January 1952 permanently reinstated their ban on him working for classified projects, effectively prohibiting him from working in rocketry. In May 1951 he founded the Parsons Chemical Manufacturing Company based in North Hollywood, and also began work at the Bermite Powder Company in Saugus, where he created pyrotechnics and explosives for the movie industry. Cameron and Parsons reconciled and reinstated their relationship, moving into a former coach house on South Orange Grove Boulevard, with Parsons converting its large ground floor laundry room into a home laboratory to work on his chemical and pyrotechnic projects. They began holding parties once more that were attended largely by bohemians and members of the Beat Generation, along with old friends including Forman, Malina and Cornog. Parsons also founded a new Thelemite group known as "The Witchcraft" whose beliefs revolved around his Babalon prophecies, offering in a course in its teachings for a ten dollar fee.
Parsons and Cameron had decided to travel to Mexico for a few months. On the day before they planned to leave, June 17, 1952, he received a rush order of explosives for a film set, and he began work on it in his home laboratory. In the midst of this project an explosion destroyed the lower part of the building, during which Parsons sustained mortal wounds including an amputated right forearm, a broken left arm, both legs broken, and a "gaping hole" in his jaw. Despite these critical injuries, Parsons was found conscious and groaning in pain by upstairs neighbors. He attempted to communicate with arriving emergency services, who rushed him to the Huntingdon Memorial Hospital, where he was declared dead around 37 minutes after the explosion. When his mother Ruth was informed of the events, she immediately committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates. Pasadena Police Department criminologist Don Harding led the official investigation and concluded that Parsons had been mixing fulminate of mercury in a coffee can when he dropped it to the floor, resulting in the initial explosion which worsened when it came into contact with the many other chemicals in the room. Forman considered this likely, highlighting that Parsons often had sweaty hands and could easily have dropped the can. A number of Parsons' colleagues rejected this explanation, noting that he was very cautious about safety, but the police closed the case. Both Wolfe and Smith suggested that Parsons' death had been suicide, noting that he had suffered from depression for some time. Others theorized that the explosion was an assassination planned by aerospace magnate Howard Hughes in response to Parsons' suspected theft of Hughes Aircraft Company documents. Cameron became convinced that Parsons had been murdered, either by police officers who wanted vengeance for his role in the conviction of Earl Kynette, or by anti-Zionists opposed to his work with the Israeli authorities. One of Cameron's friends, the artist Renate Druks, later stated her belief that Parsons had died in a rite designed to create a homunculus. His death would never be definitively explained.
The immediate aftermath of the explosion attracted the interest of the U.S. media, making headline news in the Los Angeles Times; these initial reports focused on his prominence in rocketry, but neglected to mention his occult interests. However, within several days, journalists had discovered his involvement in Thelema and the Agape Lodge, and made this the emphasis of their reports. Parsons' body was cremated, and Cameron scattered the ashes in the Mojave Desert, before burning most of his possessions. She would later attempt to perform astral projection to commune with him. There was no funeral, although the OTO held a memorial service at which Smith led the Gnostic Mass. Cameron continued her work in art, acting and occultism until her death in 1995, notably portraying Babalon (as "The Scarlet Woman") and Hindu goddess Kali in Thelemite Kenneth Anger's short film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). She viewed this cinematic depiction as ritualistically aiding the literal invocation of Babalon begun by Parsons' working.
Although considered effeminate as a child, in adult life Parsons was known to exhibit an attitude of machismo. His FBI file described him as "potentially bisexual", and his biographer John Carter noted that he "once expressed a latent homosexuality", although Carter also accepted that the impression of bisexuality given by Parsons may have been erroneous. He gained the reputation of being a womanizer, and enjoyed sexual relationships with many women; he was notorious for frequently flirting and having sexual liaisons with female staff members at JPL and Aerojet. He never wanted children, practicing coitus interruptus to prevent it. Aside from rocketry, Parsons often hunted jack rabbits and cotton tails in the desert. He also enjoyed playing pranks on his colleagues, often through detonating explosives such as firecrackers and smoke bombs, and was also known to spend hours at a time in the bathtub playing with toy boats while living at the Parsonage.
Parsons adhered to the occult philosophy of Thelema, which had been founded in 1904 by the English occultist Aleister Crowley following a spiritual revelation that he had in the city of Cairo, Egypt, when—according to Crowley's own accounts—a spirit being known as Aiwass dictated to him a prophetic text known as The Book of the Law. During rocket tests, Parsons often recited Crowley's poem "Hymn to Pan" as a good luck charm.
In July 1945, Parsons gave a speech to the Agape Lodge in which he attempted to explain how he felt that The Book of the Law could be made relevant to "modern life." In this speech, which was subsequently published under the title of "Doing your Will", he examined the Thelemite concept of True Will, writing that:
- The mainspring of an individual is his creative Will. This Will is the sum of his tendencies, his destiny, his inner truth. It is one with the force that makes the birds sing and flowers bloom; as inevitable as gravity, as implicit as a bowel movement, it informs alike atoms and men and suns.
- To the man who knows this Will, there is no why or why not, no can or cannot; he IS!
- There is no known force that can turn an apple into an alley cat; there is no known force that can turn a man from his Will. This is the triumph of genius; that, surviving the centuries, enlightens the world.
- This force burns in every man.
Parsons identified four obstacles that prevented humans from achieving and performing their True Will, all of which he connected with fear: the fear of incompetence, the fear of the opinion of others, the fear of hurting others, and the fear of insecurity. He insisted that these must be overcome, writing that "The Will must be freed of its fetters. The ruthless examination and destruction of taboos, complexes, frustrations, dislikes, fears and disgusts hostile to the Will is essential to progress."
From early on in his career, Parsons took an interest in socialism and communism, views that he shared with his friend Malina. Under the influence of another friend, Sidney Weinbaum, the two joined a communist group in the late 1930s, with Parsons reading Marxist literature, but he remained unconvinced and refused to join the American Communist Party. Malina asserted that this was because Parsons was a "political romantic," whose attitude was more anti-authoritarian than anti-capitalist. Parsons would later become critical of the Marxist-Leninist government of the Soviet Union led by Joseph Stalin, sarcastically commenting:
- The dictatorship of the proletariat is merely temporary—the state will eventually wither away like a snark hunter, leaving us all free as birds. Meanwhile it may be necessary to kill, torture and imprison a few million people, but whose fault is it if they get in the way of progress?
During the era of McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the early 1950s, he was questioned as to his former links to the communist movement, by which time he denied any connection to it, instead describing himself as "an individualist."
Influenced by Thelema, which holds to the ethical code of "Do what thou wilt," in the 1940s Parsons became a vocal social libertarian. In his article "Freedom is a Lonely Star", he championed the libertarian social views of some of the Founding Fathers of the United States, which were enshrined in the American Constitution, claiming that by his own time these had been "sold out by America, and for that reason the heart of America is sick and the soul of America is dead." He proceeded to criticize many aspects of contemporary U.S. society, particularly the police force, remarking, "The police mind is usually of a sadistic and homicidal trend" and noting that they carried out the "ruthless punishment of symbolic scapegoats" such as African-Americans, prostitutes, alcoholics, homeless people and socio-political radicals, under the pretense of a country that had "liberty and justice for all." To bring about a freer future, Parsons believed in liberalizing attitudes to sexual morality, stating that in his belief, the publication of the Kinsey report and development of the psychonautical sciences had as significant an influence on Western society as the creation of the atomic bomb and the development of nuclear physics, and that in the future the restrictions on sexual morality within society should be abolished in order to bring about greater freedom and individuality. In this context, Colin Bennett of the Fortean Times cites Parsons as one of the instigators of the countercultural movements of the 1960s.
Robert Anton Wilson described Parsons as an "ultra-individualist" who exhibited a "genuine sympathy for working people," strongly empathized with feminism and held an antipathy toward patriarchy. Parsons identified as a liberal in "Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword", but Wilson argued that he was more closely aligned to the American libertarian and anarchist movements of the 20th century. Parsons was also a Zionist and was supportive of the early creation of the State of Israel, making plans to emigrate there when his military security clearance was revoked.
Legacy and influence
In the decades following his death, Parsons would be better remembered among the Western esoteric community rather than their scientific counterpart. For instance, English Thelemite Kenneth Grant suggested that Parsons' Babalon Working marked the start of the appearance of flying saucers in the skies.
In December 1958, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was integrated into the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration, after having built the Explorer 1 satellite that commenced America's Space Race with the Soviet Union. In a letter to Malina the same year, von Kármán ranked Parsons first in a list of figures he viewed as most important to modern rocketry and the foundation of the American space program. In October 1968, Malina gave a speech at JPL in which he highlighted Parsons' contribution to the U.S. rocket project and lamented how it had come to be neglected, crediting him for making "key contributions to the development of storable propellants and of long duration solid propellant agents that play such an important role in American and European space technology."
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 1989, many of Parsons' writings would see posthumous publication as Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword. In 2006, the Cameron-Parsons Foundation was founded as an incorporated company with the intention of conserving and promoting Parsons' writings and Cameron's artwork.
In 1999, Feral House published the biography Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons; author John Carter expressed the opinion that Parsons had accomplished more in under five years of research than Robert H. Goddard had in his lifetime, and noted that his role in the development of rocket technology had been neglected by historians of science. Conversely, Carter thought that Parsons' abilities and accomplishments as an occultist had been overestimated and exaggerated among Western esotericists. Feral House republished the work as a new edition in 2004, accompanied with an introduction by the occultist and author Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson believed that Parsons was "the one single individual who contributed the most to rocket science". He described Parsons as being "very strange, very brilliant, very funny, [and] very tormented", and considered it noteworthy that the day of his birth was the predicted beginning of the apocalypse advocated by Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah's Witness movement.
A second biography of Parsons was published in 2005 through Weidenfeld & Nicolson as Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons; it was authored by George Pendle, who described Parsons as "the Che Guevara of occultism", and noted that "the booster rockets that thrust the space shuttle into space are modeled after Parsons' invention." Parsons' involvement in the Agape Lodge would also be discussed by Martin P. Starr in his history of the American Thelemite movement, The Unknown God: W.T. Smith and the Thelemites, published by Teitan Press in 2003.
Before his death, Parsons appeared in science fiction writer Anthony Boucher's murder mystery Rocket to the Morgue (1942) under the guise of Hugo Chantrelle. Another fictional character based on Parsons was Courtney James, who features in L. Sprague de Camp's 1956 work A Gun for Dinosaur. A stage play about Parsons by George D. Morgan, Pasadena Babalon, premiered at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 2010, and that year Cellar Door Publishing released Richard Carbonneau and Robin Simon's graphic novel, The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons. In 2012, independent record label Drag City released an instrumental tribute single by guitarist Ben Chasny (under the name Six Organs of Admittance), Parsons' Blues.
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- "Six Organs Of Admittance – Parsons' Blues". Discogs. Retrieved 5 March, 2014.
- Beta, Hymenaeus (2008). "Foreword" to Three Essays on Freedom (J.W. Parsons). York Beach, Maine: Teitan Press. ISBN 978-0-933429-11-6.
- Carbonneau, Richard; Simon, Robin (2010). The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons. Portland: Cellar Door.
- Carter, John (2004). Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons (new ed.). Port Townsend: Feral House. ISBN 978-0-922915-97-2.
- Kaczynski, Richard (2010). Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (second ed.). Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-0-312-25243-4.
- Kansa, Spencer (2011). Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron. Oxford: Mandrake. ISBN 978-1-906958-08-4.
- Parsons, John Whiteside (2008). Three Essays on Freedom. York Beach, Maine: Teitan Press. ISBN 978-0-933429-11-6.
- Pendle, George (2005). Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-7538-2065-0.
- Starr, Martin P. (2003). The Unknown God: W.T. Smith and the Thelemites. Bollingbrook, Illinois: Teitan Press. ISBN 0-933429-07-X.
- Biography at The Cameron-Parsons Foundation, Inc.
- The JPL's web page on its early history
- The Rocketmen, NASA video on the JPL's early history
- Aerojet Rocketdyne's web page on the Aerojet Engineering Corporation's foundation
- Kaos Magazine 14, contains a review of Carter's biography of Parsons.
- Biography at Encyclopedia Astronautica
- Life as a Satanist Propelled Rocketeer, by Cecelia Rasmussen. Los Angeles Times, 19 March 2000.
- Jack Parsons: Rocket Pioneer and Occult Genius, by James Cook. The Kernel, 27 January 2013.