Friday, October 28, 2005

“Strange Angel; The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons” by George Pendle

"Strange Angel" tells the story of John Parsons, rocketry pioneer, who died in an explosion at his Pasadena home in 1952. He was 37 years old. Parsons had been affiliated with Caltech, was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and was deeply involved in a leadership role with the cult society, “Ordo Templi Orientis” (OTO).

Parsons grew up in a wealthy Pasadena home, but his family became impoverished by the depression and unable to send him to college. As a boy he became fascinated with pulp publications such as Weird Tales and the new Amazing Stories.

In 1932, at age 18, having not yet finished high school, Parsons went to work to support his family. He found a job with Hercules Powder Company where he gained a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of explosives, and was considered to have an instinctive grasp of chemical theory.

In 1935, the 20-year old Jack Parsons and 22-year old Ed Forman started hanging around at Caltech. There they met graduate student Frank Malina, then 22 years old. The Rocket Research Group (aka "The Suicide Squad") started conducting test firings in 1936, in a remote part of the still wild Arroyo Seco.

By 1937 Fascism was a rising force in Europe, and the conflict between Fascism and Communism was erupting into open warfare in Spain. Communism had an intellectual appeal, especially to left-leaning students. It was not illegal to be a member of the communist party at the time, but it was frowned upon, and most people kept their affiliation secret for fear of job repercussions. Parsons never officially joined the party, and eventually stopped going to the meetings, but the connection would later cause problems for him.

In the early 1940ies Parsons invented a solid, castable rocket fuel made from black tar and potassium perchlorate. Parsons' invention was one of “the most important discoveries in the long history of solid rockets.”

Parsons had been attracted to the writings of English writer and magician Aleister Crowley for some time. Eventually he was introduced to a group which practiced what they called “The Gnostic mass of the Church of Thelema,” which had been created by Crowley.

Crowley defined “magick” as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”  Crowley took over a “quasi-Masonic” organization called the Ordo Templi Orientis, or OTO. The one thing he kept from the original OTO’s ritual was the use of sex as a component of working magic.

In 1942 Parsons bought a decaying Pasadena mansion and moved in with his wife Helen, her young half-sister Betty (who was Parsons’ mistress), and several of his OTO friends (including Wilfred Smith who was Helen’s lover). In this environment, Parsons created for himself an idyllic lifestyle. Parsons was also using drugs by this time: home-brewed absinthe, marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines.

Parsons became a regular guest of the Mañana Literary Society, a group of science fiction authors who met at the Laurel Canyon home of writer Robert Heinlein. Anthony Boucher, Cleve Cartmill, Jack Williamson, and L. Ron Hubbard were among those Parsons met at the Mañana Society.

During the years of WWII, the “Air Corps Jet Propulsion Research Project,” which had been funding the Suicide Squad’s research, reformulated into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL. Parsons and Forman were bought out in 1944, and Parsons was pretty much set adrift.

After the war ended, nuclear physicist Robert Cornog (who had discovered tritium while at UC Berkeley) moved into Parsons’ mansion, as did L. Ron Hubbard. Parsons and Hubbard became friends and rivals. Hubbard stole Parsons' girlfriend, Betty, who he eventually married. Hubbard “helped” Parsons with his magical “workings” and eventually they formed a business partnership along with Betty. It was a highly uneven partnership with Parsons contributing most of the money which Hubbard and Betty soon absconded with.

Parsons immersed himself in the practice of Enochian magic, with a goal of summoning an “Elemental mate”. The rituals he performed took an exhausting two hours and involved recitation as well as “focused masturbation” (a form of sympathetic magic as he tried to “fertilize” magical symbols drawn on paper “tablets” strewn around the floor). When Parsons met the woman who was to become his second wife (Marjorie "Candy" Cameron), he believed his magic had, indeed, summoned her.

By the late 1940ies, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was in full swing. Parsons was investigated, listed as an “Undesirable Employee for National Defense Work,” and consequently lost his job with North American Aviation. While his security clearance was later restored, eventually he lost it for good.

He and Candy rented the old coach house of a former Pasadena estate, and Parsons set up a laboratory on the ground floor. He was apparently making drugs and absinthe, as well as explosives. He found occasional work in the movie special effects industry, and it was a special effects project he was working on when the explosion that killed him occurred.