King of the Rocket Men

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. Illustration by KIERON DWYER.

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 whose cause 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 into early American rocketry a range of exotic solid and liquid fuels 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) [1] 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 28lb/12-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 X1 which Chuck Yeager took through the sound barrier in 1947.

Post-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 [2] very similar to Timothy Leary?s much later seminal book, The Politics of Ecstasy[3]. His style also predates the ?beat? poetry of Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the New Age views of Wilhem Reich. Parsons had the kind of hallucinatory head-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.

Parsons' home, 1003 South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena, was a vast old pre-war mansion populated by his own Adams Family selection of the free and the inspired, the mad and the lost. Local adverts 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 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? beliefs appear sculpted out of the mysteries and conflicts of the Californian 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 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 Parson?s resignation from the OTO in 1946.

British culture, with its eternal 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, anachronistic, and hypocritical, he nevertheless represents (and indeed so does 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 the 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 to 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 too late 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 that it 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 [4] and sometime friend of Parsons, was a secret communist who sat at the third remaining apex, along with Dr. Hsue-shenTsien, 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 (see panels below).

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 entire 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 Minister, Albert Speer (the acceptable face of Nazi bourgeois intelligentsia if ever there was one), the legendary Wernher Von Braun [5] looked good even on the low-definition television of John Parson's 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 1950 and 1960s just forgot to mention that he joined the SS in 1940 and had personally ordered the public hanging of 12 slave-workers at Nordhausen in 1945 [6].

Those historians of rational causation who look at 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 U.S. Army Ordnance and the resulting project ORDCIT built the solid-fuelled Private A with a range of 54000 feet. 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 September 26th, 1945, a Corporal reached a height of 42 miles above the Army's new testing grounds at White Sands New Mexico.

Finally, our occult triangle became a pyramid, on the tip of which sat a Corporal rocket seated in turn on top of a modified V2 (the combination was called the Bumper-WAC). In February 1949, this hybrid soared 250 miles 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 1.

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 with 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 20th century consciousness like the ruins of Rome. Put them together again like old car parts, and with a cough and splutter, they all still work, if with somewhat less efficiency than the latest glistening metaphor-game in the showroom.

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 17 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 the new-found state of 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 re-united with Cameron. Reduced to working at a filling station and designing explosive effects for films, he wrote to Germer, Crowley's successor at the OTO, of his "depressing melancholy stupor".

On Tuesday, 17 June, at 5:45 PM, Parsons died after two mysterious explosions devastated his home. He was consumed with flame, just as Hubbard's "channelling" had prophesied some six years previous: "She (Babalon) is the flame of life...She shall absorb thee, and thou shalt become living flame before She incarnates"[6].

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 Ruth having sex. If this circumstantial evidence is true, we can now rest assured that American Space Science rests on good classical foundations.

The dynamic transforms of Jack Parsons' life had taken on the evolving character of the rocket: a dangerous, explosive, pagan thing, hot from hell, and stinking of the sulphurous essence of gloriously bad behaviour, suggesting that even freedom, progress and enlightenment must go through a violent struggle for birth. Like the V2, a thing born in blood, violence and Faustian hubris - with not a little fun along the way.

The Babalon Workings
In August 1945, on leave from his less than spectacular naval career, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was introduced to Parsons. Jack was impressed by Ron's exuberance and energy and wrote in a letter to Crowley: "I deduced that he is in direct touch with some higher intelligence. He is the most Thelemic (Crowley's branch of magic) person I have ever met and is in complete accord with our own principles". Hubbard moved in and promptly gained the affections of Parsons' main squeeze, 19-year-old Betty Northrop. He was soon initiated into the secrets of the OTO and made Parsons' magical partner.

In January 1946, the two commenced a long and complex magical ritual called the "Babalon Working" (sic). This was intended to create nothing less than an elemental being. As far as Parsons? was concerned, the invocation worked. The elemental turned up two weeks later in the form of the beautiful blue-eyed, red-haired Marjorie Elizabeth Cameron, who became, after Parsons' death, the star of Kenneth Anger's 1965 cult-film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, friend of Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, and prototype witch-biker. It is interesting to note that Cameron?s two brothers, her sister and also her father were to work at JPL, as if Project and People were knit by associations. As John Carter says in Sex and Rockets, Cameron was "sprung from Parsons' head like Sophia from the Godhead or Pallas Athena from Zeus". On February 26th, Parsons wrote to Crowley: "I have my elemental!"

In April 1946, Parsons, Cameron, and Hubbard, acting as scribe, attempted the second part of the Babalon Working, which was intended to raise a "moonchild" in the manner described in Crowley?s novel of the same name, with Cameron the vessel for Parsons' magical seed. The mundane world intruded however, and the tricky Hubbard, despite his intense and apparently sincere involvement with the Babalon working, vanished with $10,000 of Parsons' money and Betty, who was no doubt peeved at Parsons' involvement with Cameron. Parsons eventually located the fleeing pair at sea, rented a room in Florida, and cast a spell upon them, whereupon Hubbard and Betty were nearly drowned in a storm. In 1955, the widowed Cameron, in the company of a group of bikers, severed her ties to the past and destroyed the Black Box of the Babalon Working that Parsons believed had brought her to him.

Wizards of the Coast:
Amongst the many areas in which Parsons' influence was felt, and one that further cemented the bond between him and Hubbard, was the burgeoning West Coast science fiction scene. Many key SF writers could be found gathered at the Parsons household in the early '40s, including Jack Williamson, A.E. Van Vogt (who would become head of the Los Angeles Dianetics Foundation), Robert Heinlein, Alva Rogers and Forrest J. Ackerman. Ackerman ran the LA SF Society, where Parsons also met Ray Bradbury who professed to being fascinated by "his ideas about the future". Parsons was particularly fascinated by Williamson's Darker Than You Think, the tale of an ancient lycanthropic race who seek to regain power amongst men through the birth of a magical child, "The Child of Night". It has also been suggested that Parsons' ideas influenced Heinlein in writing Stranger in a Strange Land.

Further Reading:

Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons, Feral House, 2000

Further Surfing: - dedicated to Parsons and his work

Transcript of the Babalon working


1. 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.

2. The Oriflamme Number 1 (Ordo Templi Orientis in association with Falcon Press Las Vegas, 1989)

3. Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.

4. UFO Magazine (Sep/Oct 1999, p 71), carries a report by Michael Lindemann, Head of CNI News, on NASA UFO whistle-blower 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 Jacque Vallée (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 SE of the Mojave at this time.

5. See X Factor magazine 70, p.1941

6. Carter, Sex and Rockets, Feral House, February 2000 p.177.

© Fortean Times 00