What if the lab was less interested in exploring outer space than the depths of the void? What if its researchers huddled around their computer screens in search of paranormal entities or dark gods crawling clear of the event horizons of nearby black holes?
Of course, that’s not the case. JPL is not part of some Joss Whedon-esque occult-industrial complex. It does not mingle science with the supernatural. Yet one of its founders did.
"Slain Scientist Priest in Black Magic Cult" read one headline after the death of John Whiteside Parsons on June 17, 1952.
“John W Parsons, handsome 37 year old rocket scientist killed Tuesday in a chemical explosion, was one of the founders of a weird semi-religious cult that flourished here about 10 years ago," read a report.
The rhetoric got more lavish as the days went by.
“Often an enigma to his friends [he] actually led two lives….In one he probed deep into the scientific fields of speed and sound and stratosphere—and in another he sought the cosmos which man has strived throughout the ages to attain; to weld science and philosophy and religion into a Utopian existence," wrote one paper.
Soon the newspapers were at fever pitch with talk of “sexual perversion," “black robes," “sacred fire," and “intellectual necromancy.” At the heart of every story was one simple question: Who the hell was this guy?
It’s hard to find as weird and tragic a tale in the annals of science as that of John Whiteside Parsons. Born 100 years ago, Parsons seemed devoted to reconciling opposites, smashing together the technical and the spiritual, the white lab coat and the black robe, fact and fiction, science and magic.
Parsons standing next to a JATO rocket canister in 1943. Image: JPL
When he died in a mysterious explosion at his home laboratory, the tabloids weren’t the only ones to label him a mad scientist. So too did the scientific establishment. The story of Parsons was locked in the attic, hidden in the footnotes, swept under the launchpad of the US space program.
But Parsons’ scientific legacy is impossible to ignore. He forced the United States government to explore a science it had previously mocked, and laid the foundation for the rockets that carried man into outer space. He was one of America’s greatest space pioneers. He just happened to also be one of its greatest occultists.
If you were to tell someone you were a rocket scientist during the 1920s and 1930s, they'd have either laughed at you or backed away with a worried expression on their face. No universities taught rocketry courses and there were no government grants allotted to rocketry research. To the public, rockets were pure science fiction, and in established scientific circles, they were even worse, synonymous with the ridiculous, the far-fetched, the lunatic, a byword for insanity.
It was the very fantastical nature of rockets that first drew the young Parsons to it. Inspired by the stories in pulp science fiction magazines like Astounding and Amazing, he began building simple gunpowder rockets in his Pasadena backyard and peppered the upscale neighborhood with burned out cardboard tubes and flaming paper.
When Parsons realized he needed some theory to bolster his experimentation, he and his friend, Ed Forman, calmly strode into the halls of the nearby California Institute of Technology and asked for it. Parsons was lacking any scientific qualifications beyond high school, but his enthusiasm piqued the interest of a broad-minded graduate student named Frank Malina. Together the three formed what was disparagingly known as the Suicide Squad, a ragtag group of rocketry enthusiasts whose volatile experiments threatened to kill them.
At Caltech, Nobel prizewinners rubbed shoulders with one another on a daily basis. Despite this fact, the prejudice against rockets was still strong. Fritz Zwicky, a renowned physics professor, became a particular bugbear of the group.
When Malina and Parsons approached him for some help, Zwicky erupted. “He told me I was a bloody fool,” Malina recalled, “that I was trying to do something that was impossible, because rockets couldn’t work in space.”
This was absolutely incorrect, directly contravening Newton’s Third Law of Motion. (When rocketry godfather Robert Goddard proposed in 1920 that rockets could reach the Moon, he was mercilessly, incorrectly mocked in similar fashion.) Zwicky's response made abundantly clear that although Parsons had been brought into the fold, he was by no means part of the established scientific flock.
Parsons (center) and colleagues prepare for a rocket motor test in October 1936. The group had gotten support from
Parsons made this fact even clearer when he started to develop a growing interest in magic and the supernatural. By the late 1930s, he had begun frequenting nightly meetings of the Ordo Templi Orientis, an occult society that met in nearby Los Angeles. The OTO, as it is known, was created by the English occultist Aleister Crowley, a heroin-addicted, sexually adventuresome, God-profaning master of the dark arts, who the tabloids had christened “The Wickedest Man in the World.”
At these gatherings Parsons watched as strange rituals were performed, most notably the ‘Gnostic Mass’, a weird take on the Catholic mass. On a black and white stage stood an altar embossed with hieroglyphic patterns, a host of candles and an upright coffin covered with a gauze curtain out of which the group’s caped leader would appear. Poetry was read, swords were drawn, breasts kissed, and lances stroked. It was a highly charged sexual atmosphere. Wine was drunk and cakes made out of menstrual blood were consumed.
It was here that Crowley’s philosophy of Thelema was propounded. Thelema was a type of religious libertarianism that spoke of radical individualism and self-fulfillment. Its creed was “Do What Thou Wilt.” Parsons was immediately hooked. He became especially intrigued by Crowley’s belief that sex could be an intrinsic component of magical rituals, lifting the practitioner onto a higher plane of consciousness. What 24-year-old wouldn’t be?
While some of his Suicide Squad colleagues saw Parsons’ incipient occultism as kooky—communism was the preferred diversion of most Caltech students in the 1930s, according to period stories from school newspaper The California Tech—it did not prevent them from recognizing his genius at manufacturing rocket fuels. At the group’s testing ground Parsons could be heard chanting Crowley’s pagan ‘Hymn to Pan’ prior to igniting his rockets. And the scorching flames and frequent explosions added a suitably infernal backdrop to his interests in the supernatural.
In 1941, Parsons and the Suicide Squad founded the Aerojet Engineering Corporation to sell their rockets to the military. Scientists who had previously derided Parsons’ work now queued up to join this boom industry. In 1943, with the need for advanced research into rockets growing exponentially, Parsons co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to continue the study of his one-time backyard playthings. At the same time as he was reaching his professional peak, he also found himself moving up the ranks of the OTO, corresponding with the aged Crowley in England, and eventually becoming the group’s leader on the West Coast.
Aleister Crowley as Magus, Liber ABA, in 1912. Image: Wikipedia
Just think about that for a second: one of the top minds driving America's early rocket program, a program that helped fuel the space race and the Cold War, was at the same time a leading figure in the world of the occult. By day he built rockets for the government, by night he emerged from a coffin to perform sex magic with his followers.
But for Parsons it didn’t seem strange at all. He treated magic and rocketry as different sides of the same coin—both had been disparaged, both derided as impossible, but because of this both presented themselves as challenges to be conquered.
Rocketry postulated that we should no longer see ourselves as creatures chained to the Earth, but as beings capable of exploring the universe. Similarly, magic suggested there were unseen metaphysical worlds that existed and could be explored with the right knowledge. Both were rebellions against the very limits of human existence; in striving for one he could not help but strive for the other.
Three years before his death he wrote of his unusual position in terms that would have astounded any of his backers in the US military, but which for him seemed totally sane.
“It has seemed to me that if I had the genius to found the jet propulsion field in the US, and found a multimillion dollar corporation and a world renowned research laboratory, then I should also be able to apply this genius in the magical field,” he wrote in a letter to a fellow OTO member. He was shooting for the Moon.
With the money he had earned from Aerojet’s booming rocketry business, Parsons bought a mansion on Pasadena’s Millionaire’s Row and moved the OTO’s operations into it. “It was a huge wooden house,” remembered Liljan Wunderman, Frank Malina’s wife, in an interview years later. "A big, big thing, full of people. Some of them had masks on, some had costumes on, women were weirdly dressed. It was like walking into a Fellini movie. Women were walking around in diaphanous togas and weird make-up, some dressed up like animals, like a costume party.”
When she told her husband about it, Malina simply rolled his eyes, saying, “Jack is into all kinds of things.”
Nicknamed "The Parsonage," the house became a natural magnet for all sorts of eccentrics, from professed witches and Manhattan Project scientists, to science fiction writers thrilled by their discovery of Parsons, a figure seemingly ripped from the pages of the pulps.
The sci-fi author Jack Williamson remembered Parsons as “an odd enigma.” A young Ray Bradbury, still years from writing Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, recalled Parsons as being “wonderful” and dazzled him with his descriptions of space rockets. Sprague de Camp, author of over a hundred fantasy and sci-fi books, declared him, “an authentic mad genius if ever I met one.”
Increasingly the scientific establishment was beginning to agree with de Camp. Parsons’ work on rocket fuels, mixing and melding chemicals to create something that was both highly explosive and yet controllable, had helped make rocketry a viable science, but he was increasingly perceived as being too weird, too eccentric, to keep working within it.
He was accused of seducing Aerojet’s secretaries by inviting them back to his mansion where debauchery, drugs, and fire dancing ruled. He met visiting scientists at his front door with a snake curled around his shoulders. At work he would arrive late and bedraggled in the mornings in a beaten up Packard and would treat the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as if it was his own private playground.
Fritz Zwicky, who had dismissed Parsons out of hand a few years earlier, had by now eaten his words and begun working for Aerojet. However, he still held huge contempt for the untrained Parsons and his unconventional lifestyle. Zwicky later remembered him as “a dangerous man” in an
But Parsons wouldn’t slow down. He and Forman were renowned for holding duels on the rocket testing range, firing guns at each other’s feet and trying not to flinch. When Zwicky insisted that Parsons try a type of rocket fuel that Parsons disapproved of, Parsons discovered where the fuel was kept and blew up the whole batch in a mammoth explosion, “blowing up half the business,” according to a furious Zwicky.
A 1950 FBI document summarizing the bureau's investigation into Parsons for espionage. Image: Wikipedia
It was stuff he’d been doing since he and Forman were youngsters, back when nobody but they took rocketry seriously. Now, however, a lot of people were taking rocketry very seriously indeed. The FBI began investigating him as a possible security risk.
In 1943 Parsons was gently squeezed out of the very science he had created. He was offered $20,000 for his shares in Aerojet and, feeling the cold shoulder from the increasing number of scientists involved in rocketry, decided to leave. He was 30 years old.
He threw himself into his magic—not just Crowley’s magic, but strange new rituals of his own creation. Ever the scientist, he strived for physical proof that his magic was working by straining to obtain visitations, phenomena, and manifestations.
Without his rocketry work to act as a counterbalance, even his fellow OTO members started to worry about his growing magical intensity. “There is something strange going on,” wrote
His fortunes were not helped by the arrival at his house of a hugely charismatic young science fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard was a teller of exceptional tall tales, which he insisted his audience believe. His fellow sci-fi writers viewed him with suspicion.
“I recall his eyes, the wary, light-blue eyes that I somehow associate with the gunmen of the old West, watching me sharply as he talked as if to see how much I believed,” recalled Jack Williamson. “Not much.” But Parsons, who was always more than willing to believe, fell under his spell.
They fenced together, discussed magic together, and even performed magical rituals together. Hubbard moved into Parsons’ mansion and, taking to the air of free love like a fish to water, worked his way through the denizens’ girlfriends, wooing them and wowing them in equal measure. Whether you were an OTO member or a sci-fi writer, no wife or girlfriend was safe from Hubbard’s seductive pull. Not even Parsons’.
A section of "Liber 49," a short passage written by Parsons from the perspective of the goddess Babalon, which he claimed to have received during the Babalon Working. Screenshot from Hermetic.com
But Hubbard made up for it by helping Parsons on the grandest magical working he had yet attempted. This was known as the Babalon Working, an attempt by Parsons to incarnate an actual goddess on Earth. For weeks the two of them engaged in ritual chanting, drawing occult symbols in the air with swords, dripping animal blood on runes, and masturbating in order to ‘impregnate’ magical tablets.
When news got to Crowley in England he was appalled. On May 22, 1946, he wrote a telegram to one of the OTO’s other members: “Suspect Ron playing confidence trick—Jack Parsons weak fool—obvious victim prowling swindlers.”
At the end of it Parsons believed the magical working had been a success, declaring it the greatest achievement of his life. But Crowley was right about Hubbard. In a July 1946 letter to Crowley, Parsons wrote that, under the guise of investing in a business venture, Hubbard had run off with Parsons’s girlfriend and $20,000 of his money, sending Parsons into a spiral of doubt and depression.
He managed to obtain some consulting work on rockets, but was swept up in in the Red Scare of the post-war years. He was accused of consorting with communists in the pre-war years and of being involved in what the FBI termed was a “love-cult.” He had his security clearance stripped from him. He was forced to pump gas, fix cars, and eventually ended up using his incredible scientific knowledge to make explosive squibs for Hollywood movies. Throughout it all he was insistent that his magical works were as real as his rocketry work.
On June 17, 1952, a huge explosion ripped through his home laboratory. Arriving police found Parsons still alive, although half his face had been ripped off, exposing the skull beneath. His right arm was missing. Surrounding him were rocketry papers and pentagrams, occult drawings and chemical formulae. He died shortly afterwards. He was just 37 years old.
George Pendle is the author of Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons.