Almost everyone in the fields of space and aeronautical engineering are aware of the names of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Werner Von Braun. These men undoubtedly laid the groundwork in rocket development which allowed mankind to leave the cradle of Earth, and take our first small steps into the cosmos.
But very few people are aware of Marvel Whiteside Parsons (a.k.a Jack Parsons), co-founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Parsons made major contributions to rocket development, particularly in the area of solid fuel propellant. The solid motors on the Space Shuttle and the motors in the Minuteman missile were based on the solid propellant technology that he invented. He was a founding member of Aerojet Corporation, and he even has a crater on the dark side of the moon named after him. So why isn’t he as celebrated as the other founding fathers of spaceflight? And what was that about the occult?
Parsons was born in Pasadena, in 1914, to a wealthy but troubled family. His father, Marvel Senior, walked out when his son was young, after having an affair with another woman, leaving young Marvel Junior in the charge of his doting mother, Ruth. His mother promptly filed for divorce, and began referring to her son, as “John,” which is the name he is referred to by the scientific community who worked with him later in life. As he grew older, other family members and close friends would refer to him as “Jack,” as would his occult buddies in his later years.
In 8th grade, Parsons met another boy, named Edward Foreman, and the two became friends. Both were fans of Jules Verne and the new Amazing Stories science fiction magazine. Undoubtedly, these works of fiction shaped the minds of Parsons and Foreman, as soon they were experimenting with fireworks in Parsons’ back garden. This need for experimentation grew, and in 1928 the pair began constructing their own solid fuelled rockets. Neighbours at the time had reported that the Parsons’ back yard was full of scorched craters from some of the less successful rocket trials. According to Forman, it was at this time that Parsons had begun experimenting with glue as a binding agent for the loose powder in their DIY rockets.
In 1932, whilst still in high school, Parsons began working for the Hercules Powder Company. In 1933, he graduated from high school and began studying at Pasadena Junior College along with Forman. During this time, the pair entered into written correspondence with Robert Goddard, Herman Oberth, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, but later commented that due to the state of the art at the time, nothing of any real value could be gleaned from the correspondences, so the letter writing ceased.
Both Parsons and Forman failed to graduate from college. Instead both found employment with Halifax Explosives, a company based in the Mojave Desert.
In 1935, Parsons married his high school sweetheart, Helen Northrup. The marriage lasted a few years, but ended when Parsons began an affair with Helen’s half-sister…but more on that later.
One day, in 1937, Parsons and Forman attended a lecture on rocketry at Cal Tech, where they became acquainted with student Frank Melina. Melina was a theorist and mathematician, studying Mechanical Engineering at the time. The three men began making enquiries around the Cal Tech campus with regards to establishing a rocket development program, but were constantly refused opportunities as rocketry was still largely seen as science fiction at that time.
However, legendary aerodynamicist Theodore Von Kármán was working at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratories of the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), and listened to the plans of the trio. He heard of their plans for sending liquid and solid fuelled rockets high into the atmosphere, and finally approved their proposal in the form of Melina’s proposal for a PhD in rocket design. This opened the doors to the academic world, and made available the full resources of Cal Tech and GALCIT for Melina and his new pals.
It didn’t take long for the group to run into trouble on campus. A misfired rocket forced the group to move outside of the Aeronautics Laboratory and work on a concrete platform away from the main building. A second explosion, which caused a piece of steel to become impacted into a wall, saw Von Kármán move the group out into the desert to avoid further mishap and potential fatalities.
At this point, the group became known to other students as the “Suicide Club,” and began their experiments in the Arroyo Seco area, close to the ironically named “Devil’s Gate Dam” at the edge of Pasadena. JPL is now located on that exact site.
Then, in 1938, the United States Army offered two research projects, one for windshield de-icing on aircraft and another for rocket engines to launch small aircraft. MIT had the first pick, and feeling that the research into rocketry was a “Buck Rogers” project, left rocket development to the members of the Suicide Club.
Early tests of the rocket engines relied upon powdered fuel but, due to the contents of the canisters settling, the rockets were unstable. Parsons, who had already developed a passion for mythology, was allegedly watching a roofer applying hot asphalt to the top of a building, and was reminded of the “Greek Fire” incendiary weapon, used by the ancient Byzantine empire. Thinking back to his earlier experiments using binding agents, Parsons decided to mix some of this hot tar-like substance with potassium perchlorate powder. After several experiments, it was demonstrated that this binding agent provided a clean and even burn, and could allow the canisters to be stored safely, without the contents settling. The military saw the potential for this “JATO” canister, short for “Jet Assisted Take Off,” and injected a small amount of money into the group for further development. The solid rocket fuel would become the basis of the Minuteman missile, the Titan rocket, and the Space Shuttle solid rocket booster, and would ultimately help push humankind into the solar system…but not before some “staring into the abyss” from Parsons….
In 1939 Parsons became acquainted with the works of English occultist Aleister Crowley who referred to himself as “The Great Beast 666,” and was referred to by the English media as the “wickedest man in the world.”
Crowley was the founder of the Thelemic religion whose practitioners lived by the motto “do what thou wilt.” He had previously enjoyed some success as a mountaineer, having scaled K2 and Kanchenjunga, the 2nd and 3rd highest mountains in the world, respectively. During the Kanchenjunga expedition in 1905, Crowley’s fellow mountaineers fell victim to an avalanche. They called to Crowley for help, and rather than assist his dying comrades he did what any good Englishman would do…he put his feet up, made a cup of tea. He then sat and watched them die on the mountain, later claiming that he had “no sympathy” for his chums.
Afterwards, in 1910, hooked on mysticism and debauchery, Crowley was admitted to another secret society, this time into a group known as the Ordo Templi Orientis, or O.T.O. Crowley quickly rose through the ranks of the O.T.O. and became leader of the English speaking fraternities. Although the O.T.O. was originally modeled on principles of Freemasonry, with Crowley at the helm it quickly reinvented itself with the beliefs of the Thelemic religion at its core, along with its ideas of free love, debauchery, and “Sex Magick.”
Fast forward back to 1939… Parsons and his wife Helen joined the O.T.O.’s Pasadena chapter, known as the Agape Lodge, which was led by Wilfred Smith. He began correspondence with Crowley, and quickly became Crowley’s American representative for the O.T.O.
Parsons pursued his occult interests and scientific interests with equal intensity. He purchased a large house on South Orange Grove Avenue, Pasadena, and created a commune, inviting actors, actresses, poets, and writers (including sci-fi master Robert Heinlein and ultimately, sci-fi minor L. Ron Hubbard) to participate in his wild parties. He nicknamed the house “The Parsonage.” The police were frequent visitors to The Parsonage, receiving reports of naked pregnant women dancing through fire in the garden, loud music, and consumption of illegal substances. Parsons always greeted them at the door and assured the officers that he was a respectable Cal Tech scientist, and therefore they had no cause for alarm, so they duly left him and his entourage in peace.
At work, Parsons was excelling in his rocket developments, and blending his newfound occultism with his work practices by dancing and chanting Crowley’s “Hymn to Pan” before the launch of every test rocket. Nobody batted an eyelid at the time, and Von Kármán, who had just arranged government funding for the “GALCIT Rocket Project” regarded him as a “delightful screwball.”
By 1941, the Suicide Club had demonstrated the functionality of the JATO canister to the US military by strapping one of the boosters to a small aircraft, and igniting it. The resulting thrust generated from the rocket allowed the aircraft to take off in half of the distance usually required.
The military were impressed, and funding for the group went through the roof. The US Air Force (USAF) placed a large order, and in 1942 the Aerojet Engineering Corporation was founded to meet the demands of production.
Aleister Crowley: Fun Facts
Aged 14, Crowley lost his virginity to his family maid, on his mother’s bed. His family found out, and fired her. She became a destitute drunk, and it was rumoured that she later became a victim to Jack the Ripper.
At age 23, he joined the mystical society, The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn. He proceeded to offend everyone in the order, including poet W.B Yeats, and was expelled for “deviant and homosexual” behaviour.
Crowley, and one of his concubines established an abbey on the island of Cefalù, Sicily. Here they practised a wide range of rituals including fornication with a goat. The leading politician at the time, one Benito Mussolini, got wind of these practices and shut down the abbey.
In 1930, Crowley faked his own death whilst climbing a rock formation in Portugal. He enjoyed the stories printed in the newspapers at the time, and then reappeared in public in Berlin 3 weeks later.
Whilst under military control, JPL developed several weapon deployment systems based on the liquid and solid fuel technology devised by Parsons and his group, one of which was the WAC Corporal sounding rocket. Once WWII had ended, the military attached one of these to the top of a V-2 rocket and achieved an altitude of more than 70 kilometers, becoming the first American rocket ever to exit the Earth’s atmosphere.
During the course of the war, the powers that be became worried about Jack’s reputation as a hedonist, and convinced him to sell his shares of Aerojet. Parsons took the pay-off, and used the money to devote his time to the fulfillment of his spiritual life, which largely involved more parties, sex, and other debauchery. Also before the war was over, Parsons had begun an affair with Sara “Betty” Northrup, the half-sister of wife, Helen. Helen decided to repay the favor by running off with O.T.O. head Wilfred Smith.
Now without the interference of Smith, Parsons became full head of the Pasadena O.T.O., and began what can be described as an “open relationship” with Sara Northrup.
In August 1945, Parsons was introduced to a former navy employee and some-time pulp fiction writer by the name of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard. Parsons was taken in by Hubbard’s charisma, and saw him as an equal in his magic circle. Writing to Crowley, Parsons said of Hubbard, “I deduced that he is in direct touch with some higher intelligence. He is the most Thelemic person I have ever met and is in complete accord with our own principles.” On that basis, Hubbard was invited to stay at the Parsonage, and was soon initiated into the secrets of the O.T.O.
Crowley was not impressed. The wickedest man in the world saw L. Ron Hubbard as a charlatan and a fraudster. Although Crowley was clearly a warped individual, he certainly was no fool, and history has largely confirmed that Hubbard was indeed one of the greatest fraudsters of the last century. Unfortunately for Parsons, he did not believe Crowley, and invited Hubbard into his life as his magic partner.
Part of the Thelemic belief system involved goddess worship, and one goddess in particular, named Babalon, also known as “The Scarlet Woman.” Crowley and Parsons believed that it was possible to summon the elemental spirit of Babalon into a human form via use of sex magick. Crowley referred to this elemental offspring as a “Moonchild.”
From January to March, 1946, Parsons began a series of magical rituals with the aid of Hubbard known as the “Babalon Working.” As soon as the first set of rituals had been complete, Parsons encountered a woman buy the name of Marjorie Cameron. Marjorie was something of a free spirit, and had moved to Pasadena after receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy. Parsons immediately became infatuated with her and her scarlet red hair, and saw her arrival as a sign of a successful ritual. In short, Parsons believed that he had summoned Babalon, the Scarlet Woman.
Having blown most of his Aerojet savings on partying and good times, Parsons suddenly found himself short of money. Luckily, his “friend” Hubbard had a brilliant money making scheme (clearly not his most famous scam, but I digress), which he was prepared to share with Jack. The scheme involved buying boats, and selling them at a profit. Hubbard had claimed that he was a master seaman, due to his “extensive” naval experience. All Jack had to do was give $20,000 to Hubbard, and wait while Hubbard collected a boat from Florida.
Parsons, being the trusting person that he was, duly handed over his money, and Hubbard ran off to Mexico…with Jack’s wife Sara and the pile of Jack’s cash.
Soon afterwards, Hubbard ceased communications with Parsons, and it didn’t take long for Parsons to realize that he had been duped. According to Parsons, he then cast a spell, evoking a thunderstorm which engulfed Hubbard and Sara’s boat forcing them to land, where the law was waiting for them.
After a fairly mundane legal battle, Parsons recouped his money, but lost his wife and the boat. He eventually married his Scarlet Woman, Cameron.
In the following years, Parsons engaged in small jobs repairing washing machines and designing pyrotechnics for Hollywood movies, until he secured a contract as a chemical researcher for Hughes Aerospace. The newfound position of authority was not to last however, as in 1950 the FBI began investigating Parsons for the theft of documents from Hughes. Investigations revealed that Parsons had planned to exchange the rocket plans with the newly founded Israeli government, in exchange for admission into Israel.
“He planned to submit [the documents] with [an] employment application through American Technion Society for employment in the country of Israel,” read the original FBI report.
The U.S. Air Force advised the FBI that the USAF had been monitoring Parsons and his relationship with Crowley, and had observed that: “A religious cult, believed to advocate sexual perversion, was organized at subject’s home at 1003 South Orange Grove Avenue, Pasadena, California, which has been reported subversive…” Parsons lost all privileges with regards to security clearance.
Now largely penniless thanks to Hubbard, and with his security clearance revoked, Parsons turned back to Hollywood pyrotechnics, and this is where the life story of Jack Parsons ends. In 1950 Hubbard released the first edition of “Dianetics” and introduced the first seeds of the moneyspinning UFO cult of Scientology to the world. The symbolism of the O.T.O is clear to see for all in this new “religion”.
Parsons died in a mysterious explosion in 1952, aged just 37. He was mixing chemicals in his workshop, when two loud explosions were reported. He survived for some time, dying of his injuries hours later. Various theories have surrounded his death, ranging from assassination and industrial espionage to some sort of magical experiment gone wrong. It is most likely that Parsons just got careless, and mixed a little too much of one powder into another solution.
The very same day, upon hearing of the death of her son, Parson’s mother, Ruth, took her own life with a deliberate overdose of Nembutal.
Upon searching the Parsons’ residence, police investigator Donald Harding and George Santmyer, the latter a close friend of Parsons, discovered a box which contained a film showing Parsons and his mother Ruth having sex. Was this was the final nail in the coffin of Parsons’ historical reputation?
In any case, the works of Parsons were systematically expunged from the academic papers stored at Cal Tech. At first, he became a footnote in the technical papers, and as time progressed, the footnotes disappeared also.
One thing is for sure…there is sometimes a fine line between insanity and genius, and Parsons and his crew walked that line daily.
The conservative academic community at the time may have been quick to disassociate themselves from him, but even Werner Von Braun referred to Parsons as the “true father of the American space race”…and who are we to argue with Von Braun?
Below: Awesome dramatization of the life of Jack Parsons. Watch this video!
Author’ Note: While this account of the founding members of JPL may appear sensational, it is an entirely accurate historical account. For more information, check out the references below.
JPL 101 from NASA
Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter
Opinions expressed are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of Space Safety Magazine or its sponsors.