Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons
by George Pendle
Harcourt, 2006 , ISBN 0-15-603179-5
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
In June 1952, John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Lab and of Aerojet Engineering Corporation, was killed in an explosion in his home laboratory. The first news reports described him as a Caltech scientist, and described his accomplishments at JPL and his work with other early great rocket scientists. Over the next few weeks, though, a rather more complicated story emerged.
Jack Parsons, one of the pioneering rocket scientists of the pre-war and WWII years, had led a life that could fairly be described as “interesting.” He was a “Caltech scientist” and a founder of the JPL, but he had no education past high school. He was a devotee of black magic and a follower of Aleister Crowley. And he was a science fiction fan, a semi-regular visitor to LASFS, friendly with Robert Heinlein, Jack Williamson, and other sf writers for years, and for a time had L. Ron Hubbard as a housemate. (This last proved to be a serious mistake.)
Pendle reconstructs Parsons’ life, from his wealthy and privileged childhood in Pasadena, his discovery of both science fiction and rocketry, through his increasingly strange explorations of the occult, and how these three strands became ever more tangled. The loss of the family fortune in the crash of 1929, when Parsons was fifteen, complicated his pursuit of rocketry and put an end to transatlantic phone calls to talk to Werner von Braun (also a teenaged amateur racketeer), but didn’t divert his efforts. In high school, he met Ed Forman, who became his partner for most of the rest of his career. Blowing up rockets in the Arroyo Seco, working long hours at jobs with explosives manufacturers, and gradually making contacts at Caltech (including meeting Frank Malina, who became the third member of the Suicide Squad triumvirate, the only one with the formal educational background, and the Caltech access, for what they were doing), they gradually built the foundations for transforming rocketry from a subject of mockery and ridicule to something capable, a few years later, of making a real contribution to the war effort when the army wanted a way for military planes to take off faster and on shorter runways. Parsons also became a recognized explosives expert—despite the low regard for rocketry and the Caltech administration’s distaste for Parsons and the Suicide Squad, it was Parsons who was recommended when the prosecution in a notorious LA car-bombing asked Caltech for a scientist to examine the explosives evidence. Parsons testified in the trial, and at twenty-three, was far too poised, confident, and effective for the defense to cope with.
But it was also during these pre-war years that Parsons discovered the Ordo Templi Orientis, the cult founded by Aleister Crowley, and became fascinated with magic and the occult. Wilfred Smith, head of the local branch of the cult, was equally fascinated with Parsons, believing that he was the much-desired wealthy enthusiast who could be induced to pay the cult’s many expenses, including especially funneling funds to Crowley himself, now aging, ill, and dependent on funds from his supporters. That Parsons was not in fact wealthy (the family fortune having vanished in the stock market crash) didn’t become apparent until later, but he was a far more charismatic figure than Smith, and that had its own ramifications later.
Parsons also began attending political meetings that were in fact a recruiting tool for the local Communist Party at Caltech. This was of little significance at the time, especially since, when finally pushed to join the Party, he dropped the meetings instead, but it came back to haunt him later, during and after the war, when his work for the military meant that he needed a security clearance. It was also during the years that Parsons was dropping in on LASFS meetings (initially, he was invited to talk about rocketry), meeting and to some degree both influencing and being influenced by the sf writers who were also regularly or occasionally attending. Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Jack Williamson all figure to a greater or lesser degree in Parsons’ story. Jack Parsons’ life is odd and fascinating, and it’s very well told here, capturing the early triumphs and the frustration, sometimes desperation of his later years (his thirties!) as his life spins further and further out of control.