The Tragic Tale of the Rocket Maker

Jack W Parsons

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When the history of the American space program is finally written, no figure will stand out quite like John Whiteside Parsons. (Richard Metzger, “John Whiteside Parsons: Anti-Christ Superstar,” April 8, 2003)

He was an unorthodox genius, a poet and rocket scientist who helped give birth to an institution that would become mankind’s window on the universe. He was also a devotee of the black arts, a sci-fi junkie and host of backyard orgies on Pasadena’s stately Millionaires’ Row. (“Life as Satanist Propelled Rocketeer,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2000)

He was an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, an employee of Howard Hughes, a victim of L. Ron Hubbard, and an enthusiastic phone buddy to Wernher Von Braun. He was an only child, his adulterous dad booted by his angry mom. In seeking father figures and brotherhood, he became a vital link in two mighty chains in human history: rocketry and ritual magic. His science was built on intuition, and his magic on experiment. (“The Magical Father of American Rocketry,” Reason, May 2005)

[He was] remarkably handsome, dashing and brilliant…Werner von Braun claimed it was the self-taught Parsons, not himself, who was the true father of the American space program for his contribution to the development of solid rocket fuel. (Metzger)

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. (“John Whiteside Parsons,” Fortean Times, March 2000)

You would think all this scientific achievement would be enough for one person in one lifetime, but Parsons had a much loftier set of ambitions. He wanted to tear down the walls of time and space, and he had an entirely non-scientific set of ideas on how to do it. (“Jack Parsons,” Rotten.com)

Jack Parsons

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. (Fortean Times)

John Whiteside Parsons

[He] gave no early hint of the inner stirrings that propelled him to worship the devil and lead an extraordinary double life: respected scientist by day, dedicated occultist by night. Over a little more than a decade, the tall and vainly handsome Parsons skillfully twinned his two existences as rocketeer and antichrist leader of the occult Ordo Templi Orientis. (Los Angeles Times)

Parsons was certainly ahead of his time in things other than rocketry…[He] 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 [i.e., Crowley] 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 very similar to Timothy Leary’s much later seminal book, The Politics of Ecstasy. His style also predates the “beat” poetry of Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the New Age views of Wilhem Reich. (Fortean Times)

Jack Parsons in Archway

In one of the most celebrated feats in magickal history, Parsons and pre-Dianetics L. Ron Hubbard…performed The Babalon Working, a daring attempt to shatter the boundaries of time and space and intended to bring about, in Parsons own words, “love, understanding, and Dionysian freedom…the necessary counterbalance or correspondence to the manifestation of Horus”…Babalon, a Thelemic counterpart of Kali or Isis, was described by Parsons as “black, murderous and horrible, but Her hand is uplifted in blessing and reassurance: the reconciliation of opposites, the apotheosis of the impossible.” The impossible was precisely what Jack Parsons, the scientific sorcerer, had in mind.” (Richard Metzger)

Simultaneous with his more material scientific pursuits, he also tried with painstaking ritual — but apparently failed — to create a “Moon Child,” a magic being conjured via mystic ritual who would usher in a new age of unfettered liberty and signal the end of the Christian era and its outmoded morality. (Reason)

Jack Parsons Antichrist

After the war his occult activism attracted the young L. Ron Hubbard into his life and home. The scalawag pulp writer, pre-Dianetics, took off for Florida with Jack’s girl and most of his money, supposedly to buy boats to bring to California and launch a business operation they’d jointly own. Hubbard never came back…As the ’40s wound down Parsons was stripped of his security clearance and almost prosecuted for treason for slipping classified documents from his then-employer, Hughes Aircraft, to the nascent Israeli government, with whom he was negotiating for a rocket guru gig. During his last days Parsons was reduced to working for Hollywood movies, making tiny explosive squibs that mimicked a man being shot. This from a man who once dreamed of blasting man into outer space. (Reason)

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…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”. (Fortean Times)

Jack Parsons

Parsons died in 1952 in his home laboratory, in an explosion generally characterized as “mysterious.” Various theories suggest that the explosion was the result of old grudges by his enemies, a sinister plot by the FBI, a magical experiment gone bad, the fact that his garage was filled with lots of explosive chemicals, or some combination of the above. (Rotten.com)

His mysterious death in an explosion in 1952 left many wondering whether Parsons was a victim of murder or suicide — or simply of an accident at his own momentarily careless hands. (Los Angeles Times)

In June 1952, while his wife shopped for groceries for a planned vacation to Mexico, Parsons mixed chemicals from his arsenal of illegal explosives. Police reports say the explosives expert dropped the concoction of fulminate of mercury. A deadly blast that could be felt a mile away ripped through Parsons’ garage lab, blowing off his right arm, breaking his other arm and both legs, and leaving a gaping hole in his jaw. He died 45 minutes later. When his mother heard the news, she joined him in death, gulping down a bottle of sleeping pills. (Los Angeles Times)

Jack Parsons Explosives Expert

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. (Fortean Times)

As for Babalon? Well, the jury is still out on the Apocalypse, but it’s worth noting that within two years of the Babalon workings, which began in 1946, the first Atomic Bomb was detonated, the Roswell crash sparked a rash of UFO sightings that continues to this day, and LSD was invented. In other words, things got a lot weirder, and they’re getting weirder every day. Parsons is legitimately one of the fathers of the space program, after all, which is no small thing. Maybe he knows something we don’t…or maybe, in the end, he was just a sex-crazed maniac. (Rotten.com)

Did the Babalon Working actually work? For the sake of argument, if you believe it to be true, it’s true enough. As a metaphor or a myth to explain the psychic and atmospheric turbulence taking place in the world today, it certainly works for me. What has long been prophesied by the world’s major spiritual traditions is now coming to pass. Turn on CNN for a couple of hours for ample proof: wars, killer viruses, floods, famines, violent crime, earthquakes, Armageddon cults armed with nerve gas, suicide bombers; Heaven’s Gate; the list goes on and on…A whole culture is collapsing and a new one is about to be born. Jack Parsons would be pleased. (Metzger)

Parsons in Comic

Parsons may not have had the discipline to get [to space]. But the men and systems who did could never have done so without his reckless imagination — his belief that even the risk of blowing himself to pieces was worth it to propel humanity to what he saw as the next stage of its physical and spiritual evolution. (Reason)

Just as the rocket scientist Parsons was willing to play dice with heavy explosives, Parsons, the nuclear age warlock was willing to play with fire of a very different sort. Parsons rests firmly in the tradition of the fraternity of Western Magi who include Moses, Solomon, Jesus Christ, John Dee, Adam Weishaupt, Crowley, Gurdjieff and Timothy Leary — great revolutionaries and liberators all. (Metzger)

Parsons opened a door and something flew in. (Kenneth Grant)

Before each test launch, he was in the habit of invoking Aleister Crowley’s Hymn to Pan, the wild horned god of fertility. (Fortean Times)

I read the biography of John Whiteside Parsons and was fascinated by this Aleister Crowley disciple and occultist who was also one of the fathers of space travel. In the 1930′s he invented the first truly successful rocket fuel, although he was basically a self-taught maverick, usually at odds with the government institutions in which he worked. He researched rocket fuel for the government during the day and conducted pagan rituals at night, as head of a Pasedena, California lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis. The image of Parsons chanting Crowley’s ‘Ode to Pan’ during rocket test flights is the inspiration for this track. Parsons died in an explosion in his garage under mysterious circumstances. A friend of mine said ‘this is an album about people who blew themselves up’, and he has a point.” (Jóhann Jóhannsson, from the commentary on the song “The Rocket Builder (Io Pan!)” on his album Fordlândia)

This collated essay by Matt Cardin was original published at The Teeming Brain.

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LastLoup's picture
Member since:
6 April 2010
Last activity:
7 hours 5 min

See video

...I forgot how I got here but everyone seems to be heading off in that direction. I hope someone brought food. I have a feeling this is going to be a long journey................

alanborky's picture
Member since:
29 January 2009
Last activity:
7 weeks 3 days

Matt ev'ry time I look at these Jack Parsons pictures I think Simon Cowell the Little Richard Years.

The two're similar in that one was a devil worshipper and one's said to be a devil.

Where they're diametrically opposed though's Cowell's all about trapping people in ever smaller cages ever more under his control whereas Parsons was about becoming a lion and blasting asunder the bars of our prisons.

The trouble with that's you have to have something to replace the prison otherwise like the bars which're ultimately you yourself you too continue to fly apart until you simply dissipate and fizzle out.

Saying that Parsons proves claims being interested in esoteric matters means you don't understand science's a load of bollocks.

If anything Parsons proves science progresses precisely because individuals like him know with an eerie certainty whatever passes for current scientific paradigms'll always eventually be superseded in which case why not attempt to supersede them now!

antareshorizon's picture
Member since:
9 August 2013
Last activity:
28 weeks 1 day

Good article, I enjoyed it.

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
4 hours 34 min

Cult ritual is relaxing for some people, and relaxation makes for a more fertile imagination. The "relaxation" of social strictures is often the hallmark of the genius. They know what they need to function optimally, and they need to be "free." Unfortunately, some of the cults get up to no good or develop a megalomania that leads them into all sorts of trouble. High science is always a high wire act, and the ground beneath is littered with the corpses of the fallen.