The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons
For the past two years, a pair of robot vehicles, each the size of a golf cart, have been exploring the surface of Mars. The robots were created by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which was also responsible for the first spacecraft to orbit another planet (Mariner 2, around Mars in 1962) and the first to land on another planet (Viking 1, on Mars in 1976). In the late 1930s, an explosives genius named Jack Parsons co-founded JPL, which was sometimes referred to as the Jack Parsons Laboratory, with his gang of curious rocketeers known as the Suicide Squad.
Parsons’ legend is the most peculiar chapter in the history of space exploration, told with wide-eyed fascination by author George Pendle in Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons. Parsons’ revolutionary work with liquid propellants and sustained engine-powered rocket flight introduced America to the jet age. Without the Suicide Squad, Neil Armstrong would never have walked on the moon, nor would shuttle flights today ferry crew and supplies to the International Space Station. Despite his respected status as a true rocket pioneer, John (Jack) Parsons was beyond eccentric. As a genuine mad scientist and a dedicated follower of occult figure and sexual hedonist Aleister Crowley, he baffled the scientific community. Parsons however, did not view science and magic as contradictory: “It seems to me that if I had the genius to found the jet propulsion field in the United States, and found a million-dollar corporation [Parsons started Aerojet Corporation, which today employs 2,500] and a world-renowned research laboratory, then I should be able to apply this genius to the magical field.”
Parsons began playing with explosive black powder as a teen in the Southern California desert just before the Depression hit. Mixing chemicals to create explosives to launch crude bamboo rockets, he soon realized that in order to achieve the dream of reaching the moon, a sustained flight required liquid fuel-powered engines that could fire repeatedly. After high school, he supported his family with work as an explosives expert at the Hercules Powder Company in California. The family fortune disappeared after the 1929 stock market crash. Before then, a limousine took Parsons to school daily. He continued his desert rocket experiments and started informal discussion groups that included his Suicide Squad comrades and writers of science-fiction pulp stories obsessed with interplanetary travel. Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov often attended meetings.
Members of the American Communist Party also began showing up at meetings. Their inclusion in the book adds an element of intrigue to a story of good guys, bad guys, and those caught along the blurred line that separates the two. Though he declined to join the organization, Parsons’ loose affiliation with the Communists would come back to haunt him as World War II evolved into the Cold War. His security clearance to work on government projects was removed and reinstated several times. Meanwhile, Joe McCarthy would pick off several of Parson’s pals one by one.
Interestingly, Parsons had earlier been in regular communication with Wernher Von Braun, the German scientist who built the V-2 missile for the Nazis and who was later primarily responsible for designing the rockets that put Americans into orbit. Ironically, Von Braun never hesitated to share ideas with Parsons and his friends in the 1930s. The father of American rocketry, Robert Goddard, however, refused to help the young Suicide Squad when they visited his laboratory in Roswell, New Mexico. That Goddard lived in a desert city which would later become best known as the place where an alien was supposedly discovered adds an even weirder note to the curious story of Jack Parsons.
Strange Angel is more than weird tales, though. The book is not only a fascinating peek at the history of American rocket science, it also provides glimpses into the world of explosives that anyone fascinated by Fourth of July fireworks should appreciate:
Learning explosives from other workers, Parsons soon discovered such essentials as the difference between a high explosive and a low explosive. A high explosive such as nitroglycerine (the base constituent of dynamite, made by treating a natural by-product of the soap-making process, glycerine, with sulfuric and nitric acids) decomposes into gases in a few millionths of a second, about a thousand times faster than a low explosive such as black powder or gunpowder . . . Because of their rapid and violent detonation, high explosives are better suited for demolition work, while low explosives such as gunpowder are better used as a propellant, pushing projectiles out of gun barrels.>Three-quarters into the story, the most unexpected of antagonists appears in the life of Jack Parsons: L. Ron Hubbard, the mid-century science-fiction writer who stole Parsons’ girlfriend (who was also Parsons’ sister-in-law, a relationship he flaunted in front of his wife) and dashed off to Florida to start the religious cult known as Scientology. Descriptions of Hubbard’s charisma convey the image of an irresistible snake-oil salesman, and readers may subsequently understand how Hubbard would mesmerize Hollywood’s finest decades later.
Parsons does not meet with a happy ending. Having forsaken much of his dark-side infatuation as he approached 40, he met his fate in an ugly but predictable manner. Lying on the ground with half his face blown off and one arm missing amidst the rubble of an explosives accident, he died at age 38. The explosion was determined to be the result of the mad rocket scientist’s careless insistence on mixing explosives in a coffee tin rather than reliable chemical flasks. Regardless, his short but fascinating life had lived up to the original birth name his mother later changed to John: Marvel Whiteside Parsons. Decades later, JPL scientists named a crater on the dark side of the moon “Parsons Crater.” &