The Jack Parsons Project
Written by Kent Mueller for performance in "Crackpots We Know And Love" presented by the Goal Zero Briefing Group, Friday, April 13, 2001 at Gallery 218, Milwaukee.
Part One- Man And Magician
What makes a Crackpot? At least two ingredients -- brilliance and flaw.
"You didn't know it, you didn't think it could be done, but in the final end you won the war, after losing every battle" Bob Dylan
Jack Parsons, Rocket Scientist, Magician, Mangled Corpse. Lightning hits something, it always hits something, and the lightning of genius and madness in alternating flickers struck Jack Parsons repeatedly. When mankind landed on the Moon, it was with rocket technology directly descended from the work of Parsons and his West Coast crowd.
John Whiteside Parsons was born on October 2nd, 1914 in Los Angeles. He died in spectacular fashion on June 17, 1952 in nearby Pasadena; dropping a container of highly explosive fulminate of Mercury and dying an hour later of horrific injuries. By that time he had fallen from being one of the world's leading rocket authorities to working in a gas station and as a sometime movie-set explosives expert. In his professional life he was as much a victim of the cold war as John Birch or any blacklisted Hollywood writer. Rumors have followed that the death was not accidental.
A follower of Aleister Crowley beginning in 1938, he had risen to briefly head the Agape Lodge in Los Angeles, the only then-active American Lodge of Crowley's O.T.O. He was adopted and then dissed by Aleister Crowley, and within a few years Parsons resigned from the O.T.O. altogether.
"You'll find out when you reach the top, that you're on the bottom" Bob
Wilfred T. Smith had founded Agape Lodge in the mid-1920s, but used and abused the Lodge to get laid. By 1942 his conquests included Helen Parsons, Jack's first wife, who had displaced Smith's own wife as High Priestess of the Temple. In 1943 Helen Parsons bore a child by Smith and the Parsons were shortly thereafter divorced. No matter, never mind, since by this time Helen's sister Betty had been embraced by Jack Parsons affection - Any more at home like you?
Crowley by this time regarded Smith as hopeless. He was giving the Order, Crowley told Smith, "the reputation of being that slimy abomination, a "love cult". Already in 1915 in Vancouver, all I knew of you was that you were running a mother and her daughter in double harness -- since then one scandal has followed another."
During 1943, in an obvious attempt to depose Smith, Crowley sent Smith orders that he was meant to become a God, along with instructions on how to achieve this. Of course, a God can't be bothered with triviality like running an occult lodge. Towards the end of 1943, Crowley successfully placed Parsons at the head of Agape. Smith, despite having bought the program, continued to hang around for some time, despite Crowley's threats of excommunication for any that associated with him. Jack Parsons was one of Smith's staunchest defenders to the end, and this got his relations with Crowley off on a bad foot.
More troubling to Crowley was Parsons obsession with the Babalon Working, a then-obscure spell greatly modified by Crowley but allowed only to the highest grades of the O.T.O.. Parsons was attempting this spell as early as 1942, when the police were called to his mansion on Pasadena's "Millionaire Row" by concerned neighbors who observed a naked, pregnant woman jumping through a fire nine times in Parsons backyard.
The neighbors already had cause to be concerned; Parsons had distributed flyers advertising Rooms for Rent (in itself a sign of decline) in the mansion he had inherited from his recently deceased father. But, the flyers specified, "only to bohemians, musicians, artists, atheists and anarchists". Given his profession as a top scientist in a time of war, these associations were bound to bother more than the neighbors.
"What's he building in there?" Tom Waits
After leaving the O.T.O., Jack Parsons continued his occult studies solo, but maintained correspondence with some of the members. His final Total Known Magical Output, or TKMO, were two alleged windstorms and an Elemental in the form of a statuesque Redhead from Iowa. The windstorms were real enough, but Parsons credit for them is open to debate. As for the Redhead, Marjorie Cameron, she probably arrived by Greyhound Bus.
"Any fool can start a cult." Aleister Crowley
In the first half of 1946, L. Ron Hubbard, future founder of Dianetics and Scientology, ripped off Parsons in a classic joint-checking account scheme. Parsons and Hubbard had pooled, respectively, 17,000 and 1,000 dollars in an account for something called Allied Enterprises, Inc.; apparently designed to to produce and sell bad science fiction and bogus pseudo-religion as well as solid-fuel rockets. Parsons had put his life savings in this account, and soon thereafter Hubbard withdrew 10,000 dollars and left for Florida to buy a yacht and start a religion. Besides the money, Hubbard also took Betty, the sister of Parsons first wife and Parsons former lover.
Outraged, Parsons followed the pair to Florida and, from a rented room, on July 5th, 1946, cast a spell that generated a storm that drove the yacht back to shore. Legal action of this earth followed, which recovered less than half the money that Hubbard had stolen.
"I've been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free." Bob
"Any fool can start a cult." Al
Jack Parsons had met L. Ron Hubbard shortly after Hubbard was discharged from the US Navy, August 1945, at a weekly science fiction salon that Parsons hosted in Pasadena, where attendees included Robert Heinlein. Despite Hubbard's complete lack of magical credentials, Parsons enlisted him as his partner in very advanced magical schemes, including the Babalon Working, writing to Crowley that Hubbard was "the most Thelemic person he had ever met" ( "Thelemic" being the all-encompassing word for the sum of Crowley's beliefs).
For his part, Hubbard later defended his involvements at this time as being done at the behest of the FBI, in order to break up a black magic cult that was encircling and enticing war-effort scientists. For a fact, however, the FBI was watching the activities of Parsons closely by 1942.
"Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press." Bob
In January 1946, Parsons and Hubbard were deeply involved in a series of magical incantations and ceremonies intended to create or find a female Elemental capable of bearing a "moonchild" as an incarnation of one aspect of the earth Goddess Nuit. This was part of the Babalon Working. Sounds crazy to me, too. But on January 18, Parsons encountered the Redhead from Iowa, Marjorie Cameron, and proudly pronounced her The Elemental in a triumphant letter to Crowley. Crowley for his part responded that he didn't have a clue as to what Parsons was talking about. In a letter to another California O.T.O. member at about the same time, he contradicted that clearly:
"Apparently Parsons or Hubbard or somebody is trying to create a moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I think of the idiocy of these louts."
During the first three days of March 1946, Parsons and Cameron engaged in sex magic to invoke the Babalon Working while Hubbard watched. Already the con was at work, Hubbard took the role of Skryer or Scribe, not normally given to a bare initiate, to describe what was occurring on the astral plane, clearly an upper-hand position since Hubbard defined the results.
Shortly after this, June 1946, Hubbard absconded with the money and the now-jilted former lover of Parsons, Betty Northrop, sister of Parsons first wife, Helen.
"I notice that this ceremony, your corrupt ways have finally made you blind." Bob
Crowley was thoroughly disgusted with the confusions of his American O.T.O. Lodge by this time. He wrote to an American follower in October, 1946:
"About J.W.P. -- all that I can say is that I am sorry -- I feel sure that he had fine ideas but he was led astray firstly by [Wilfred] Smith, then he was robbed of his last penny by a confidence man named Hubbard."
And further, in December of that year, Crowley wrote:
"I have no further interest in Jack and his adventures; he is just a weak-minded fool and must go to the devil in his own way. Requiscat in pace."
Shortly after this, Parsons resigned from the O.T.O. entirely.
Part Two - Rocket's Red Glare
"It was gravity which pulled us down, and destiny which tore us apart." Bob
"Inches per hour the ballet goes on" John Jeske
Parsons personal life was a ball of confusion, but for a long time his professional life, during the 1930s and '40s, was very successful. His interest in rockets, beginning in the 1930s, brought him into contact with Theodore von Karman. [V]on Karman was head of the Aeronautics department at Cal Tech in Pasadena. Not put off by Parsons personal life -- the Jewish von Karman actually believed that his Rabbi father had created a Golem or homunculus, and he may have been a Kabbalist himself -- von Karman came to consider Parsons as one of the top three rocket scientists in the world. To quote from the otherwise unbearably dry Aerojet Corporation's web page:
Aerojet's Beginnings - Late 1930s
"It was an unusual group of men who assembled in Theodore von Karman's Pasadena living room in 1936 to discuss the possibilities of sending rockets into outer space; von Karman, an internationally acclaimed professor from the California Institute of Technology; Frank Malina, a talented artist and an outstanding graduate student at Cal Tech; Martin Summerfield, PHD candidate at Cal Tech; John W. Parsons, a self-taught chemist with a gift for poetry; and Ed Forman, a highly skilled mechanic who had been sharing ideas with Parsons and whose backyard in Pasadena was pockmarked from earlier experiments."
Although the web writers try their best to convey the strangeness of this group within the dry corporate constraints of this site, it doesn't begin to scratch the surface. Malina may have been a Communist Party member who passed secrets to the Russians. A scientist from this group not mentioned by the web site, Tsien Hsue-sen, defected to his native China and developed nuclear warheads for Chairman Mao. And last but not least, one of these guys invited Parsons along to a Gnostic Mass given by the Agape Lodge of the O.T.O., beginning Parsons long, difficult journey through the Thelema.
Aerojet Corporation, along with its parent Gencorp., billed over one billion in sales in 2000. Not big by the standards of GE or GM, but not bad for a company started by a handful of rocket fanatics in 1936. Had Parsons lived he might have been a very rich man, but for all we know his interest in these business enterprises were stolen by L. Ron Hubbard along with everything else. I could find no information regarding Parsons estate.
Parsons had a hand in so many rocketry, jet and missile developments from 1936 to the late 1940s that it is useless to list them here. Suffice it to say that a direct line could be drawn from his work to that one small step taken by Neil Armstrong in 1969. [ I have an accompanying timeline that provides more detail, and demonstrates a parallel to the squeaky clean life of Robert H. Goddard.]
But already in 1942, the intersection of Parsons personal life and his professional security clearances caused concern for the FBI. The FBI would follow him at a distance dictated by national security concerns on the one hand and national military research needs on the other, essentially giving him a longer or shorter leash, like one of those retractable leashes for walking dogs, for the last ten years of his life. It was not a good time to be strange. When his security clearance was pulled for the last time in 1950, while working for Hughes Aircraft, he was essentially unemployable in his chosen field, where at any rate crackpots like him had already been replaced by legions of gray flannel, faceless men.
"You'll wind up working in a gas station." Frank Zappa
By 1951 Parsons was working in a gas station and as an explosives expert for movies, spotty employment at best. It was while moving his laboratory from the coachhouse of his father's Pasadena estate -- having already sold all the property but the coachhouse and now preparing to move to Mexico -- that he dropped a canister of fulminate of mercury and incurred such horrendous injuries that none of the writers I've read could stomach describing them. Still conscious at first, he died within an hour. Witness reported hearing two explosions, most likely the explosion of the fulminate -- and Parsons -- set off nearby explosives.
Some insist that Parsons was such a skilled scientist that he could never have mishandled this material. In fact, it's rumored that Parsons was working closely with the new state of Israel, or at least being recruited by them for a missile program which might have upset the US balance of power in the Mideast. Certainly an unstable and secret-possessing scientist might have drawn the physical ire of the US intelligence network, but I think that Parsons was so reckless in his personal life, and so far down the tubes by then, that it smacks of unconscious suicide.
Parsons died on June 17th, 1952. On June 17th, 1952, Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory at Johnsville, Pennsylvania, dedicated a human centrifuge capable of producing accelerations of up to 40 g's.
"Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped." Bob
In 1972 a crater on the moon was named after Jack Parsons. It was, appropriately, on the dark side.
Go to Parsons and Rocket Development Timeline[ sorry! under construction! ]