Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Remembering Jack Parsons, Rocket Scientist

Many people outside of Thelema have never heard of Jack Parsons. He was a member of Agape Lodge from 1941 until his death in 1952, which at the time was one of the few functioning OTO bodies in the world. Outside of his occult interests, though, Parsons was also an actual rocket scientist, and a good one at that. He was instrumental in the founding of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (sometimes joking dubbed "Jack Parsons Laboratory" at the time) and an expert on solid fuel rocket propellants still used in JATO units, missiles, and space shuttle boosters.

Wired has an article up today about Parsons and his mysterious absence from much of NASA's official history. The article speculates that despite Parsons' importance to the American space program, his practice of Thelemic occultism was considered far out of the mainstream and thus his contributions were downplayed. His life seems to have been considered something of an embarrassment to the powers that be, even though it was likely his interest in uncovering the mysteries of the universe that led him to make key scientific breakthroughs in the first place.

Parsons' legacy as an engineer and chemist has been somewhat overshadowed by his interest in the occult and, and has led to what some critics describe as a rewriting of the history books. "He's lived in the footnotes since his death. He's a forgotten figure," says biographer George Pendle, author of Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parson (Jack's full name). Pendle did an "archeological dig" into Parsons' life after finding a mention of him in a science book. "The more I dug, the more bizarre and extreme the story seemed."

In short: Parsons played a critical role in the formation of rocket science and was instrumental in building the rockets that were eventually used in the Space Race. However, he also believed in magic, was involved in the early stages of Scientology and had an extremely colourful sex life. For that reason, Pendle speculates, Parsons' was a figure who didn't fit into the mould of the Industrial Complex. "Wernher von Braun -- a former Nazi -- was much a much easier fit than Parsons," says Pendle. "A lot of people would be shocked to find out that the space programme was founded by a man who held orgies in his Pasadena mansion."

I put up an article awhile back about Parsons' death in an explosion at his home laboratory that may or may not have been accidental. The official explanation - that he accidentally dropped a vial of fulminate of mercury - appears to be unworkable according to tests conducted by the television series Mythbusters. At the same time, the chemicals he was working with at the time were highly volatile, and according to an expert I spoke with after posting the article they could easily have been set off by some other accidental means.

It's sad to see Parsons' scientific legacy largely ignored solely because of his esoteric beliefs and practices. Perhaps if he had lived longer he would have been able to advocate more effectively for his inclusion in the official record, assuming he had an interest in doing so. Parsons does have a crater on the Moon named after him - but on the dark side, which may or may not be symbolic. A more dubious contribution to history was Parsons work with L. Ron Hubbard. Apparently he and Hubbard attempted the fictional Moonchild operation from Aleister Crowley's novel of the same name, but the result seems to have been the birth of the Chuch of Scientology. As I've commented previously, that's a pretty strong argument for said operation to never be performed again.

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