Jack Parsons was at times a communist, an occultist and the man who invented many of US space rockets. A century after his birth PETER FROST lights the blue touch paper
John Whiteside Parsons, the father of US rocket engineering, was born a century ago in October 1914. Amazingly, for a man who would make his name in rocketry he was born as Marvel Whiteside Parsons but chose to use the much more boring names of John and Jack.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Parsons was raised by his mother’s wealthy family in Pasadena. He had few friends and spent much time reading.
He took a particular interest in works of mythology, Arthurian legend, and the Arabian Nights. Through the works of Jules Verne he became interested in science fiction and became a keen reader of pulp space travel magazines.
It was this interest in science fiction that led to his early interest in rocketry and in 1928 Jack began amateur rocket experiments with school friend Edward “Ed” Forman.
Jack and Ed began to build gunpowder-fuelled rockets made from fireworks, aluminium foil and glue. They fired them in local canyons and in Jack’s huge back garden. The large craters did nothing for family harmony.
After he received poor school results, Parsons’s mother sent him away to study at a private boarding school in San Diego — but he was expelled for blowing up the toilets.
More seriously the family fell foul of the Great Depression and Jack was forced to drop out of Stanford University.
By 1934 along with his school friend and fellow rocket fan Forman he formed a professional Rocket Research Group, supported by the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory.
Also in 1934 Parsons married his first wife Helen Northup.
Parsons went to work for the explosives manufacturer Halifax Powder Company. He spent most of his wages funding the Rocket Research Group. For extra money he manufactured nitroglycerin in the family home and at one point he even pawned Helen’s engagement ring to pay for rocket materials.
Helen went away for a period in June 1941, during which Parsons began a sexual relationship with her 17-year-old sister, Sara.
Upon Helen’s return, Sara asserted that she was Parsons’s new wife, and Helen sought comfort with another man called Talbot Smith. The two couples all decided to live together as part of a larger commune.
In 1939 rocketeers Jack and Ed had gained funding from the National Academy of Sciences to work on Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) for the US military. By 1942 the now renamed Jet Propulsion Laboratory was selling thousands of bolt-on solid fuel plane rocket motors to the US government.
As the US became aware that Nazi Germany had developed the V2 rocket, the military gave Parker and his group three million dollars to develop rocket-based weapons and the group was expanded and renamed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL was a name that would echo down through the years.
Parsons was invited to lecture the Los Angeles Science Fiction League and among those at the lecture was a teenage Ray Bradbury.
By now Jack Parsons was a convinced Marxist attending meetings of the rocket branch of the Pasadena Communist Party. Although Parsons subscribed to the party paper the People’s Daily World, perhaps predicting future problems he stopped short of actually joining.
Even so those politics would come back to haunt him when Senator Joe McCarthy started his red-baiting after the war.
Marxism wasn’t enough for Parsons — he also started to study Thelema, a occult religious movement founded by the English mystic Aleister Crowley (below).
Also involved in this movement was US naval officer and science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard who would become notorious as the inventor of Scientology. Hubbard managed to steal Parsons’s life savings and bigamously married Jack’s partner Sara.
Parsons, now divorced, married his second wife Marjorie Cameron in 1946.
He had first met her in sex magic experiments with his occult group.
By now McCarthyism meant he could no longer work for the US rocket industry. He acted briefly as a consultant for Israel’s military rocket programme.
In his private life he was experimenting with recreational drugs including cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines, peyote, mescaline and opiates.
Still unable to find a well paid job he was still carrying out experiments with dangerous chemicals at home. A home laboratory explosion took his life at the age of just 37.
Police declared his death an accident, but many suspected suicide or murder. It has given conspiracy theorists much to speculate about ever since.
Over his short life Parson’s contributions to rocket propulsion, fuel chemistry and design was immense. His ideas like cast solid fuel motors are still used in both civilian and military rockets.
Certainly the space shuttle and much more of the US space programme would not have been possible without Jack Parsons’s massive contributions.
Jack Parsons is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of the US space programme. He even has a crater on the moon named after him.
In May 1947, Jack Parsons gave a talk at the Pacific Rocket Society in which he predicted that rockets would take humans to the moon. He didn’t live to see it happen but his work and his vision was an important part in making the moon landing a reality.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 17 October 2014.