“Sex and Rockets”

When JPL co-founder and occultist Jack Parsons wasn't busy building rockets, he was chatting up the "whore of Babylon."

Topics: Business, Books,

It’s been nearly three decades since Thomas Pynchon pondered the psychic connections between sex, rockets and the Kabala in his convoluted novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.” But even that was 30 years after Jack Parsons embraced that oddly compelling trinity — as a self-taught chemist and co-founder of Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who devoted much of his life to magic and following the occult mage Aleister Crowley.

Parsons is the captivating subject of a new biography called “Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons,” published by quirky Feral House, which bills itself as the “publisher that refuses to be domesticated.” (The author is listed as John Carter, although Feral says Carter is the pseudonym of a writer who has withheld his name so as not to jeopardize his job.) It’s not the most artfully written book, but the story is so fascinating it transcends the author’s rather pedestrian style. And, unlike the many accounts of Parsons’ life you can find online, “Sex and Rockets” provides a fairly objective telling of the story that seems to have intrigued many an occultist writer.

The stuff of myth since his death in a mysterious laboratory explosion in 1952, the darkly handsome Parsons is sometimes referred to as the “James Dean” of American rocketry. His innovations in solid and liquid rocket fuel during the 1930s and ’40s responded to the challenges of the era: developing a fuel source that would burn long enough and with sufficient thrust to reach outer space. And his successes propelled rocketry forward; America’s space program owes much to Parsons’ rocket design and innovations — and in 1972 the International Astronomical Union honored him by naming Parson’s Crater on the dark side of the moon. After co-founding the JPL — which his admirers referred to as “Jack Parsons’ Laboratory” — Parsons started Aerojet Corp., now the world’s largest rocket producer and manufacturer of solid-fuel boosters for space shuttles.

But while his peers considered him one of the top rocket scientists, “Carter’s” biography suggests that Parsons’ contribution to American rocketry was overshadowed by the professionally questionable intrigues of Parsons’ life: He messed with the Enochian Tablets (a magical alphabet) and took part in bizarre rituals involving menstrual blood and masturbation. Not surprisingly, Carter implies in his plain but serviceable prose, Parsons’ professional reputation suffered — and yet, he was something of a failure as a worshipper of the occult. After joining a young L. Ron Hubbard in an exotic attempt to communicate with the whore of Babylon and being hand-picked to succeed Crowley as a leader of the quasi-Masonic organization, the Ordo Templi Orientis, Parsons never managed to engage his own group of followers.

Carter makes a laudable effort to assess Parsons and his contribution to the worlds of technology and Gnosticism as he addresses the question: Was Jack Parsons a New Age revolutionary and prophet or simply a Southern California crackpot?

Parsons, born in 1914, grew up on Orange Grove Avenue, known as Millionaire’s Row in Pasadena, Calif. His father deserted the family early on and Parsons had a lonely childhood, during which Carter says he nurtured an Oedipal attachment to his mother Ruth. He grew up abhorring all forms of authority and developed an early hatred of Christianity. He claimed that he invoked Satan at the age of 13, only to cower in fear when the big red guy appeared.

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Carter rightly devotes much of the 229-page book to Parsons’ career as a rocket scientist. Parsons attended Pasadena City College in the early ’30s with his friend Ed Forman, although he never graduated. The two young men shared a fascination with rocketry and shared test results with American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard. Parsons and Forman soon joined the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology. GALCIT, as it was known, was under the direction of Hungarian-born scientist and rocketry giant Theodore von Karman (1881-1963). Von Karman would later write that Parsons was one of the three most important figures in American rocketry.

Parsons, Forman and their GALCIT colleagues Frank Malina, Rudolph Schott and Arno Smith conducted a famous test firing on Halloween 1936 in the nearby Arroyo Seco Canyon that marked the birth of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A photograph showing the men in a sandy pit preparing for the liquid fuel rocket test was used to construct a “nativity scene” — a reconstruction of the scene using figurines in the likeness of the scientists — for the JPL’s 50th anniversary.

Just a few years later Parsons was instrumental in developing jet-assisted take-off (JATO) rockets for military aircraft. In the early years of World War II, these rockets were used to reduce by more than 30 percent the distance required to get military aircraft off the ground. Parsons and other GALCIT team members used the JATO breakthrough and the ensuing military contracts to start AeroJet Corp. — where Parsons came to regularly invoke the spirit of Pan before test-firings. By the end of the war, Parsons sold his interest in AeroJet to General Tire.

Flush with funds, he immersed himself in the philosophy of his mentor, English occultist Crowley –the bald guy in the back row on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. The latter chapters of Carter’s book jump back and forth from the arcana of solid propellants and rocketry design to the esoterica of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the “quasi-Masonic” organization that Crowley headed, and the infamous 1946 ritual known as the “Babalon [sic] Working.”

Parsons’ partners in the metaphysical “Babalon” adventure were his ex-wife’s sister, Betty, and a pre-Dianetics Hubbard. Hubbard, later discharged from the Navy on medical grounds, assisted Parsons as a “scribe” during a “sex magick” ceremony in which the “whore of Babylon” was invoked to attract an “elemental” with whom Parsons could conceive a “moonchild” to usher in a new age.

Carter’s description is based on incomplete records, but it seems that the ceremony involved annointing objects with menstrual blood, invoking spells and incantations, and Parsons’ act of masturbating (using his “magic wand”). The “elemental” arrived soon after in the form of a woman named Marjorie Cameron, who would later become Parsons’ second wife and an underground figure in her own right.

Parsons and Cameron were unable to conceive a “moonchild” — or any children at all, and Parsons’ remaining years were a rapid descent into chaos and failure. Hubbard, who later founded the Church of Scientology, absconded to Miami with Betty and most of Parsons’ money, which they apparently used to buy a boat. Parsons pursued the pair only to find that Hubbard had already set sail.

Here Carter’s narrative slips into high comedy. Parsons returned to his hotel room and “consecrated a circle.” As he described it in a letter to Crowley: “Hubbard attempted to escape me by sailing at 5 p.m., and I performed a full invocation to Bartzabel [a form of Mars] within the Circle at 8 p.m. At the same time … his ship was struck by a sudden squall off the coast, which ripped off his sails and forced him back to port …”

Flat broke, tormented by what he saw as his failure as a magus, Parsons’ occult activities caught up with him in the late ’40s. He was investigated by the FBI and local authorities for establishing a “sex cult” and lost his government security clearance as a consequence. At one point the co-founder of JPL was reduced to working in a gas station. Eventually, he found work as a consultant on explosives projects.

On June 17, 1952, Parsons was preparing for a trip to Mexico when he was killed in a powerful explosion in his laboratory in Pasadena — also on Orange Grove Avenue, not far from where he grew up. He was known as being a very meticulous chemist and yet there were some very unstable chemicals found in a trash can at his lab. His fiery death is fuel for conspiracy theorists to this day, though the generally sympathetic Carter concludes the explosion was probably accidental.

Carter does report the unconfirmed rumor that investigators later discovered films of Parsons “exteriorizing” his Oedipal fixation — having sex with his mother. But no one has been able to resolve the question, as Parsons’ mother committed suicide within hours of hearing of her son’s death.

Carter leaves the gossipmongers to make what they will of Parsons’ life; his own conclusions are neatly summed up: “Historians of rocketry and the space program seem to have underestimated [Parsons'] contributions to the field [of rocketry],” Carter writes, “while writers on the occult have romanticized him as some sort of great sorcerer.” Carter has spent a good half of the book detailing Parsons’ pioneering years as a rocket scientist and seems to be intent on bringing some balance to Parsons’ sometimes overlooked contributions to American rocketry. So it is not surprising to read his assessment of Parsons’ occult practices: “As a magician,” Carter writes, Parsons “was essentially a failure.”

Regardless of where your sympathies lie, however, the book — thanks to its fantastically esoteric protagonist — is a success.

John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon: How the Geeks, the Suits and the Ponytails Fought to Bring Hollywood to the Internet," to be published Sept. 1 by Arcade.

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