At his birth in 1914, Jack Parsons was given the memorable and unusual name of Marvel Whiteside Parsons and had a truly extraordinary life. An undoubted genius, he indirectly led NASA to send the Apollo astronauts to the Moon in 1969. Moreover, the Aerojet Corporation – which Parsons personally founded – today produces solid-fuel rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle that are based on Parsons’ very own, decades-old innovations. For his accomplishments, a large crater on the far side of the Moon was named in his honor, and each and every year, on Halloween no less, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory holds an open-house memorial, replete with mannequins of Jack Parsons and his early JPL cohorts known as “Nativity Day.” And, within the aerospace community, there is a longstanding joke that JPL actually stands for “Jack Parsons Laboratory” or “Jack Parsons Lives.” In fact, however, Parsons, who was so revered and honored by very senior figures within the U.S. space-program, was an admitted occultist, and a follower of Aleister Crowley.
It was perhaps inevitable that his path would eventually cross with that of Aleister Crowley. In 1942, after the two had become acquainted as a result of their like-minds and pursuits, Crowley chose Parsons to lead the Agape Lodge of the Thelemic Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) in California, after Crowley expelled one Wilfred Smith from the position. The devoted Parsons eagerly practiced Aleister Crowley’s Thelemic Rituals, the goal of which was the creation of a new breed of human being that, if the ritual proved successful, would lead to the destruction of Christianity. Meanwhile, during the same time frame, and within the confines of his Pasadena mansion – dubbed “The Parsonage” – the darkly handsome Parsons held parties for those friends and colleagues in the field of science fiction. Indeed, writers Robert Heinlein, Jack Williamson, Anthony Boucher, and Ray Bradbury were all regular visitors to Parsons’ home.
Moving on, much of Parsons’ – and the JPL’s – initial rocket research in this period was undertaken at the appropriately named Devil’s Gate Dam in Los Angeles. Interestingly, the JPL was itself established at this very locale in 1930 by the California Institute of Technology. The dam had been constructed a decade earlier by engineers from the Los Angeles County Flood Control District and took its title from Devil’s Gate Gorge, a rocky out-cropping that eerily resembles a demonic face. And just as Parsons was busy working at the gate of the Devil himself, so to speak, another figure in early U.S. rocket research, Robert Goddard, was making important advances in this same, burgeoning arena. Goddard had a longstanding link to the New Mexico town of Roswell, no less, and had heard a good deal about Parsons.
Robert Hutchings Goddard, a child of the late 19th century, developed a fascination for outer space and rocketry at the age of 16, after he enthusiastically devoured H.G. Wells’ classic science-fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. Goddard’s first big break came in 1919, when the Smithsonian Institution published his revolutionary work, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, which extensively detailed his mathematical theories of rocket flight, his experiments with solid-fuel rockets, and the possibilities he saw of extensively exploring the Earth’s upper-atmosphere – and, one day, far beyond, too. Goddard also had the memorable distinction of launching the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, specifically in Auburn, Massachusetts, on March 16, 1926. Today, the site is a national historic landmark known as the Goddard Rocket Launching Site.
Due to his successes, and with some very welcome financial support, in 1930 Goddard elected to move his base of operations to Roswell, New Mexico, where he worked with a team of technicians in near-isolation and overwhelming secrecy – and succeeded in launching more than 30 rockets of a truly innovative and revolutionary design. In the summer of 1936, a close friend and colleague of Parsons – Frank J. Malina, who held the distinction of being the first director of the JPL – traveled to Roswell to meet with Goddard. Malina found that Goddard held his research cards very close to his chest and displayed clear and astute concerns that others might try and capitalize on his research – people such as Parsons, for example, should Goddard reveal a tad too much. But, in the larger scheme of things, it didn’t really matter at all. Goddard was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1945 and died in August of that year in Baltimore, Maryland. By that time, Malina’s own rocket research had outgrown its original facility, and his tests were soon moved to the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. As for Parsons, he blew himself up in his lab on June 17, 1952.