Science and discovery have always been driven by those true visionaries that come along every once in a while, those exceptional individuals with a certain spark or genius to them, who pull us along and light the way into the future. There have been many legendary such figures throughout human history, and while most of them will always be remembered for their crowning achievements and their priceless contributions to progress, there are others who will also be remembered for their odd lives and beliefs behind the scenes. One of these must surely be a revolutionary pioneer of space travel and rocketry, who helped kick start NASA, achieved what was once thought to be impossible, and paved the way to our mastery of space, and who also just happened to be into some very weird occult tomfoolery.
Born in Los Angeles, California on October 2, 1914, Jack Parsons was raised in a rich family and during his youth became fascinated with science fiction stories, and his eccentricities were already becoming apparent when he would spend hours in his backyard trying to cobble together homemade rockets out of gunpowder and doing various strange, often not a little dangerous rocketry experiments, even kicked out of school once for blowing up a toilet with his invention. It was this interest that inevitably led him onto his course in life, and although he would never finish college Parsons would go on to form a group of like-minded friends, who would get together and do rocketry experiments together. This group called themselves “The Suicide Squad,” as the work they were doing was quite literally explosive in nature, and they were a ragtag group of explorers of future science. This was the 1930s, and rocketry was still very much in the realm of science fiction stories, so this was cutting edge, ambitious stuff the group was doing at the time. The idea of rockets taking people to space was the stuff of magic and fantasy, something that only happened in pulp serial comics, and there had never been any real research done into it because it was mostly thought of as a realm of crackpots and dreamers.
Nevertheless, the Suicide Squad was making progress, with Parsons in particular being very innovative and instrumental to creating stable rocket fuels that could be used for their experiments. They were able to start a research project into rocketry with a $1,000 in funding from the curious government and from here Parson’s career would propel itself far from the amateur backyard experiments of his youth. He would go on to develop jet engines for the U.S. Air Corps, create the stable solid state rocket fuel that would eventually be used in space shuttles, rockets, and missiles used by the military and NASA and which is still the basis of what we use today, develop numerous technological marvels for aeronautics, and become one of the principal founders of both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Aerojet Engineering Corporation. He would become known as the father of modern rocketry, take space travel out of the pages of science fiction, his inventions would put mankind onto the moon, he would pioneer the advancement of both liquid-fuel and solid-fuel rockets, and his importance to rocket propulsion and space travel cannot be understated, making him forever a legend in the field. Not bad for someone with a high school diploma. However, Parsons was also sort of a nutjob kook, and behind this facade of science and technology his life was a lot more, shall we say, unorthodox.
In 1939, Parsons started to get involved in a religious movement called Thelema, started by the infamous English occultist and magician Aleister Crowley, and which was also called the Ordo Templi Orientis. The group practiced a form of magic in which they believed that will alone could produce an effect upon the physical world, of which Crowley once said “it is theoretically possible to cause in any object any change of which that object is capable by nature.” By all accounts Parsons was fascinated by all of this, and believed that it could be scientifically explained through quantum physics. Parsons saw nothing really at odds with science by engaging with the occult, and one British author and journalist George Pendle would later say of his dichotomy:
Parsons treated magic and rocketry as different sides of the same coin: both had been disparaged, both derided as impossible, but because of this both presented themselves as challenges to be conquered. Rocketry postulated that we should no longer see ourselves as creatures chained to the earth but as beings capable of exploring the universe. Similarly, magic suggested there were unseen metaphysical worlds that existed and could be explored with the right knowledge. Both rocketry and magic were rebellions against the very limits of human existence; in striving for one challenge he could not help but strive for the other.
As a part of this occult group, Parsons was able to use his natural charisma and good looks to gather an eclectic group of friends and followers, and took part in all manner of weird rituals, as well as what is called the “Gnostic Mass,” a sort of perversion of the Catholic Mass in which practitioners drink wine and eat the Cake of Light, which is cake made of menstrual blood. Parsons became a huge fan of Crowley, who became his mentor, and read extensively of his works, working his way up through the ranks to become a prominent member of the order to eventually be assigned by Crowley himself to become the leader of the West Coast Californian branch of the Thelemite Ordo Templi Orientis. Things would only get stranger from there.
In California, Parsons bought a mansion where some of the group members lived as a sort of commune, and he would continue his rocket experiments and also start to spin out of control further into the world of the occult and sheer insanity. His mansion became ground zero for all manner of drug fueled magic rituals, blood rituals, and arcane practices, and Parsons got really into the whole notion of “sex magick,” with the mansion quickly gaining a reputation as a place of hedonism and constant wild orgies, during which time he started up an affair with his wife’s 17-year-old sister, as well as numerous other sexual liaisons. Sex was seen as a potent fuel for magic, and there was plenty of it going on. The mansion became known as the “Parsonage,” and attracted a colorful cast of characters, which included even writers, poets, scientists, witches, and others, who would hang about at all hours, and Parsons also rented out rooms to his mansion to non-cult members during this time by running ads in the paper, of which one resident would say, “In the ads placed in the local paper Jack specified that only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or any other exotic types need to apply for rooms—any mundane soul would be unceremoniously rejected.” The place was well-known for its outlandish strangeness and wild hedonism, and one resident would say:
The mansion was like walking into a Fellini movie. Women were walking around in diaphanous togas and weird make-up, some dressed up like animals, like a costume party. Jack was into all kinds of things.
During this time, Parsons would become ever more bizarre and eccentric as time went by, amassing an impressive collection of swords and daggers, going everywhere with a huge pet snake around his neck, playing with toy boats in his bathtub, taking children on fairy hunts on the estate grounds, and engaging in ever weirder religious rituals and sex displays. All of this debauchery took its toll on his professional life, as he was becoming more interested in having magical sex orgies that developing rockets, and it would eventually cost him his reputation and his job. His wife was none too happy with his escapades either, and the two would divorce after long. The lodge would also later become the focus of police investigations into their “black magic cult,” although no evidence was ever found that they were breaking any laws.
It was also during this time that Parsons would strike up an unusual friendship with science fiction author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who moved into the Parsonage and with whom he would spend hours discussing the occult, magic, and philosophy. Indeed, Parsons would contribute many ideas to the religious movement Hubbard had brewing in his head and would later found, and the two engaged in some pretty far out practices. The rituals they engaged in were reported by other residents of the estate as bringing forth poltergeists, ghosts, demons, and “screaming banshees,” causing some of them to move out altogether, but Parsons and Hubbard kept at it. The two infamously dabbled in trying to summon up the ancient Thelemite goddess Babalon through a weeks-long Enochian ritual called “the Babalon Working”, which involved waving around magic swords, dripping animal blood onto arcane runes and masturbating onto magical tablets while playing Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. It is unclear whether any of this actually worked, but the two seemed to really believe all of this intensely. Unfortunately for Parsons, Hubbard would turn out to be less than trustworthy, stealing money from the group and running off with Parson’s girlfriend Sara, the sister of his ex-wife, after defrauding him out of his life’s savings through a bogus investment scheme. Hubbard would eventually write Dianetics and thus kick off Scientology.
After losing Sara and his friend Hubbard, Parsons took it in stride and actually went about trying to literall conjure up a new woman through sorcery, it an attempt to invoke an elemental spirit that would take the form of the woman of his dreams. There were more rituals, more masturbating onto tablets, and shortly after this Parsons met his next wife, Marjorie Cameron, who he was convinced was the actual elemental he had summoned. Throughout all of this Parsons was started to freak out even his own followers, who were beginning to think that he was getting a little out of control with all of the sex stuff and was not really keeping with Crowley’s original vision. As a matter of fact, when Crowley himself heard about what was going on over there he was quite taken aback and not impressed, calling Parsons a “weak fool.” In the meantime, his wife Cameron, the one he had allegedly conjured up as an elemental, left him to go live in an artists’s commune in Mexico, leaving him further unhinged.
At this point it might be easy to forget that Parsons was still one of the most respected rocketry scientists in his field, but his professional life was not going much better. He was losing credibility due to his occult leanings, investigated on charges of espionage for spying for the Israeli government, and this, plus the prior investigations into his cult and rumors of his bizarre secret life, made him a pariah in the aeronautics industry. He was stripped of his security clearance and forbidden from working on classified projects, forcing him to bounce around mundane jobs before becoming a freelance pyrotechnics consultant in Hollywood. He would get back together with Cameron, and in the face of increasing criticism from the order, Parsons decided to just quit and start his own system of magic, convinced that he could do it all better than Crowley himself, although the two maintained correspondence all the way up to Corley’s death in 1947. He called his system “the Gnosis,” and it marked his true separation from the order he had devoted so much of his life too.
By 1952 Parsons had pretty much gone off the deep end, spiraling into a morass of increasingly strange rambling writings and manifests on the occult and politics, as well as surreal collections of poems, and he was also becoming mired in paranoia that he was being followed and spied on by the FBI. He decided to take his wife to Mexico for a few months to lie low, after which his plan was to flee to Israel and start a new life. Unfortunately he would never get a chance to carry out his plan, as on June 17, 1952, Parsons died in a massive explosion at his home, caused by him working on a batch of explosives for a film shoot. The death has become rather mysterious in its own right, with some thinking it was perhaps a suicide, an assassination by government forces, or even a magic ritual gone bad. In the end, Jack Parson’s death is just as mysterious as his life. How is it that this true pioneer of science could have been so caught up with and lost in these mystical, occult beliefs? What was it that drove him? Was he a genius, a madman, or a bit of both? Whatever the case may be, his life was certainly a colorful one, and the fact that this legendary man of science could so hopelessly go off the rails into the extremes of the occult will surely forever be a curious historical oddity.