From a certain perspective, John Whiteside Parsons was a scientist’s scientist. A co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Aerojet Engineering Corporation, he remains among the most significant rocket engineers of all time and inspired the founding of NASA. In 1972, the International Astronomical Union named a crater on the far side of the moon after him, and a television series based on his life was broadcast last spring. Only a fistful of scientists —Stephen Hawking? Richard Feynman? Neil Degrasse Tyson?— hold a comparable sway on the popular hivemind.
In Parsons’ case, this may be partially because he was not just a scientist but an occultist whose personal proclivities were themselves fashioned by popular fiction. Born in 1914 to wealthy parents who would soon divorce, he became an early reader of sci-fi and pulp magazines, which led to his first fascination with rocketry. In Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist Jack Parsons, George Pendle wrote of how young Parsons and his friend Ed Forman “swiftly became inseparable as they drove each other […] to create more complex and explosive skyrockets, the balsa wood tubes growing larger, more aerodynamic, sprouting fins and nose cones just like the [ones] they had seen […] in the pulps.” These experiments continued even after Parsons was expelled from private boarding school for blowing up the toilets.
His ardor undampened, he became a correspondent of Wernher von Braun, the then-young German scientist who would go on to create the V-2 rocket and was a key player in the success of the Apollo space missions. Dodging near-death and frustrated by the miserable wages of his first job at the Hercules Powder Company, Parsons joined Forman and Frank Malina in applying to and obtaining funding from the California Institute of Technology’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory. The trio balanced the untrained creative gusto of Parsons and Forman with Malina’s studious rationality. In American Scientist, Geoffrey Landis wrote that “[Parsons’ and Forman’s] enthusiasm for experimentation [kept] Malina focused toward building actual rocket engines, not just solving equations on paper.” There’s no mystery as to why they soon came to be known as “the Suicide Squad”.
Concurrently, the Great Depression had impoverished millions of Americans, and war with Germany and Japan loomed ahead. A radical in every aspect of life, Parsons sought to apply his incendiary ambition to society as well as science. A brief flirtation with Marxism came to naught when he rejected the left for being herdlike and authoritarian. He turned instead to the occult through Thelema at a critical time for the cult.
By 1939, Aleister Crowley, once reviled as the Wickedest Man in the World, was in frank and unconcealable decline. The Ordo Templi Orientis, of which he was the Outer Head, would soon be crushed by the advance of Hitler. Although the Agape Lodge, founded some years earlier by Wilfred Talbot Smith in California, was shielded from the onset of the war, it was also “under attack by the [American] press as a congregation of subversives and Satanists” (even though, as Massimo Introvigne states in Satanism: A Social History, “for Parsons [this] counted as a recommendation.”)
In Spirituality and the Occult, B.J. and Brian Gibbons remark how “[the] rise of scientific positivism was not necessarily inimical to a magico-mystical world-view.” One thinks of Newton’s fervent alchemical agenda or of Tesla’s serious attempts to correspond with extraterrestrials. As Paul Kléber Monod explored in Solomon’s Secret Arts, the occult and the Enlightenment were interconnected on social, ethical and oftentimes epistemological levels. Carl Kellner, who is thought to have co-founded OTO, was a chemist who developed treatments for tuberculosis.
Parsons began to lead what some would call a double life. By day, he worked at Caltech on experiments of mounting interest to the US military, that culminated in the founding of the Aerojet Corporation, a soon-to-be significant supplier for the US Air Force. The now augmented Suicide Squad also formalised their project in collaboration with both Caltech and the military, resulting in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Parsons and Forman were unusual in being so important, albeit formally untrained. What we, today, might think of as amateur science discovered how asphalt and potassium perchlorate were essential to the development of rocket fuel.
By night, Parsons flung himself into the OTO’s sex magick rituals. He had married Helen Northrup in 1935, but began to openly sleep with her teenaged sister Sara not long after. This was considered normal, if not admirable, by his fanatically antimoral bedfellows, to whom he justified his infidelity in grandiose terms. “Your passion for [Sara],” he wrote to himself, “[gave] you the magical force [you] needed at the time.” Convenient as it was for him to think indulging his desires was a spiritual accomplishment, he seems to at least have been sincere.
Parsons became the leader of the Lodge when Crowley ordered Smith to step aside. He was able to entice some other scientists, among them Forman, to join him in his esoteric practices, but repeated —if fruitless— FBI investigations and suspected drug abuse gave his colleagues pause. “At best,” wrote Pendle, “Parsons was known as ‘a character,’ at worst ‘a crack-pot.’” His unreserved enjoyment of explosives further disconcerted them, and when the General Tire and Rubber Company purchased Aerojet, he was convinced to sell his stock and leave. And so he did, to embrace an indolent life with the Lodge, which was now also known as the “Parsonage”. His associates moved on, and his work was overshadowed by the world-churning destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It took a new arrival to lift Parson’s spirits. Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was an army veteran, a science fiction writer and a consummate fraud. Many members of the Lodge were taken with him, beginning with Parsons, who had loved reading Amazing Stories as a child and met Robert Heinlein and a young Ray Bradbury. Though he liked and admired Hubbard, he was less enthusiastic about the growing attraction between his new friend and Sara Northrup. As much as he had celebrated his transference of affections from Helen to Sara, he felt slighted when the younger Northrup left his bed. Still, he did his best to restrain his emotions: “As Betty and I are the best of friends, there is little loss,” he wrote in a letter to Crowley. According to another member, though, “Jack was feeling the pangs of a hitherto unfelt passion, jealousy.”
Faced with the loss of his life’s work and his lover, Parsons flung himself into ritual. Again, he enlisted Ed Forman to join him in magic invocations. Throughout this, he remained friends with Hubbard, with whom he embarked on a project that they called the Babalon Working; an attempt to summon up an incarnation of the goddess Babalon through a series of sex rites with “the elemental mate”, whom Parsons felt he’d found in the form of a glamorous redhead named Marjorie Cameron. With her, he believed, he would be able to conceive a child that was the avatar of Babalon. In the interim, Hubbard apparently observed the two, and took down notes. After embarking on a business partnership with Hubbard, Parsons saw his friend make for the hills with Sara Northrup and ten thousand dollars of his fortune. On to Dianetics, and beyond.
Though Parsons’ zest and self-belief wavered at times, they never quite abandoned him. Selling off most of his estate, he continued to experiment, to write, to teach. At one talk at the Pacific Rocketry Society, he predicted man would reach the moon. Work on his magick and scientific experiments progressed, defying investigation by McCarthy and his men, until he was killed at 37 in an explosion that officials ruled was an accident involving fulminate of mercury; but others thought was an assassination meant to keep him from exposing secrets: corporate, government or otherwise.
So what are we to take from Parsons’ strange and troubled life? His scientific legacy has been at least somewhat obscured by his occult and philosophical imaginings, and his admirers tend to separate the two. In an interview with Wired, Erik Conway, the historian of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, drily credited Parsons with being “the team’s chemist and [developing] the first castable solid propellant used to power aircraft”; while, in a somewhat overheated review of his collected writings, Robert Anton Wilson called him possibly “the most original and profound American thinker of his time.”
But there’s no separating Parsons’ “lives”. His scientific and occult imaginations were one and the same, and whether in the lab or with the Lodge, he sought to realise his vision by any means available and necessary. It’s easy to presume he felt the power of a magick ritual in the force of a rocket’s explosion, and viceversa. Rumour has it that he used to chant Crowley’s “Hymn to Pan” before igniting rockets.
Parsons saw no contradiction either. In Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword, he wrote:
“Science — how it was to save us! That “Brave New World” of Huxley, Darwin and H.G. Wells with only the voice of Spengler in dissent.
Science remaking the world; an international language, a universal brotherhood beyond nationality, prejudice or creed… A beautiful vision fallen like a house of cards.”
Freedom is a manifesto for mystic liberalism, in which Parsons attacked real and perceived puritanism, denouncing the “barbaric and vicious concepts of shamefulness and indecency” without a moment’s reflection on the pain his own lack of restraint had visited on those near him, and himself. It was also a call for restless change and innovation. “All nature partakes of the eternal sacraments of life and death,” he wrote, “of ebb and flow, of creation and destruction and regeneration.”
Today, we tend to think of science as the business of explanation and refutation. This was less the case in the first decades of the twentieth century when, for many an observer and practitioner, scientific progress signaled paths towards utopian or dystopian dreams. There was the eugenics craze of the pre-war years, followed by the realisation that we could explore other worlds and destroy our own. In the last fifty years, however, public scientists have taken on the more critical role of adversaries of ignorance surrounding evolution, vaccination, alternative medicine, the environment, etc.
Adam Smith called science “the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition,” and its popularisers and debunkers, like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, have promoted this picture of science as a system of illuminating truth (and laying bare lies). In the popular imagination, the Enlightenment is thought of as a process of expanding human knowledge, whereas science, in the words of Pinker, is “the refining of reason to understand the world.”
It follows that, as creative methods, the natural sciences have been presented to us in what is, essentially, a managerial language: solving this or that, enhancing or repairing something or another. In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker, for example, is full of praise for “moderate”, “responsive” and “temporary” efforts at climate engineering. This is fine as it goes, but one is left to wonder if the Dr Frankenstein that is our technocratic class can keep its monsters docile, after all.
In popular culture, science has become a sort of harmless nerdy enterprise, meme-fuel for the “I fucking love science” Facebook page or, what is worse, for the insufferable Big Bang Theory. An extreme case of this scientific domestication is the minority of atheists who have replaced Christmas with “Newtonmas”. The great scientist’s birthday fell on December 25, so neotenous secularists are marking the occasion with cards bearing twee “Reason’s Greetings”.
Science needs rewilding. The fire of “enlightenment” doesn’t just illuminate: it sparks up energy and change, and it will not remain confined to furnaces but spread beyond whatever borders we’ve installed. This sense of the natural sciences as exploring wild, untouched reaches is, of course, what inspires fantastical interests in fantastic minds. Parsons’ uninhibited verve for the inventive made him a legitimate heir to the alchemist Newton, as much as a forebear of Apollo 11. Occult and paranormal leanings among scientists may contradict attachment to the scientific method but not to the scientific imagination, which strains against the boundaries of what’s possible.
“Somewhere between Tesla and now,” Samantha Hunt wrote in her fascinating piece “Nikola Tesla, An Alien Intelligence”, “[invention] lost its illicitness. Somewhere art and science have parted ways, leaving the world to wonder where Tesla’s descendants, the poet-inventors, are hiding.” The formalisation and commercialisation of science has rendered scientific work far more dependent on bureaucracies and market demands (which, again, is not entirely a bad thing: no one wants their neighbour cooking up explosives in his garage). But institutionalised science has also constrained the scientific imagination, which is needed not only to power creativity but to comprehend the implications of what might be created.
An essay by Molly Lambert for Grantland linked Parsons to Elon Musk, who works with rockets and is (somewhat of) a scientific visionary; though his stunts, like firing a car into space as its radio burbles Bowie, are more puckish and attention-seeking than Parsons ever was. Musk is less poetry than performance art. Eliezer Yudkowsky, of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, shares Parsons’ lack of formal training, and the “rationalist” movement he did much to build shares Parsons’ ceaseless lust for transformation and contempt for tradition —as well as his advocacy for polyamorous transhumanism. It is, however, more beholden to empirical inquiry than to Babalon.
Both Musk and Yudkowsky are notable voices raising alarm about the destructive possibilities of advanced artificial intelligences. This is interesting because AI, as a field, is young, ambitious and mysterious enough to have kept unchecked channels with amateur research and science fiction. Probes into the existential risks of AI are multifarious, ranging from dry and systematic analyses such as that in Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence to vivid speculative works like Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em and Hugo De Garis’ The Artilect War. Though the plausibility of these ideas is open to challenge, they illustrate the fact that scientific potential falls beyond the scope of scientific method. Nor is this meant to excuse any manner of unhinged fantasising or paranoia, but to advise we should appreciate the tune to which “progress” transcends human management and planning.
“I am become death,” quoth Oppenheimer after the Bhagavad Gita, “[the] destroyer of worlds.” The poetic value of revisiting Jack Parsons’ occult imaginings lies in reminding us of science’s sublime potential, which, coupled with the indifference of the universe, can imperil or preserve our welfare. One can, and must, debate the worth of scientific possibilities but acknowledge they can’t all be bloodlessly imagined. For all his eccentricities, Jack Parsons knew this.
Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland who has written for Amerian Affairs, Quillette, The American Conservative and The Spectator (USA), among others. His first book is Kings and Comedians: A Brief History of British-Polish Relations.