Science Articles

Jack Parsons and The Curious Tale of Rocketry in the 1930s

Wed, 8th Mar 2006

George Pendle

 

Jet_propulsion_laboratory

Figure 1: The birth of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the late 1930s. A far cry from the high-tech haven it is today.

The fantastical, tragic and largely unknown story of John Whiteside Parsons is one of the most intriguing tales to be found in the annals of modern science. His life brings together the seemingly disparate worlds of rocketry, science fiction and the occult. Yet for Parsons there was never any contradiction in these subjects. For the layperson, the rocket scientist exemplifies intellectual complexity. The phrase "it's not rocket science" instantly places rocketry as the ceiling limit on cerebral understanding. When Jack Parsons began shooting off homemade rockets in his backyard in the 1920s the very opposite was the case. Rocketry, or the study of rockets, was not only not a science, it had not even been coined as a word yet.[i]

During the first decades of the 20th Century the world was in awe of aviation. Since the Wright Brothers' historic 12-second flight in 1903, pilots had swiftly become modern-day heroes. By the time Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic single-handedly in 1927, airplane manufacture had become the boom industry of the era. The same could not be said of rockets. Despite having been used in fireworks and primitive weapons for over a thousand years, there had been few comprehensive studies of this complex machine. No universities taught rocketry courses, and there were no government grants allotted to rocketry research. In established scientific circles, rockets were synonymous with the ridiculous, the far-fetched, the lunatic, as much a euphemism for the foolish as ‘rocket scientist’ is now a byword for genius.

Ironically it was in the United States that both public and professional opinion was especially hostile. A widely used textbook on astronomy, released in 1933, patronizingly claimed to understand the appeal of rockets and its attendant goal of space travel, but decreed that there was “no hope” that such wishes could ever be realised, “only those who are unfamiliar with the physical factors involved believe that such adventures will ever pass beyond the realms of fancy [ii].

It was precisely these realms of fancy that inspired amateur enthusiasts across the globe to begin experimenting. As the historian of astronautics Frank H. Winter has written, science fiction was, in the beginning, an inseparable and formidable factor in fomenting ideas about spaceflight, [iii] regardless of the fact that it was derided by the general public and the press alike as a juvenile and inconsequential form of literature. Inspired by these futuristic stories, amateur rocketeers formed space travel clubs and intended to develop rockets not for entertainment nor for weapons, but for the cause of space exploration. Holding up the science-fiction magazines as their scriptures, enthusiasts from all walks of life constructed small, primitive rockets, fated to blow up on take-off or explode in mid-air, in the hopes of progressing towards their far-off goal.

It was a brave dream to have, not least because it was sought in the face of so much public and professional hostility. Even as late as 1941, one rocketry enthusiast was mocked in Congress as "a crackpot with mental delusions that we can travel to the moon!" at which the entire House of Representatives roared with laughter. Such mockery was unsurprising. We like to think of our sciences as cumulative enterprises, incorporating centuries of thought within their practice and a pantheon of innovators stretching back to antiquity. Rocketry was not like this. It was a threadbare discipline, with few maxims and fewer heroes, lacking the theoretical and experimental foundations on which any science is based. These would grow out of the amateurs' dreams and delusions. "Not the public will, but private fanaticism, drove men to the moon", declared the sociologist William Bainbridge [iv]. Those interested in rockets were as much obsessive visionaries as technical geniuses.

Jack Parsons was just such a figure, living on the cusp between an old world in which the very idea of space travel was a scientific absurdity and a new world in which it would become scientific fact. It was this new world which, despite his lack of a university degree or professional scientific qualifications, he would help to create. Along with his equally ragtag band of experimenters, disparagingly known as the "Suicide Squad", he revolutionised the public and academic perception of rocketry, transforming it from an object of ridicule into a viable science. In the process Parsons invented a radically new type of fuel - the first castable case-bonded composite propellant - the plasticised descendants of which are still used in the Space Shuttle to this day, and helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, which has since become the world's pre-eminent institution for the exploration of the solar system. In many respects America's path to the moon landings began with him. In the words of the great aeronautics scientist Theodore von Kármán, after the work of Parsons and his partners, "a new age was born".

Parsons himself was born into an age in which perceptions of the world were changing on a daily basis. Laws that had been set in stone were swiftly crumbling under the advance of science. In 1916, Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity, in 1927 the "big bang" theory of the universe was introduced, and as late as 1930 the planet Pluto was first discovered. It was an illuminating, confusing and frightening time. When Niels Bohr, one of the greatest interpreters of the new science of quantum theory, stated "if you aren't confused by quantum physics, then you haven't understood it," he seemed to be ushering in a mysterious new era of chaos and absurdity. Naturally there were backlashes against this scientific revolution. The old, "known" world was not going give up easily. The Scopes trial of 1925 in which a biology teacher from a Tennessee public school was convicted for teaching Darwinism in the classroom was a case in point.

 

Figure 2: Parsons (far right) and the other members of the 'Suicide Squad' perform their

Figure 2: Parsons (far right) and the other members of the 'Suicide Squad' perform their first static rocket test on the river bed of the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, California.

The city of Los Angeles, where Parsons spent the early years of his life, was a metropolis perfectly in tune with this perplexing time. During Parsons' youth, evangelists like Aimee Semple McPherson might be heard performing exorcisms over the radio, broadcasting to hundreds of thousands of people, whilst Albert Einstein, harbinger of the scientific age, attended a séance hosted by a dubious Polish count. Igor Stravinsky, the most famed composer of his age, ended up in the city providing music for Walt Disney's Fantasia, whilst the prominent astronomer Edwin Hubble could be found dining with the mime Harpo Marx. The author William Faulkner was reduced to rewriting B-movie film scripts while the social campaigner and writer Upton Sinclair was arrested for reading the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (the right to freedom of expression) in public. All was topsy-turvy, nothing more so than the city of Los Angeles itself, an Ozymandian kingdom built on a desert that had been transformed by the wonders of engineering into fertile land.

Jack Parsons' life exemplifies this place and age of flux and uncertainty. When I first came across his story I was amazed by its bizarre contradictions. First and foremost was the fact that one of America's pioneering rocket scientists was also a devout occultist, fascinated by magic and the supernatural. Yet as I delved deeper into his life the strange mixture of science and magic was only one of many incongruities that appeared. How could a drop-out from university find himself, at the age of 26, a government-funded rocket scientist? How did he come to live a bohemian, free love lifestyle amidst the social conventions of the 1930s and 1940s? Why did he exude "an aura of inherited wealth" and yet have to scrounge for money for his rocketry experiments? And what was he doing appearing in both scientific journals and science fiction stories? I have long been fascinated with Los Angeles as a crucible from out of which the world's trends erupt. Parsons seemed to embody the city's effervescent character.

I soon found that Parsons' story, as well as being a guide to his times, also helped elucidate the process of scientific discovery. Most scientific research is based on past achievements in the field, its accomplishments recounted in textbooks and taught in lecture halls. But when there are no textbooks to read, as in the case of rocketry, where does one turn for inspiration? Parsons' story reassures us that at the heart of all scientific advances is the imagination - that what we perceive as perverse eccentricities can be the key to important breakthroughs.

In Parsons' case, his obsession with magic placed him in a long line of scientists stretching back to antiquity who have dabbled in the occult. These include Robert Boyle, the celebrated 17th Century chemist, Dr John Dee, the court astronomer to Queen Elizabeth I, and most famous of all, the father of the Age of Reason himself, Sir Isaac Newton. Whilst Newton is largely responsible for the scientific enlightenment that swept away the common belief in magic and mysticism, he also immersed himself in these very same practices. Newton did not call himself a scientist (the term was not coined until 1834). He was a natural philosopher and an adventurer of the intellect. Newton's most famous work, the Principia Mathematica, advances a highly sophisticated and complex description of the workings of the universe; but he was also fascinated by alchemy, the ancient forerunner of the science of chemistry, and in particular its quest for the philosophers' stone, which was said to have the power to transform any base metal into gold. Such was his enthusiasm in this sphere that the distinguished economist and Newton scholar, John Maynard Keynes, described him as "Copernicus and Faustus as one". Newton was not the first of the age of reason, wrote Keynes. "He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago" [v]

 

Figure 3: Jack Parsons rushes to measure the take-off distance for his rocket-powered Ercoupe plane in 1941.

Figure 3: Jack Parsons rushes to measure the take-off distance for his rocket-powered Ercoupe plane in 1941.

Like his illustrious predecessor, Parsons did not see the two disciplines of science and magic as being contradictory. Writing three years before his death, Parsons stated with sober detachment, "It has seemed to me that if I had the genius to found the jet propulsion field in the US, and found a multimillion dollar corporation and a world renowned research laboratory, then I should also be able to apply this genius in the magical field." [vi]

He 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 were rebellions against the very limits of human existence; in striving for one he could not help but strive for the other.

I first encountered Jack Parsons as little more than a footnote in a history of rocketry - appropriately, since he has been relegated to the sidelines of history ever since his death. One reason for his marginalization seems to have been the embarrassment his unorthodox lifestyle caused his academic successors, another is his elusiveness. When Parsons died he left no heir and many of his letters and documents have since been lost or destroyed. Also lost are the minutes and papers concerning the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's earliest days, and many of the central characters featured in Strange Angel - Frank Malina, his rocketry colleague, Ed Forman, his closest childhood friend, Theodore von Kármán, the scientific great and L. Ron Hubbard the fantasy writer - are dead.

Nevertheless through his first wife, the late Helen Parsons Smith, through the memories of those who knew him in Pasadena and at Caltech, through the archives kept by both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Ordo Templi Orientis - the occult society of which he was a member - and the painstaking ministrations of a few eager archivists and enthusiasts, I managed to learn a great deal about Jack Parsons and was able to reveal him in all his peculiar glory for the first time. As such I hope to free Parsons from both establishment censure and mystical titillation, from the footnote and the "mad scientist" tag.

Upon first looking into Parsons' story I found him a fearsome figure, dour and surrounded by occult dogma. Yet the more his friends and former acquaintances spoke of him, the more the human being came into view, from his days as a solitary, bullied schoolboy, through the rabid carousing and philosophical musings of his twenties, to his utter devastation at being betrayed by both friends and lovers in his thirties.

Those whom I spoke to, especially his first wife, the late Helen Parsons Smith, recalled him with fondness and an amused bewilderment and exasperation at his impetuosity. Each told me of his charisma, his brilliance, his enthusiasm, but also of a man whose total dedication to his science and way of life could leave him indifferent to others' emotions, aloof to the real world. He seemed to create for himself various personae - the literary dilettante, the rocket scientist, the magician - which may be why he remained something of a mystery to even those who knew him well. When his rocketry work was not recognised, or when events contradicted his self-created myth, he was prone to vast depressions and terrible mood swings.

 

Figure 4: John Whiteside Parsons shortly before his death in 1952 at the age of 37. He died in a mysterious explosion in his home laboratory in Pasadena.

Figure 4: John Whiteside Parsons shortly before his death in 1952 at the age of 37. He died in a mysterious explosion in his home laboratory in Pasadena.

Yet at the heart of his character was an essential optimism, a confidence that if he believed in something enough, he would eventually gain the prize. Parsons was by no means an innocent, but he possessed a child's capacity to believe, a naiveté, as well as a love of experimentation. It was this mindset in particular that allowed him to break scientific barriers previously thought to be indestructible.

Ultimately his insouciance, his otherworldliness, would lead to his scientific downfall. The enthusiasms and complications of his private life would overpower him and be ruthlessly exploited by others. He would retreat further into his magic as it became the only world he could control. The man who had done so much towards establishing the science of rocketry in America would end his life making special effects for Hollywood film companies.

Nevertheless, his willingness to believe in magic's efficacy, to be inspired by science fiction, to dare to challenge the scientific establishment, humanises what has since become a strangely antiseptic and colorless discipline. Like many scientific mavericks, Parsons was eventually discarded by the establishment once he had served his purpose. But in the short time he existed he represented a character that is less and less prevalent in the world of science today: the wide-eyed dreamer, the visionary scientist. In his wish to push the world into the future he can be seen as the brother of the American pioneer, or his modern-day counterpart, the space explorer of science fiction. His life suggested that it is sometimes by going in the irrational and unknown direction that great leaps forward can be made. Jack Parsons' story is that of the traveler seeking a brave new world.

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