JPL's Sorcerous Scientist
Jack Parsons: Sorcerous Scientist
1990 by Douglas Chapman
Strange Magazine #6, ISSN 0894-8968
P.O. Box 2246, Rockville, MD 20847
"The [Babalon] Working began in 1945-46, a few
months before Crowley's death in 1947, and just
prior to the wave of unexplained aerial phenomena
now recalled as the 'Great Flying Saucer Flap'...
Parsons opened a door and something flew in.
"A Gateway for the Great Old Ones has already been
established -- and opened -- by members of the O.T.O.
who are en rapport with this entity [Lam, an extra-
terrestrial being whom Crowley supposedly contacted
while in America in 1919]."
"I hight Don Quixote, I live on peyote,
marijuana, morphine and cocaine,
I never know sadness, but only a madness
that burns at the heart and the brain.
I see each charwoman, ecstatic, inhuman,
angelic, demonic, divine.
Each wagon a dragon, each beer mug a flagon
that brims with ambrosial wine." (1)
-John Whiteside (Jack") Parsons (1943)
The preceding poem is the most famous
written work of John Whiteside Parsons (1914-1952). He helped make
science fiction into fact, yet this dark and handsome man, born of a
well-to-do Los Angeles family, made his private life "visionary" in
a different way, being as involved with ceremonial magic outside of
working hours as he was with rocketry research during the day. In
the mid-to-late 1940s, his major accomplishments behind him, magic
came to obsess him all the more.
Frank Malina, one of his colleagues at Caltech (California Institute
of Technology) in Pasadena, has chronicled John (Jack) Parsons'
contributions to rocketry. (2) In 1936, Parsons and Edward S. Forman
came upon a report of a GALCIT (Guggenheim Aeronautical
Laboratory-Caltech) lecture concerning the idea of a rocket-powered
airplane. Parsons, though a self-trained chemist, had powers of
imagination that proved to be invaluable in all of his pursuits
(whether scientific or magical). He and Forman (a mechanic) bad
together been making small black-powder rockets.
They wanted to experiment with a liquid propellant rocket motor, so
(lacking the funds) they approached Caltech. As a result, Malina (in
1936) came up with a proposal for his doctoral thesis on rocket
propulsion and performance in-flight. Theodore von Karman (who
headed GALCIT) gave Malina permission to collaborate with Forman and
Parsons, even though the latter two were neither students nor staff
members of the institute.
Even so, funds were scarce, and the three experimenters chipped in
necessary funds for the materials. They conducted the tests at
Arroyo Seco, behind the Devil's Gate Dam in Pasadena (very near the
present-day Jet Propulsion Laboratory), a site that, unbeknownst to
them, had previously been used by rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard. (Forteans
should make special note of the 'Devil's Gate' place-name.)
Weld Arnold and Hsue Shen Tsien soon joined GALCIT rocket research,
completing the well-remembered team. The group became known as the
'suicide squad" because of a 1937 test misfire in which a nitrogen
dioxide/alcohol cloud caused a thin layer of rust to appear on much
lab equipment. Henceforth, the small scale rocket motor responsible
was moved from the building. The failed experiment, providentially,
gave Parsons an important idea (to be recounted shortly).
In the summer of 1938, the staff decreased, leaving Malina, Forman
and Parsons as remaining core members. A few months later, the
National Academy of Science (NAS) Committee on Army Air Corps
Research commenced study with the GALCIT rocket research group, with
the express interest of finding ways to assist the takeoffs of
heavily-laden aircraft by using rocketry.
A $10,000 contract was thus awarded by the NAS to Caltech to develop
"jet" (actually rocket) propulsion to be used to provide
"super-performance" for propeller aircraft. Liquid and solid
propellant rocket engines were part of this research. Von Karman
took charge, with Malina, Parsons and Forman being the major members
of his staff. In 1940, Parsons was able to show the Air Corps that
red-fuming nitric acid was a better oxidizer than liquid oxygen
(making use of knowledge gained from the 1937 misfire).
(3) This led
to important later developments.
As can be seen, Parsons was already invaluable to the development of
the technology that eventually got America into outer space.
But he had a secret life, which appeared totally at odds with his
public one, and it came to further dominate his life as the '40s
Jack Parsons and his wife Helen bad
come into contact with the Agape lodge of the
Templi Orientis international magical fraternity) in Los Angeles
in 1939, and had joined it in 1941. It was under the
of Wilfred Talbot Smith, a Britisher who had founded this
particular lodge about a decade earlier, circa 1930.
Parsons' wife hit it off nicely and he was soon not much in
evidence around the house and the O.T.O. Gnostic Mass temple in
the attic. This latter space was fully fitted out, and even had
a copy of the Egyptian 'Stele of Revealing,' venerated by
followers of the famous magician
Aleister Crowley. It was the
only such temple in the world at that time which was properly
Crowley, the world head of the O.T.O., took action that
increased Parsons' stature in the Order. Circa 1943-44, he
convinced Smith, via a paper entitled 'Is Smith a God?' that
astrological research had shown that Smith was not a man, but
actually an incarnation of some deity. Taking the hint that
Crowley wanted him out, the "god" went into private magical
practice, eventually with reportedly rewarding results,
remaining head of the lodge in name only.
Parsons became acting
master of the lodge. (4)
Why did Crowley in effect kick Smith upstairs? The ostensible
reason seemed to be the danger that the man was turning the
Order into (as Crowley put it) 'that slimy abomination, a love
Actually, Crowley, who was unable to emigrate to the United
States, was isolated from the only successful O.T.O. lodge in
the world. Because of this frustration, bad blood resulted,
despite the fact that Smith was probably the best field
commander Crowley ever had.
Parsons had lost his wife to Smith, yet remained on good terms
with her. He was kept busy by Order activities, one of the most
important of which was the sending of money to Crowley, for both
the old man's minimal upkeep and the O.T.O. publishing fund. A
good percentage came from Parsons' own pocket."
Crowley, who brought actual fame to the O.T.O. (which was already well-known in Masonic circles), was one of
Parsons' major inspirations in life. The elderly man's
accomplishments had been many: as a poet, publisher, mountain
climber, chess master, and bisexual practitioner of sexual magic (or
"Magick," as he termed it). Made famous by yellow journalists as the
"Wickedest Man in the World," he considered his central identity to
be the "Great Beast 666" as referred to in the book of "Revelation"
in the Bible, though he was not leaning on that work particularly in
his religious ideas.
Needless to say, Crowley felt that the Bible had misconstrued the
meaning of the Beast and the Whore of Babylon necessary elements of
the succession to the Aeon of Horus, the Aeon of the Crowned and
Crowley synopsized human development thusly:
"Within the memory of man we have
had the Pagan period, the worship of Nature, of Isis, of the
Mother, of the Past; the Christian period, the worship of Man,
of Osiris, of the Present. The first period is simple, quiet,
easy, and pleasant; the material ignores the spiritual; the
second is of suffering and death: the spiritual strives to
ignore the material.... The new Aeon is the worship of the
spiritual made one with the material, of Horus, of the Child, of
the Future." (7)
Renowned as the most noted master of the
occult of the last century, Crowley's work is still influential (his
books are sometimes stocked even in New Age bookstores).
According to most accounts, when Parsons' father died (circa the
early '40s), Parsons inherited a mansion and coach-house at 1003
South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena, California. To the shock of
the neighbors, the place became a haven for Bohemians and atheists,
who were the sort of people to whom Parsons liked to rent out rooms.
The lodge headquarters was moved to this location, making use of two
rooms in the house: the bedroom (which became a properly decorated
temple), and a wood-paneled library dominated by an enormous
portrait of Crowley.
According to a story told by L. Sprague DeCamp (most recently
appearing in the June 24, 1990 Los Angeles Times, p. A35), at one
point the police -- who had heard neighbors' reports of a ritual in
which a nude pregnant woman jumped nine times through a fire in the
yard -- came to investigate, but Parsons put them off by emphasizing
his scientific credentials.
Returning to the events of 1940, the explosions of many of Parsons'
rockets on the test stand caused second thoughts among many involved
in the government-financed project. After work by Von Karman and
Malina on the differential equations involved on the theoretical
side, Parsons was given permission to keep on with his tests, and a
few months later the earliest "jet-assisted takeoff" rockets were
created. These were the direct forerunners of the modern large
The first American rocket-assisted takeoff (August 12,1941) made use
of a Parsons-developed solid-propellant (GALCIT 27 -- which provided
a 28 lb. maximum thrust for 12 seconds). But tests showed that
GALCIT 27 would explode when stored for long periods, so Parsons,
Mark M. Mills and Fred S. Miller came up with a more stable fuel (GALCIT
53) in June 1942.
At the same time, others were
working with Parsons' idea for a red-fuming nitric acid-gasoline
engine (a liquid propellant rocket). On April 15, 1942, the
first American flight of an aircraft making use of such rocket
engines to assist takeoff was accomplished.
The previous month, Malina, Parsons and Forman, with the advice
of von Karman's attorney, had set up the Aerojet Engineering
Corporation in March 1942, for the express purpose of properly
exploiting the developments that they had been making. Jack
Parsons was one of the vice-presidents at the time of
incorporation and helped supervise the changeover to full-scale
Also a science fiction enthusiast, Parsons met fellow fan Alva
Rogers, who romanced another resident of Parsons' house.
"I always found Jack's insistence
that he believed in, and practiced, magic hard to reconcile with
his educational and cultural background," Rogers opined.
He originally thought that Parsons was
just doing it to shock his friends until he saw letters from
Crowley, and evidences of Parsons' funding of the guru.
Parsons' magical idealism becomes clear if one peruses his writings.
In the 1946 essay "Freedom is a Two Edged Sword" (newly reprinted in
an anthology of the same title, published by Falcon Press) he writes
of the deeper meanings of his quest:
"[The individual] must go down like
Moses, into his unknown self ...into the labyrinths of the dark
land. There he will meet the Mother and hear her final question,
which is not a silly riddle but the most wonderful and terrible
of all questions: 'what is man?'
"And thereafter ...he may find the Graal, ultimate consciousness
...For it is he, wonderful monster, embryo god, that has swum in
the fish....peered from the eyes of serpents, swung with the
ape, and shaken the earth with the tramp of the tyrannosaurus
hoof. It is he who has cried out on all crosses, ruled on all
thrones, grubbed in all gutters. It is he whose face is
reflected and distorted in all heavens and hells, he, the child
of the stars, the son of the ocean, this creature of dust, this
wonder and terror called man."
After having lost Helen Parsons to Smith
in 1944, Parsons soon fell for her younger sister, Sara Northrup
(a.k.a. Betty), who was 18 year old and a student at USC. Parsons
encouraged her to drop out of school and come live with him (not
exactly thrilling her parents). She joined the O.T.O. and was not
monogamous, since she agreed with Parsons that jealousy was a base
emotion not fit for the illuminated.
Delineating such beliefs, he once wrote that,
"...by debasing the mother image
into a demon-virgin-angel, it has denied each daughter the
possibility of her fulfillment," and that "...by imputing the
concepts of nastiness, dirt, shamefulness, guilt, indecency and
obscenity to the entire sexual process, it has poisoned the life
force at its source." (11)
He tried his hardest to live up to his philosophy, but events put
him to the extremist possible test, leading as they did to his
eventual estrangement from Betty.
During this period, also (circa 1945), Parsons became friends with
science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, with whom he shared many
interests. Details of their friendship can be found in the
biographies of Hubbard.
Parsons and an associate attempted to bring about some sort of
incarnation of the goddess Babalon. To understand Parsons' attitude
towards Babalon, one can refer to his "Freedom..." essay:
"She will come girt with the sword
of freedom, and before her kings and priests will tremble and
cities and empires will fall, and she will be called BABALON,
the scarlet woman....And women will respond to her war cry, and
throw off their shackles and chains, and men will respond to her
challenge, forsaking the foolish ways and the little ways, and
she will shine as the ruddy evening star in the bloody sunset of
Gotterdamerung, will shine as a morning star when the night has
passed, and a new dawn breaks over the garden of Pan"
Parsons performed rituals (reportedly to
the background music of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff records) for 11
days in a process known as the "Babalon Working." On the second
and third days he got an unwanted result, writing to Crowley
that "the wind storm is very interesting, but that is not what I
asked for." (13)
On the seventh day of the Working, Parsons was awakened by seven
loud knocks. Getting up, he soon discovered a smashed table lamp.
Other phenomena occurred on subsequent nights, including an
(alleged) attack by an entity against one of their group which
knocked a candle out of the man's hand and paralyzed his right arm
overnight. Parsons banished - by gesturing at it with a
magical sword - what they took to be a seven-foot-tall,
brownish-yellow light. It is rumored that he thought the apparition
to be Wilfred T. Smith. (14)
On January 18, 1946, Parsons returned from a magical undertaking,
finding the needed "Scarlet Woman" (Marjorie Cameron) waiting for
him at the house. Parsons was overjoyed and wrote to Crowley:
"I have my elemental! ...She has red
hair and slant green eyes as specified."
Parsons, on February 28, 1946, went out
into the Mojave Desert in order to invoke Babalon, thus taking down
77 clauses of what came to be known as his
Book of Babalon.
Further work at the home temple produced more instructions for an
imminent ritual, the directions for which were supposedly emanating
from the astral plane.
The rituals (whose objective was to produce a magical child,
"mightier than all the kings of the earth") continued for two days.
Parsons was confident of their effectiveness, and wrote an exultant
letter to Crowley, whose response was not what would have been
wished. Parsons was upset by his mentor's lack of comprehension. Crowley immediately wrote a letter to
Karl Germer (who was the head
of the O.T.O. in the U.S. at that time) stating that,
"Apparently Parsons...or somebody is
producing a Moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I
contemplate the idiocy of these louts."
Crowley reorganized the lodge on the basis of these actions removing
Parsons from power.
Parsons, Betty, and a key magical associate activated Allied
Enterprises (a yacht business of theirs), the intent of which was to
buy boats in the East in order to sail them to California -- where
they could command a higher price.
The business had been founded some time earlier. But, as it
eventually worked out, Parsons was undergoing financial hardship in
the West, and went after his partners to find out why they had not
shown up in California. They were nowhere to be found. He soon
discovered that they were out at sea. From within a Miami, Florida
hotel room, Parsons invoked Bartzabel (the spirit of
Mars and war). A squall forced his associates back to port.
Dade County, Florida court records reveal that Parsons filed a
lawsuit. (18) The result: Parsons got two of the boats back and made
an arrangement with his partners, so that they could pay him off for
the third. He never saw them again. Betty continued to think well of
Parsons (despite their estrangement), calling him a "truly great
man." Even so, she married the other business partner. One can
easily imagine Parsons' feelings about this turn of events. Both had
been key people in his personal, magical and business lives.
Because of the O.T.O. disaster, Parsons changed his magical emphases
to "the Witchcraft." (19)
He sold the main house at South Orange Grove, moving (with Marjorie
Cameron - whom he later married) into the coach-house on the property.
Several of the original incorporators of Aerojet sold out their
stock in the company to General Tire in 1952. Frank Malina did not
do so, and became, as a result, very rich.
(20) It is rumored that
Jack Parsons had sold his shares in the mid-1940s.
In 1949, with, surprisingly, Wilfred T. Smith as witness, Parsons
took the Oath of the Abyss, to unite himself with the Universal
consciousness, taking the magical name of Belarion Armiluss Al
Dajjal AntiChrist. John Symonds, a biographer of Crowley, has stated
that Parsons had by now become psychotic
(21) (but it should be kept
in mind that Symonds is a man of generally harsh judgments). On the
contrary, Parsons' writings from the late 1940s and early 1950s show
a sparkling lucidity.
Take, for example, this again-timely comment from "Freedom...":
"Religious groups, backed by a
publicity conscious press, are constantly campaigning for the
prohibition of art and literature which, as if by divine
prerogative, they term, 'indecent,' immoral or dangerous.
"It would seem that all organizations are devoted to one common
purpose, the suppression of freedom. Nor is their sincerity any
excuse. History is a bloody testament that sincerity can achieve
atrocities which cynicism could never conceive."
In a 1950 Introduction to the essay, he writes: "We are one
nation, and one world....We cannot suppress our brothers'
liberty without murdering ourselves. We will stand together, as
men, for human freedom and human dignity, or we will fall
together, simians all, back to the swamp."
Parsons' answer to the dilemma was
magick, discussed in his essay "On Magick."
"It may be stated," he writes, "that
magick is the method of training individuals towards total
consciousness by the stimulation of various centers of the mind
and by the cultivation of field thinking. The object of this
training is the manifestation of initiated leadership towards a
more conscious, better integrated, and more interesting and
significant social culture. In short the object of magick is the
unfoldment of the individual in all the ways of love; and the
enlightenment of society to accept all the commitments of this
unfoldment as the necessary conditions of progress."
If these are the writings of a madman,
then many people are mad, including a number of those promoting the
New Age way of life.
And Science: An Explosive Combination
On June 20, 1952, Parsons was working in the private experimental
laboratory in his garage. At 5:08 p.m., the place exploded. The
general opinion was that he had dropped fulminate of mercury
His shattered body lay within the destroyed edifice.
It has been rumored that this was the
end result of building psychological pressures. Otherwise, why would
he have dropped what he was said to have, when a trash can
containing cordite and wrappers of fulminate of mercury was nearby?
Especially since he was about to travel to Mexico to test a new
explosive he had devised, which was "more powerful than anything yet
invented." George Santmeyers, who had worked with him
for five years on industrial projects (and did not believe in the
rumors of his magical activities) did not think an accident
plausible, considering Parsons' technical knowledge.
But there were other theories. In Nat Freedland's book The Occult
Explosion, Renate Druks, an artist and educational filmmaker (who
once, at her Malibu beach house, hosted Marjorie Cameron) related an
"I have every reason to believe that
Jack Parsons was working on some very strange experiments,
trying to create what the old alchemists called a homunculus, a
tiny artificial man with magic powers. I think that's what he
was working on when the accident happened."
As magical work does not usually lead to
explosions, nor deal with explosives, this seems unlikely. Having
lost his security clearance because of providing Israel some secrets
of his wartime work, Parsons was doing movie special effects work at
this time, but of the explosive variety, not the fantastical.
There were rumors of self-inflicted death or even murder connected
with Parsons' demise. Sources close to Parsons have suggested that
there was not just one explosion, but two. It is said that Parsons
and Cameron would mix dynamite and other explosives in the many vats
in the lab. Why then, it has been asked, was the first explosion
supposedly from under the floorboards?
This would seem to hint that a bomb bad been planted there. There
has been some speculation that the rumored perpetrator was neither a
friend nor associate of Parson's, but rather an individual who must
have bad a strong motive such as revenge.
Nevertheless, if Parsons' death was not a suicide, it becomes
even sadder. He and Cameron had many plans for the future,
having intended to travel to Mexico-and next perhaps to Spain or
Israel, according to what Cameron told others.
Whatever actually caused Parsons' death, and whether there was any
public distortion of the truth or not, in regard to what happened
next there has been no dispute. His mother, Ruth Virginia Parsons,
after hearing the tragic news, committed suicide with an overdose of
sleeping tablets, in front of a frightened, crippled friend who
could not move to help her. (30)
Many men of genius have behaved quirkily in their private lives.
Parsons' tragedy was that his brand of idealism was often 'rewarded'
by betrayal. Yet, while his delvings into magic may not have been as
beneficial to society as his rocketry research, they have left us
with some points to consider. Frater H.H.D. introduced his
"By applying to occultism the
scientific acumen so intrinsic to his professional research, he
anticipated the ontological implications of current quantum
physics concerning the nature of reality."
While this claim may be debatable (and
similar ones have been advanced towards other modern mystics),
Parsons did keep careful records of his magical work, thus allowing
the generations that follow to have some chance of evaluating his
magick experiments, designed to make use of alleged unknown aspects
Some have tried to make sense of it already. Kenneth Grant, a
British magician, has made some -- to say the least -- astounding
inferences about Parsons' Babalon Working. He writes that:
'The Working began in 1945-46, a few
months before Crowley's death in 1947, and just prior to the
wave of unexplained aerial phenomena now recalled as the "Great
Flying Saucer Flap." Parsons opened a door and
something flew in...." (32)
Portrait of LAM
Grant's associates have kept busy in this regard. Grant states that:
"A Gateway for the Great Old Ones has already been established --
and opened -- by members of the O.T.O. [an English splinter group]
who are en rapport with this entity [Lam, an extra-terrestrial being
whom Crowley supposedly contacted while in America in 1919 -
click image right].
Crowley's portrait of Lam has been reproduced in [Grant's]
Magical Revival....(33) Crowley's rendition, by the way, resembles
the typical representation of an UFO entity.
If these suggestively "Lovecraftian" details turn out to have any
merit, Parsons may have helped us contact outer space in more ways
than one. At the present time, however, such ideas seem highly
debatable. Certainly, neither Crowley nor Parsons were of the
opinion that their work concerned extraterrestrials of the
Lovecraftian or the UFO varieties (though Cameron once sighted a
Yet, having turned what had been termed "science fiction" into
science fact, is it conceivable that Parsons' work may someday do
the same for elements of "fantasy?"
His imaginative powers had solved tricky scientific problems and
thus paved the way for space travel. Yet, perhaps because of his
lack of accredited training, and the fact that the scientific papers
to which he contributed were often unpublished (due to wartime
secrecy), his name is not to be found in the scientific "who's who"
(though a crater on the moon -- 37' N. 171' W. was in 1972 named for
him). But his name has often been noted in the histories of magic.
Will further examination of the full extent of his work make him
more of a name to conjure with-a man who led the way to inner as
well as outer space?
Some corrections and clarifications by OTO's
John W. Parsons, from a poem
printed in the Oriflamme, Journal of the O.T.O., 21 February
Frank J. Malina, "Origins and
First Decade of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," in The
History of Rocket Technology, ed. Eugene Morlock Emme.
(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1964), pp. 46-59.
Ibid., pp. 46-54.
Francis King and Isabel
Sutherland, The Rebirth of Magic (London: Corgi Books,
1982), p. 180; and Hymenaeus Beta, in 22 July 1990 telephone
conversation with Mark Chorvinsky and Douglas Chapman.
John Symonds, The Great Beast (Frogmore,
St. Albans, Herts: Mayflower Books, Ltd., 1973), p. 445.
lbid; and Hymenaeus Beta, 22
Aleister Crowley, "Synopsis,"
The Holy Books of Thelema (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser,
1983), p. xxxi.
Malina, pp. 54-59.
Alva Rogers, Darkhouse, 1962.
Jack Parsons, "Freedom is a Two
Edged Sword," in Freedom is a Two Edged Sword, ed. Cameron
and Hymenaeus Beta. (Las Vegas: Falcon Press, 1989), p. 35.
Jack Parsons, "On Magick," in
Freedom is a Two Edged Sword, ed. Cameron and Hymenaeus
Beta. (Las Vegas: Falcon Press, 1989), p. 48.
Parsons, "Freedom," pp. 43-44.
Symonds, p. 447.
Hymenaeus Beta, 22 July 1990.
Symonds, p. 447.
Ibid., p. 448.
King and Sutherland, p. 181.
Case No. 101634, Circuit Court,
Dade County, Florida.
King and Sutherland, p. 182.
The Frank J. Malina Collection
at the California Institute of Technology -- Guide to a
Microfiche Edition, ed. Judith R. Goodstein and Carol H.
Bugd. (Pasadena, CA: Institute Archives, Robert A. Millikan
Memorial Library, California Institute of Technology, 1986),
Symonds, p. 449.
Parsons, "Freedom," p. 18.
Ibid., p. 10.
Parsons, "On Magick," p. 47.
Symonds, p. 449.
Nat Freedland, The Occult
Explosion (New York: Berkley, 1972), pp. 163-164.
Ibid., p. 164.
Hymenaeus Beta, 22 July 1990.
Pasadena Star News, 21 June 1952
and 5 July 1952.
Magick, Gnosticism and the
Witchcraft. Ed. Fra. H.H.D. (South Stukely, Quebec: 93
Kenneth Grant, Outside the
Circles of Time (London: Frederick Muller Limited, 1980), p.
Ibid., p. 228. [Grant also
reproduces this picture on Plate 13 of this book.]
Hymenaeus Beta, 22 July 1990.
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