2 - The Suicide Club Gives Birth to Both the U.S. and Chinese
I arrived back at the apartment too late to catch the nightly news
soap opera with Dan, Tom, McLehrer, and Peter. I opened a Dos XX and
selected some CDs. The Hooters and Pink Floyd.
My two cats didn't like the music. They scowled and left for another
I started in on the stack of materials Sheri had left me.
"Guess what," Sheri
had said. "The project Jack Parsons was involved in at Cal Tech
was called the GALCIT Rocket Research Project. It became the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. I found two histories of the program--one
written in 1940 and one in 1954. You'll be especially surprised
at what you find in the later one."
I sifted through the
pile. The earlier pamphlet was entitled "The Daniel Guggenheim
Graduate School of Aeronautics of the California Institute of
Technology: A History of the First Ten Years," Bulletin of the
California Institute of Technology, Vol. 49, No. 2, Pasadena,
Calif., May, 1940.
It said the GALCIT Rocket Research Project had begun in 1936 at the
private initiative of a group composed of Frank Malina, Hsue-Shen
Tsien, A.M.O.Smith, John W. Parsons, Edward S. Forman, and Weld
Arnold. Weld Arnold had financed the group with a $1,000 donation.
The group seemed to revolve around Malina, Parsons, and Forman.
"The problem of
rocket motor design, based on the theory of perfect gases, was
discussed by F.J.Malina. J.W.Parsons and E.S.Forman made an
experimental study of the fast-burning powder rocket motor. The
practicability of various substances as propellants for jet
propulsion was investigated by J.W. Parsons."
So Parsons was the fuel
expert. The experimenter. The kid who mixed the powder and turned
jet propulsion into reality. I checked the references. There were
two papers by Parsons listed, one published, one unpublished:
"Experiments with Powder Motors for Rocket Propulsion by Successive
Impulses," with Edward Forman, in Astronautics, No. 43 (1939), 4;
and "A Consideration of the Practicality of Various Substances as
Fuels for Jet Propulsion."
Returning to the history, I discovered there had been other reports
"prepared for manufacturing concerns and government agencies by
F.J.Malina, with the assistance of J.W.Parsons and E.S.Forman. These
dealt with a general review of rocket propulsion and the possibility
of application to heavier-than-air craft."
According to the history, the GALCIT program had recently (in 1940)
been expanded under the sponsorship of the Committee of the National
Academy of Sciences for Air Corps Research. The program was directed
by Theodore von Karman, who was chairman of the subcommittee on jet
propulsion. "The experimental part of the program is being carried
out by F.J.Malina, J.W.Parsons, and E.S.Forman."
The second history was entitled The Guggenheim Aeronautical
Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology: The First
Twenty-Five Years, Cal Tech, Pasadena, June 1954.
In the text, Parsons was not mentioned by name. On the other hand,
only a few people such as von Karman were. I turned to the list of
research references and checked those against the papers from the
earlier history. Seven references under "Rocket Research Project"
were listed in the 10-year history. The same names and articles were
listed in the 25-year history, except for papers by Jack Parsons and
his co-author Edward Forman.
I looked again at the date.
Two years after his well-publicized death, a co-founder of the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory had been excised from Cal Tech history.
It smelled of patricide. The academicians had had their revenge.
Take the embarrassing fellow without the degree and bury him in the
footnotes. Then delete the footnotes.
The twenty-five year history was sanitized in more ways than one.
Its tired prose overlooked private initiative entirely and
arrogantly gave the credit for research and progress in the field of
early aeronautics to Cal Tech and the National Academy of Sciences.
But the history was still helpful. It made clear that the original
project had been absorbed by the military--the Army Air Force.
"Because of the possible application of rocket propulsion to
assisted takeoff of aircraft, the Army Air Force became interested
in the program and in 1941 took over sponsorship of the work. At
this time the effort was organized and known as GALCIT Project No. 1
. . . .
"By 1941 the scope
of both theoretical and experimental work had been greatly
extended. In August 1941, the first practical solid propellant
had been developed, and the first successful assisted-takeoff
tests were made. The first rocket motors shortened takeoff
distances of small aircraft by as much as 50 percent. After the
development work was completed and the assisted-takeoff motors
went into extensive service use, large- scale production was
undertaken by the Aerojet Engineering Corporation, which was
subsequently acquired by the General Tire and Rubber Company and
has recently become the Aerojet-General Corporation. . . .
"In 1944 the first long-range rocket research and development
program in the United States was started. By this time the size
of the project had increased to a point where the organization
of a separate laboratory seemed desirable. Accordingly, on
November 1, 1944, the Project separated from the GALCIT and
became known as the Jet Propulsion laboratory . . ."
So this was official
history. The GALCIT project and Aerojet Engineering Corporation (of
which Parsons was one of the founding shareholders) had become an
important part of aerial warfare research during the Second World
War. Later in the 1950s the Jet Propulsion Laboratory would be at
the center of the race to space. It would seem no one cared to
acknowledge the important entrepreneurial role played by a disciple
of the unsavory Aleister Crowley. Why was that?
To do so might upset the conventional image of dispassionate
progress that scientific bureaucrats liked to project. Many of the
latter, I knew, had never had a creative thought in their lives, and
resented anyone who did.
I decided to have another beer. I put on Duran Duran's Notorious and
looked out the window down Second Street, which extended from the
building below me. In the distance it turned into a thin ribbon of
lights stretching endlessly to the south.
The only food I found in the kitchen was tuna I had stocked for the
cats. I made myself a tuna sandwich, and returned to the living
I looked to see what else Sheri had culled from the Van Pelt
library. She had found Theodore von Karman's autobiography, The Wind
The introduction said von Karman had been chosen over all other
living scientists to receive the first National Medal of Science
from President John Kennedy in 1963. After skimming the first few
pages, I checked the index and turned to the first reference to Jack
Parsons. Von Karman said he had been sitting in his Cal Tech office
one day, when three "young men" showed up wanting his help in
building a space rocket. It was John W. Parsons, Frank J. Malina,
and Edward S. Forman.
The three had already talked to some other Cal Tech staff members
and "had been turned down because rocketry was not regarded as
practical or even scientifically interesting."
Frank Malina was a graduate student in aeronautics at Cal Tech, and
wanted to do a Ph.D. thesis on rocket propulsion. He had been told
he would be better off getting a job in the aircraft industry.
Parsons was a self-taught chemist "with considerable innate
ability." Forman was a rocket engine tinkerer. According to von
Karman, both Parsons and Forman had corresponded with the early
German and Russian rocketeers, one of these being Willy Ley, the
author of many books on rocket travel. Their back yards in Pasadena
"were pockmarked from the effects of rocket explosions." Parsons and
Forman had heard that Malina was working on rocket propulsion and
had gone to him for advice. At the time "real scientific interest in
rockets . . . was virtually nil."
The three wanted to build solid- and liquid-fuel rockets which could
perhaps fly twenty to fifty miles into space. Von Karman thought the
project worthwhile, because instrumented rockets could bring back
information about cosmic rays and weather at altitudes balloons
wouldn't reach. So he gave Malina permission to do his doctoral
thesis on rocket propulsion, and gave the group permission to use
the Aeronautics Laboratory during off hours, even though Parsons and
Forman had no formal connection with Cal Tech.
The Parsons-Forman-Malina group had money problems from the start.
The only funds they got came from a student named Weld Arnold who
gave them $1,000 in return for becoming the group photographer.
After one rocket misfired inside the Aeronautics Laboratory, the
group was moved outside to a concrete platform attached to the
corner of the building. Another explosion buried a piece of gauge
deep into the wall, and Cal Tech students started calling the group
the Suicide Club. To prevent difficulties with the administration,
von Karman decided to move the Suicide Club away from all buildings
as far as possible. They found a spot in the Arroyo Seco in back of
Devil's Gate Dam, on the western edge of Pasadena.
In May 1938 "Hap" Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps, visited the
Club. He was interested in scientific applications to war, in
particular to the possibility of some form of rocket- assisted
takeoff for large bombers from small air fields, like those in the
Pacific Islands. The group got a $1,000 contract, and a year later
one for $10,000.
The success of jet-assisted takeoff was followed by experiments with
long- range rockets. By 1945 JPL had launched America's first
successful high-altitude rocket, the WAC Corporal, to a height of
forty-seven miles. Later in 1949 at the White Sands Proving Ground
in New Mexico, the WAC Corporal was launched from the nose of a
reconstructed V-2 to a height of 244 miles.
It was the first American rocket to enter extraterrestrial space.
Not a bad ending for a project that started with two boys from
Pasadena (Parsons and Foreman) with cratered backyards.
Paging through the book, I found a photo of Parsons. It was taken in
January 1943 at the Muroc (now Edwards) Air Force Base in
California. It was a photograph of the founding fathers and early
directors of the Aerojet Engineering Corporation. The group was
standing in front of the Douglas Havoc attack bomber (A-20), "the
first U.S. airplane to take off with permanently installed rocket
power plant". Parsons was standing between Theodore C. Coleman, the
Director, and Edward S. Forman. Von Karman and Frank Malina were
also in the photo, along with the A-20 pilot and some others.
I was surprised at Parsons' appearance. I suppose I had expected
some wiry New Age vegetarian type or perhaps a nerdy looking
intellectual. Parsons had rugged good looks with black, wavy hair.
Like the others, he was squinting into the sun. He carried a
serious, preoccupied expression.
Aerojet had been founded in 1942 by Parsons-Forman-Malina, along
with von Karman, Andrew Haley, and Martin Summerfield. The purpose
had been to sell JATO (jet-assisted takeoff) units to the armed
forces. Each founding member had put up two hundred dollars. Von
Karman said that what they lacked in business acumen, they made up
in other ways. "Parsons, for instance, was an excellent chemist, and
a delightful screwball. He loved to recite pagan poetry to the sky
while stamping his feet. The son of a one-time tycoon, he stood
six-foot- one, with dark wavy hair, a small mustache, and
penetrating black eyes which appealed to the ladies."
When Parsons wasn't working with explosives, he was the head of a
religious sect called the Thelemites, von Karman related. The latter
met in Pasadena in a mansion in a room with walls of carved leather.
Among other things they practiced sex rituals. Or so von Karman
learned when the FBI questioned him about Parsons some time later.
Von Karman described Parsons' mentor Aleister Crowley as an
"ex-mountain climber," and said Crowley's story was related in a
book entitled The Great Beast.
Von Karman told what happened to Aerojet in a chapter entitled, "How
I `Lost' $12,000,000." In 1944 the company had desperately needed
financing to finish some contracts with the Navy. Banks would not
make loans for such an unstable enterprise as rocketry. After much
soul-searching, the owners reluctantly tried to raise capital by
offering half their stock to General Tire for $225,000, which the
group had decided was the fair value. General Tire countered with a
stunningly low offer of $50,000. Eventually in early 1945 the group,
whose voting power was held in a trust under von Karman, sold the
shares for $75,000.
Later on General Tire wanted to completely buy out the minority
shareholders, including von Karman and Malina, in order to
consolidate Aerojet with the parent company. It offered to pay $350
a share. Otherwise General Tire threatened to make a $300 dividend.
This would deplete Aerojet of assets, and would subject von Karman
to heavy taxes. General Tire would also then convert the shares of
Aerojet into shares of the combined company at an unfavorable ratio.
Von Karman eventually agreed to sell. (Malina, by contrast, took the
$300 dividend anyway, converted his shares into those of Aerojet-General,
and opened an art studio in Paris.) One of von Karman's friends
later calculated that by selling out in 1953, von Karman had lost
the opportunity to be worth $12,000,000 in the 1960s.
Jack Parsons and Ed Forman followed a different path. Both men had
dropped out of GALCIT to devote full time to Aerojet when the
company was formed. Then in 1945 when the group as a whole sold
half-interest to General Tire for $75,000, the two of them made a
separate agreement for the remainder of their Aerojet stock.
Afterwards they apparently lost contact with JPL programs. Parsons,
however, continued to work for other aerospace firms. Von Karman
heard that in 1947 Parsons had become involved in arms for Israel.
Some years later the Mexican government asked Parsons to set up an
explosives factory. Parsons told von Karman that the Mexicans were
providing him with a seventeenth- century castle for living
quarters. "But Parsons never entered it. While he was packing a
trailer with explosives in front of his home, a bottle of fulminate
of mercury slipped from his hand and exploded. A few hours later he
So this was the explanation of the "mysterious" trip to Mexico.
Parsons was building an munitions factory.
Von Karman apparently took the conventional account of Parsons'
death at face value. But his account had introduced a myriad of new
possibilities relating to Parsons' death.
If Parsons had become involved in arms dealing, he could have been
killed by a client or a competitor.
Von Karman noted that Parsons had continued to place his stamp on
solid- fuel rocketry after leaving Aerojet. That might make him a
threat to competing companies. Could Parsons' death be a simple, if
extreme, case of industrial espionage?
Parsons was headed to Mexico to establish an explosives factory. Did
someone have a reason to stop that enterprise?
Parsons was the head of a religious sect. Could he have been killed
by a fanatic?
I looked at the clock. It was nearly 3:30 a.m. I decided to glance
quickly at the other two books Sheri had supplied. One was entitled
JPL and the American Space Program. It contained another picture of
Parsons. Parsons, Malina, Forman, Smith and a student assistant
named Rudolph Schott were relaxing in a sandy area of the Arroyo
Seco. A rocket motor was in place, ready for testing. There were
sandbags behind which the group sought safety during the tests.
Parsons looked quite young in the picture. Then the chronology stuck
me. If Parsons died in 1952 at age thirty- seven, he was only
twenty-one--the age of an undergraduate Junior--when he showed up in
von Karman's office in 1936.
The history mentioned that before the GALCIT group had received the
$1,000 from Arnold in the Spring of 1937, Parsons and Frank Malina
considered writing a movie script about a flight to the moon. They
hoped to raise research funds by selling the script to Hollywood. (Malina
himself had become interested in rockets at age twelve when he had
read Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon.) Short of money a
year later, Parsons and Ed Forman had taken jobs with the Halifax
Powder Company in the Mojave Desert.
The JPL history also speculated on the origin of Parsons' solution
to one problem with JATO rocket storage. The powder in the rockets
deteriorated after only a few days, so that the rockets would
explode instead of burning with a controlled thrust. It occurred to
Parsons to replace the charcoal in the powder with paving asphalt.
He replaced salt peter with potassium perchlorate as the oxidizer.
One theory said Parsons got the idea while watching a roof being
tarred. Malina, however, pointed out that Parsons was already
familiar with Greek fire, an asphalt-based material used by the
ancient Greeks to set ships ablaze from a distance.
The other book was entitled The History of Rocket Technology, and
contained an article by Malina on the early days of GALCIT. It
explained how it all got started. During 1936 the local Pasadena
paper had carried an article about the possibility of rocket-powered
aircraft. The story was based on a seminar given by William Bollay,
a graduate assistant to von Karman, and reported some studies done
in Vienna. Jack Parsons and Ed Forman had seen the article. They
showed up at Cal Tech seeking help on their current project, the
construction of a liquid- propellant rocket motor.
It was now 4:35 a.m., so I simply turned out the light. The two cats
began a game of hide-and-seek in the darkened room.
As I lay on the couch, I kept thinking about two things I had read
earlier in the Karman autobiography.
The first was that von Karman, a Hungarian Jew, was a descendant of
a mathematician at the Imperial Court of Prague who had been given
credit for creating the world's first mechanical robot, known as the
The other concerned Hsue-Shen Tsien, one of the original members of
the GALCIT group with Parsons, Malina, and Forman. Von Karman
considered Tsien one of his brightest students. Tsien had
co-authored the paper with von Karman and Malina that lead in 1944
to the ORDCIT project: a program to develop long-range jet-
propelled missiles. The first prototype was the Private A, a missile
powered by a solid-fuel rocket unit manufactured under the
supervision of Jack Parsons at Aerojet. Aerojet would later provide
a liquid-fuel rocket motor for the spectacularly successful WAC
Tsien was thus a founding father of the U.S. missile program. In the
1960s Tsien was also credited with the successful establishment of
the nuclear missile program of the People's Republic of China.
Tsien was a classic case of self-fulfilled reality on the part of
the U.S. government. As a Chinese citizen, Tsien was accused of
being a Communist spy during the McCarthy period because he refused
to testify against a colleague. Tsien's security clearance was
removed. Tsien said he couldn't work under those circumstances, and
threatened to return to China if his clearance wasn't restored. He
made the threat to the U.S. Under Secretary of the Navy, who was
ultimately responsible for some of Tsien's projects at JPL. The
Under Secretary panicked and had Tsien arrested by Immigration. The
U.S. government subsequently refused to let Tsien leave the country
for five years, by which time he had no desire to stay. Ten years
after leaving the U.S., Tsien had turned China into a missile power.
As I lay in the dark, hypnagogic images of Golem blended with
missile- equipped Chinese Communists.
Eventually, however, my thoughts drifted back to a youthful group of
friends and sunny afternoons in the Arroyo Seco. I fell asleep.