The Dark Gods of Jet Propulsion
BABALON is too beautiful
for sight of mortal eyes
She has hidden her loveliness away
in lonely midnight skies,
-Jack Parsons, from his poem, "The Birth of Babalon"-
It's the summer of 1940. Three men are working out in the desert arroyo behind the Devil's Gate Dam near Pasadena. They help each other slide heavy equipment out the back of a pick up truck and carry it over to a test pit. As the conglomeration of metal is taken to the deep pit and carefully set up it becomes apparent that the structure is a small rocket. Ed Forman, the mechanic of the bunch, carefully locks each piece into place while Weld Arnold; a 40ish assistant carefully sets up a camera to catch the upcoming experiment. The third man in the trio helps them both but you can tell that he's the one with the most invested in the outcome. His nervous gaze at the metal finned ship betrays his feelings. He knows that the Army Air Corps wants a return for the $10,000 dollar contract they bestowed upon the group for research into "jet-assisted propulsion." He hopes that this test of his newly invented red-fuming nitric solid rocket booster will be successful. Finally the rocket and amateur gantry have been assembled and the camera is ready to photograph the event. But before the test can begin the slightly nervous chemist strides over to the rocket and begins to recite a poem.
"Thrill with the lissome lust of the light,
O man! My man!
Come careering out of the night
Of Pan! Io Pan!"
And on and on it goes as he recites the epic occult poem "The Hymn to Pan" by Aleister Crowley. Finally, having finished his ode to the fabled horned god, Jack Parsons takes his place beside the other men in the bunker and tells them to go ahead with the launch.
And that's pretty much the way it happened, time and time again back in the late 1930's and early 40's. Jack's fascination with the occult was overlooked by the rest of the small group conducting experiments out in the small canyons of Pasadena California. He was the brain behind the outfit. Without his knowledge and expertise the tests would not have even been possible, let alone successful. So what's a little magic between scientists when the future of rocketry is at stake?
But who was this scientist who combined an intense interest in the occult with his desire to advance rocket science? Who exactly was Jack Parsons? Largely unknown in these days, in the 1930's and 40's he was the main man behind the United States aspirations into space exploration. Famed rocket scientist Robert Goddard once said that Jack Parsons, not himself, was the real farther of American rocketry. His work with others at Caltech led him to become one of the founding fathers of the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena. After his experiments with liquid and solid rocket fuel proved successful he went on to form the company Aerojet Corp. which is today one of the world's largest producers of rockets and even makes the solid fuel boosters for the shuttle.
But it was his interest in the occult and magical workings that makes him doubly interesting. For when he wasn't working with rockets you could find Parson's at his huge rambling mansion in Pasadena where he held court over an odd assortment of bohemians, misfits, and other freaky tenants. Within this circus of aberrant behavior Parson regularly held magical "workings" where he attempted to contact the dark gods written about by infamous occult headman Aleister Crowley. (Indeed Parson's referred to Crowley as "most beloved father" in his writings.) In his most elaborate ritual Parsons, attempted to contact the great Whore of Babylon. and claimed to have been successful when a woman named Marjorie Cameron showed up on his doorstep a few days later.
His success in rocketry made him a rich man and when he sold his shares of Aerojet Corp he found himself with more money than he had ever had in his life. This new found wealth led him to delve deeper and deeper into the occult arts till it overshadowed his rocket research. His mansion, already the epicenter of a bizarre crowd of neo-hippies and pre-punks, became ground zero for strange behavior. Visitors to the residence recounted that the order of the day seemed to be chaos. Residents wore outlandish costumes (or no costumes at all), imbibed large quantities of drugs such as marijuana, peyote, and heroin, and released their animal instincts at all night parties where "Do what thou whilst" was the rule of the land. Lording above it all was Jack Parson who threw himself further and further into the occult lifestyle. He became the leader of the Agapé Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the occult organization that Crowley began. At one point he even traveled alone to the Mojave Desert where he claimed to have invoked Babalon. The experience led him to write his epic poem, "The Birth of Babalon."
But word of Parson's late night parties and strange doings didn't escape notice of the "straight world." More than once police were called to his house to investigate calls about the wild goings on. Parson would politely answer the policemen's questions and explain that he was a famous rocket scientist. That usually did the trick but when word of his all night "sex parties" reached the government he was promptly investigated by the FBI and in 1948 he was stricken of his security clearance and fired from his job. Parson's wealth soon dwindled and he was forced to take whatever work came his way. In 1952 while working as a consultant on explosives, a mysterious explosion killed him in his lab. Conspiracy theorists claim that it was a murder since Parson's was too skilled a technician to be careless with the substances he worked with. Others say that Parsons had grown too obsessed with the occult and his vigilance with explosives had waned as a result. Whatever the case, the death was ruled accidental and remains that way to this day.
But what of the concrete achievements that Parsons achieved in science? Why have they been overlooked? Is his name still known at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the lab he co-founded? Jason and I went to JPL to see if we could find out the facts. Here's what we learned.
As you saw we were met with disinterest. Any record of Parsons seems to have been expunged from the current record. But then something freaky happened. As Jason and I were leaving, a man in a white sedan approached us. He had heard us asking around at JPL and said he knew some of the answers. He seemed nervous about talking to us on the laboratory grounds and insisted that we get in the car. Interested, we climbed into his car to find out what he knew. It proved to be a ride we wouldn't forget.
So what is the truth behind Jack Parsons? Is he the half-forgotten founder of JPL whose memory has been exorcised because of his occult theories? Or is there still a group of scientists who carry on his work? Is the Hymn to Pan still being sung softly in the background at each shuttle launch? I don't have the answers but I will leave you with what may be a cryptic clue.
In 1972 American scientists named a crater of the moon after Jack Parsons. The crater at 37 degrees north and 171 degrees west can not be seen from earth. It is on the dark side of the moon.
Sex and Rockets by John Carter, published by Feral House, July 2000
Interview with anonymous JPL Scientist, August 2000
Interview with lots of other JPL employees, August 2000