Thursday, 2 October 2014

John Whiteside "Jack" Parsons (1914-1952)



October 2, 2014 marks the one hundredth birthday of one of the most revolutionary and ingenious scientists of the 20th century; yet his public profile can be described as modest, if not negligible at worst. There are many scientists from modern history whose legacies and identities are imprinted in the public consciousness. Among them are Albert Einstein in physics, Alan Turing in computing, Tim-Berners Lee in information technology, and Marie Curie in chemistry. John Whiteside Parsons, who is usually referred to as Jack Parsons, was easily on par with these greats in both terms of his genius and his contributions in his own field: rocketry. Wernher von Braun, the Operation Paperclip recruit responsible for Apollo 11's Saturn V, is said to have credited Parsons as being more important than himself to the American space program.

Parsons is notable, if not notorious, as being the cultural spectacle of being both a rocket scientist and an occultist follower of Aleister Crowley's Thelema belief system. I began researching Parsons for this very reason (with credit to John Carter, George Pendle, Robert Anton Wilson and Susan Pile): the concept of a pioneering rocket engineer and prophetic advocate for human space travel being commitedly involved in neopaganism is an immediately fascinating idea within itself. At face value his story sounds like a cross-over between The Big Bang Theory and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The more I have learned about Parsons through acquiring as much biographical information about him as possible, however, transcends this novelty. I came to appreciate not only a scientist who provided both the practical and visionary means for present day rocket-based space travel and research, and that in the Space Race before it, but also a political, religious and philosophical thinker of immense moral principle, creativity, and cultural foresight.

Parsons was one of the main scientists responsible for the foundation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which is today as a primary subdivision of NASA controlling space exploration missions such as the Mars rover program. Beside his contemporaries he spearheaded its establishment as part of the original Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory Rocket Research Group at the California Institute of Technology (GACLIT) in the 1930s. Much like Issac Newton, Parsons was a prodigal autodidact. He began constructing rockets with his friend Edward Forman at the age of 16, resulting in the primordial basis of his groundbreaking inventions at Caltech. Jack was the child of privilege, but the loss of the family fortune during the Depression meant that he could not afford to attain a university degree (even though tuition fees at American universities were then a few hundred bucks, in contrast to the many thousands of today).

Unabated, Parsons and Forman basically walked into Caltech one day and approached the great aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman, who referred them to his PhD student Frank Malina (who was the first director of JPL and built one of the first rockets used for non-military means). Parsons, Forman and Malina formed the GALCIT Group at Caltech, which was known as "The Suicide Squad" for its usually explosive rocket experiments and subject to mockery from the Caltech establishment.  

Their idealism was pragmatically reliant upon the military-industrial complex during World War II: the U.S. government and military providing subsidy for their development of Jet-Assisted Takeoff units that were vital to the Allied war effort against fascism. But it was these funds that led to Parsons' invention of the first solid-fuel rocket units that were the technological blueprint for the realization of space travel (via Apollo and the Space Shuttle) that Parsons' first envisioned in his teenage days, along with liquid-fuel formulations which were just as vital to the same technologies; both remaining intrinsic to (albeit more limited) space science in the modern age.

Parsons' career, however, was stifled by his personal and political life. As a Thelemite and individualist (the two are interchangeable) who advocated for racial equality, feminism and sexual liberation in 1930s-40s and then Cold War America, he was prey to the bigotry and McCarthyism that the scientific establishment was beholden to. In this context, Parsons can be compared to William S. Burroughs (also born in 1914) as a precipitating elder statesman of 20th century counterculture. Because of this he was forced to resort to work far beneath his abilities, including pyrotechnic and chemical engineering contracting which stockpiled the materials that tragically ignited the explosion that killed him at age 37. 

Another reason Parsons fell upon this misfortune is that he was made broke by L. Ron Hubbard, a one-time friend and occult associate who participated in his Babalon Working (which aimed to conjure Thelema's Sophia-like goddess of freethought and individual liberation into our mortal plain). Hubbard swindled him of his money through a fraudulent investment scheme, and used appropriation of both Parsons' funds and philosophical ideas to found Dianetics and Scientology, which are among the most destructive and extensive con tricks in modern history. It is an intellectual and cultural disgrace that an unscrupulous and venomous huckster like Hubbard could have a reputation so expansive in comparison to Parsons, the former being among most successful snakeoil salesmen of the modern age and the latter one of the most under-appreciated actual scientists.

Like George Orwell, there is a sparse amount of images and video of Parsons, and no recordings of his voice. Yet according to his contemporaries, he was an orator with the skill to induce strong emotions in his religious followers. One can imagine Parsons, if he had lived, as a countercultural and scientific public speaker similar to Richard Feynman and Alan Watts with an extensive Californian-accented charisma to very effectively relay his ideas. In other words, L. Ron without the snakeoil.

When we see the footage of the Moon landings (where a crater is named after Parsons), or spot the International Space Station above our orbit in the sky, we can appreciate that these are feats of human accomplishment that Jack Parsons was integral to the achievement of, and which were originally relegated to the supposedly impossible words of his mystical and sci-fi enthusiasms. For posterity, we should hope that he is recognized as one of the giants of 20th century scientific achievement.

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