Jack Parsons: rocket pioneer and occult genius

By James Cook on January 27th, 2014

There’s a large crater on the far side of the moon called “Parsons”. An unremarkable circle of grey rocks, it’s named in recognition of the pioneering work that rocket propulsion scientist Jack Parsons did in his lifetime. Yet for all of his scientific brilliance, there was a dark side to Parsons: he was obsessed with the occult, becoming deeply involved in what many call “black magic”.

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A key belief for Jehovah’s Witnesses was that the reign of kings would end on October 2nd 1914. The “Gentile Times” would end, Jesus would return and the end of the world would draw closer.

It doesn’t look like any of that actually happened, but Marvel Whiteside Parsons was indeed born on that fateful day in a Los Angeles hospital. Soon after the child’s birth, his mother discovered that her husband had been visiting prostitutes. In 1915, Parsons’ parents divorced. His maternal grandparents helped the family buy a large home in Pasadena’s “Millionaire’s Mile”. Instead of using “Marvel”, the name of his father, Parsons was called John, or Jack to his friends. Living a comfortable life with domestic servants, the young Parsons child would spend hours reading books on mythology, Arthurian legends and Eastern tales. As he developed an interest in science fiction and mythology, Parsons also became interested in the fledgling world of space flight.

Rocketry

Working weekends at the Hercules Powder Company offices, Parsons began to learn about how seemingly inert powder could be used to power rockets. A brief correspondence began between the young Parsons and German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the man responsible for the V2 rocket project. The two would talk for hours on the telephone about their research, but their friendship cooled after they both refused to divulge technical details about their projects.

Wernher von Braun in his office

Wernher von Braun in his office

Working full time for the Hercules Powder Company, Parsons was sent to work in their manufacturing plant, but repeated exposure to nitroglycerine resulted in painful headaches.

After an aborted attempt at a degree in chemistry at Stanford University, Parsons set his sights substantially higher: forming a space rocket research team with students from Caltech. Dubbed the “Suicide Squad”, the team worked on dangerous rocket experiments during the day, and drank and smoked together in the evenings. Parsons also began to indulge his political beliefs, writing about his fondness for Communism.

Jack Parsons (right side, nearest to camera) and his "Suicide Squad"

Jack Parsons (right side, nearest to camera) and his “Suicide Squad”

At a dance held in a local church, Parsons met a pretty local woman named Helen Northrup. In the Summer of 1934, Parsons proposed and the pair were married the next year. But the marriage did little to dampen Parsons’ passion for rocket science, he spent most of his wages on the research group, even pawning his wife’s wedding ring for extra funds.

The “Suicide Squad” experiments began to attract the eye of Caltech, and they were given access to facilities on the University campus. But despite their motor tests yielding successful results, a fracture split the group when Parsons refused to join the American Communist Party.

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Black magic

During his time with the young research group, Parsons had become interested in the Church of Thelema, an occult religion founded by the English occultist Aleister Crowley. A mysterious figure who had traveled across India, climbed mountains in record time and become a chess master, Crowley claimed to have been possessed by a spirit inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid. His teachings mixed Egyptian religion, Gnostic beliefs and what Crowley referred to as “sex magick”.

English occultist Aleister Crowley

English occultist Aleister Crowley

Parsons attempted to explain Crowley’s occult beliefs using quantum physics, believing that alternate realities had backing in science. The young man impressed Crowley, with the occult master writing that Parsons “is the most valued member of the whole Order, with no exception!”

Jack Parsons taking part in an occult ritual

Jack Parsons taking part in an occult ritual

Parsons’ rocket experiments had grown in scale, with the group’s research area now dubbed “jet propulsion”. The US military provided funding, requesting that the group prepare a feasibility report into JATO (jet-assisted take off). The military wanted to be able to launch rockets vertically, rather than having to build long runways for their planes. The experiments were a success. Parsons’ research into jet propulsion had grown into a commission from the US military for 2000 rocket engines.

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With his rocket research proving a success, Parsons also grew his occult research. A Thelemic lodge was created in Parsons’ home, which was called “The Parsonage” by its residents. Parsons created a laboratory in the garage, where he could experiment in peace. The local police investigated the group after their cocaine-fuelled sex orgies became notorious. No threat to national security was found.

The walls of the lodge were adorned with daggers and swords, as well as a replica of The Stele of Revealing. Otherwise known as the Stele of Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu, this Egyptian tablet was claimed to be an important Thelemic artifact by Aleister Crowley after he discovered it listed under catalogue number 666 in the Egyptian Museum.

The Stele of Revealing

The Stele of Revealing

One resident of the lodge was a young science fiction writer and Navy veteran named L. Ron Hubbard. He moved into the Parsonage, and entered into a relationship with Sara Northrup, the sister of Parsons’ wife.

L. Ron Hubbard during his years in the Navy

L. Ron Hubbard during his years in the Navy

In February 1946, Parsons wrote to Aleister Crowley, informing him that the young writer had begun to win over Parsons’ coterie of women:

“About three months ago I met Ron… He is a gentleman… He moved in with me about two months ago, and although Maggy and I are still friendly, she has transferred her sexual affections to Ron.”

The Babalon Working

After accepting L. Ron Hubbard into his inner circle, Parsons allowed the impressionable science fiction writer to act as scribe for Parsons’ most daring occult experiment yet. The Babalon Working used Crowley’s sex magick theories in an attempt to summon a manifestation of the divine female goddess Babalon. If the ritual was successful, a scarlet woman would make herself known to the pair. Parsons masturbated with sigils and magical tablets, with L. Ron Hubbard assisting by also masturbating and attempting to record any magical observances. To aide them in their search for the divine goddess, they played classical music, with Prokofiev a particular favourite. Crowley, notified in advance of Parsons’ attempt, warned him that its effects could be dangerous, yet the scientist continued.

After journeying out into the Mojave desert with Hubbard, Parsons finally declared the goddess summoned when he felt his feeling of tension suddenly dissipate at sunset on January 18th 1946. The pair hurried back to the house, eager to see what the other residents had observed.

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A tall, red-headed woman had arrived at the Pasadena lodge. Marjorie Cameron, a naval photographer who had suddenly been discharged from military service, had been recommended by a friend to drop by Parsons’ house.

Cameron starring in Kenneth Anger's 1954 short  "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome"

Cameron starring in Kenneth Anger’s 1954 short “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”

Parsons was immediately struck by Cameron’s red hair. The pair spent the next two weeks together in his bedroom. Unbeknownst to the directionless Cameron, she had been caught up in Parsons’ ritual.

Parsons obsessively documented his occult experiment in a book that would later be published as “The Book of Babalon”. Three days before the arrival of Cameron, the diary entry reads as follows:

“Jan 15. Invoked twice. At this time the Scribe developed some sort of astral vision, describing in detail an old enemy of mine of whom he had never heard, and later the guardian forms of Isis and the Archangel Michael. Later, in my room, I heard the raps again, and a buzzing, metallic voice crying ‘let me go free.’ I felt a great pressure and tension in the house that night, which was also noticed by the other occupants. There was no other phenomena, and I admit a feeling of disappointment.”

The con man

L. Ron Hubbard would go on to use much of what he learned with Parsons as the foundation for Scientology

Parsons invested his life savings in a company, Allied Enterprises, which he founded with L. Ron Hubbard and his former lover, his wife’s sister Sara Northrup. Parsons’ $20,000 went towards the purchase of three yachts, which they planned to purchase on the East Coast, sail through the Panama Canal, and then sell on for a profit in California. Hubbard and Northrup traveled to Florida alone, where it soon became apparent that they had no intention of returning the money to Parsons. With L. Ron Hubbard living the high life with his girlfriend in a yacht purchased with his money, Parsons was furious. Unable to pursue the pair, Parsons set curses on Hubbard. Whether the “Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram” worked or not, Parsons eventually resorted to suing Hubbard in a Florida court. Hubbard was so shocked to find out that his former friend and mentor had launched legal action against him that he managed to crash the stolen boat.

Eventually, Hubbard agreed to return part of Parsons’ money, but managed to keep the damaged boat. Northrup and Hubbard later married and L. Ron Hubbard would go on to use much of what he learned with Parsons as the foundation for Scientology, the religion that he founded in 1952.

The Church of Scientology has never denied L. Ron Hubbard’s involvement in the Babalon Working, claiming that the writer was on a top-secret Naval mission to bring down the black magic sect.

Downfall

Despite his brilliance, Parsons had fallen on hard times. After divorcing his first wife, Parsons married Cameron, the mysterious woman who appeared after the Babalon Working.

Jack Parsons and his second wife Marjorie Cameron

Jack Parsons and his second wife Marjorie Cameron

Continuing with his rocket propulsion work, Parsons contributed researched to the SM-64 Navaho missile program, which led to the creation of a powerful cruise missile that rivalled Soviet efforts in missile research.

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Parsons claimed that his sex magick transported him to the Biblical city of Chorazin, just north of Galilee.

But despite his brilliance, Parsons began to find it difficult to gain employment in federal research projects. As the Cold War loomed, a “red scare” spread throughout the US government and into the defence industry. The FBI had long held a file on Parsons, describing him as “potentially bisexual”. Parsons’ youthful interests in communism eventually outweighed his scientific knowledge, his clearance was revoked by the FBI and it became impossible for him to work for the government.

At the dawn of the 1950s, Jack Parsons was working as a car mechanic, finding it difficult to fund his wife’s creative endeavours and his own magical experimentation. Eventually his wife moved to Mexico to join an artists’ commune, leaving her husband to pick up odd jobs working with chemicals and explosives in the film industry and for local police forces.

But as his career reached new lows, Parsons was determined to continue his occult research. Continuing his research alone, Parsons began visiting prostitutes. In accounts published after his death, Parsons claimed that his sex magick transported him to the Biblical city of Chorazin, just north of Galilee. It was in this vision that Parsons became convinced he would go on to become the antichrist in seven years, but only if he remained alive.

The Israeli rocket program

An unlikely opportunity presented itself to Parsons after his security clearance was re-instated by his connections inside the government. A pro-Israel group of scientists offered Parsons a job within the Israeli rocket program, which Parsons gratefully accepted. However, his return to rocket research in the US had concerned the FBI, who accused Parsons of being a spy as he attempted to migrate to Israel.

At the time of Parsons’ involvement with the Israeli government, he was also working for the reclusive businessman Howard Hughes. Parsons was found to have smuggled out secret documents relating to projects that the Hughes Aircraft Company had been working on. An angry Howard Hughes went straight to the FBI, accusing Jack Parsons of being an Israeli spy.

CH 4 - FBI Jack Parsons Document

Despite later having the charges dropped, the Israel incident had permanently ended Jack Parsons’ career in rocket propulsion research. He returned to his work in the film industry, bored but glad to be reunited with his wife, who had returned from the commune in Mexico.

Jack Parsons successfully fought to have his Top Secret clearance returned to him

Jack Parsons successfully fought to have his Top Secret clearance returned to him

The explosion

Parsons managed to speak one final sentence before he succumbed to his injuries: “I wasn’t done.”

Cameron had returned to the home she shared with Parsons, yet she remained enchanted by the thoughts of a bohemian lifestyle in Mexico. Persuading Parsons to join her there, the couple packed up their belongings. Just before they departed, an urgent request reached them: a film desperately needed some explosives. On the night before their trip, June 17 1952, Parsons went to work on one last explosive concoction.

The official police report claims that Parsons was attempting to mix fulminate of mercury in a small coffee tin. Working quickly, and with sweaty hands, Parsons dropped the explosive mix. The blast ripped off his right arm, broke his left arm and both his legs, and left a “gaping hole” in his jaw.

Neighbours, alarmed by the explosion, rushed to Parsons’ aid. They discovered him conscious, but severely-injured. Groaning with pain, Parsons managed to speak one final sentence before he succumbed to his injuries: “I wasn’t done.”

The scene of the blast in the Pasadena apartment that killed Jack Parsons

The scene of the blast in the Pasadena apartment that killed Jack Parsons

Jack Parsons was declared dead around 37 minutes after the explosion. When his mother was informed, she overdosed on pills and died, distraught at losing her son. Cameron carried her husband’s ashes into the Mojave desert, scattering them at the intersection of two tall power lines.

Friends, colleagues and former lovers were unsatisfied with the official police report into Parsons’ death. Instead, they have their own theories as to what killed Jack Parsons.

Howard Hughes
Occult filmmaker and friend of Parsons’ second wife, Kenneth Anger believes that the reclusive American businessman Howard Hughes ordered Parsons’ assassination after he was caught leaking secret research documents to the Israeli government.

Last year, Anger repeated his claim, stating in an interview for Esquire:

Howard Hughes was the kind of man you didn’t say no to, or if you did, there would be consequences.

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Suicide
Parsons had been visibly depressed after the divorce and departure of his lovers. Knowing that L. Ron Hubbard had successfully won over the affections of many of his female friends, Parsons grew to resent the young writer. Left with Cameron, who insisted on living in Mexico, away from the desert and the rocket program, did Parsons instead kill himself to escape the future life that would have began the day after the explosion?

After Parsons’ death, UFO sightings across America skyrocketed

Aliens
Rumours have long persisted about Parsons’ involvement with Area 51, the US Air Force’s secret military base that conspiracy theorists suspect contains aliens and UFOs. It has been rumoured that as part of his top secret work with the US government, Parsons traveled to the desert base where he opened a portal to another dimension. After Parsons’ death, UFO sightings across America skyrocketed, fuelling the idea that the rocket scientist was involved in something extra-terrestrial. Another belief is that Parsons and Hubbard opened a portal to an alien world when they performed the Babalon Working in 1946. When they failed to close it, aliens could freely pass into our universe, which lead to the first UFO sighting by Kenneth Arnold in 1947.

Black magic
Parsons’ involvement in occult experimentation had begun to consume his life after his exit from government missile research. He had formed a new occult group, “The Witchcraft”, and had written new tomes that laid out his personal philosophy. Members of Parsons’ occult inner circle claim that on the day of his death he was working on creating a homunculus, a mythical miniature human.

Jack Parsons' black magic box, discovered after his death

Jack Parsons’ black magic box, discovered after his death

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Today the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is an important part of NASA’s space exploration program. Six years after Jack Parsons’ death, JPL became part of NASA. Despite having such a large influence upon modern space travel and the American rocket program, Jack Parsons has never received the recognition that many of his former colleagues claim he deserves. Instead, he is remembered mainly in occult circles, in the underground groups that he sought solace in during his years as a leading light of the scientific research community.