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  Strange Angel: Otherworldly Life of... John Whiteside Parsons (Pendle)

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Author Topic:   Strange Angel: Otherworldly Life of... John Whiteside Parsons (Pendle)
KC Stoever
Member

Posts: 1009
From: Denver, CO USA
Registered: Oct 2002

posted 03-08-2006 03:32 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KC Stoever   Click Here to Email KC Stoever     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I have just started a marvelous new book (full disclosure: it was sent to me gratis by Harcourt).

It was published last year and is entitled Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle, who writes for the (London) Times.

Strange Angel is right. Parsons (b. 1914) dabbled in explosives and and then rocket science, helped to found JPL, and died in a necromantic explosion of his device in the early 1950s — it destroyed part of a house on Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena. Two hours later, his overwrought mother took an overdose of barbiturates and expired in front of family friends.

Oh, and L. Ron Hubbard stole Parsons's girlfriend, Betty, and then published a story called "Dianetics" in Astounding Science Fiction.

Yikes.

Haven't figured out yet if this Parsons is related to the big engineering company by the same name.

spacecraft films
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Posts: 802
From: Columbus, OH USA
Registered: Jun 2002

posted 03-08-2006 07:23 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for spacecraft films   Click Here to Email spacecraft films     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
This sounds like my kind of story. Thanks for the info...

Robert Pearlman
Editor

Posts: 29471
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 03-08-2006 08:45 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Reprinted with permission, here is my review of Strange Angel that first appeared in the National Space Society's magazine, Ad Astra.

That Old Black Magic

Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons
By George Pendle
Harcourt, 2005
368 pp, $25.00 hardcover

Before rocketry was the stuff of science, it fell into the realm of fantasy, gracing the pages of "scientifiction" pulps and books. The idea that a rocket could achieve a controlled flight into space, let alone carry a person, was as outlandish a concept as "magic" being in any way real to the scientific community of the early 20th century.

It is with appropriate irony therefore that of the men who adopted and advanced the discipline of rocket science among the great researchers of the day, a central figure would also associate with noted science fiction writers, Hollywood celebrities and the denizens of Los Angeles' burgeoning occult scene.

Biographer George Pendle skillfully and entertainingly reveals this life of contrasting encounters in "Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons".

Parsons, who would later go on to co-found the Aerojet Corporation and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was the son of an affluent East Coast family that moved west to settle in the emerging California community of Pasadena in 1913. While describing Parsons childhood, Pendle also explores the growth and development of Southern California during that time — one of several enjoyable tangents that "Angel" takes in revealing the world that shaped Parsons' life.

Together with a school friend, Edward Forman, Parsons would build amateur rockets and launch them in his crater-pocked backyard, developing a trial-and-error approach to the chemistry. When the Stock Market crash of 1929 left his family's fortunes depleted, he abandoned hope of a formal education, taking on odd jobs that furthered his growing passion, including a stint at an explosives factory.

With only a high school diploma to his credit, Parsons' work may have gone largely unnoticed if it hadn't been for a bit of luck and good timing. His and Formans' own rocketry experiments were reaching their limits without the proper mathematical knowledge needed to move them forward when a newspaper headline about the potential for rocket planes led them to the recently established California Institute of Technology campus and a graduate student named Frank Malina.

The trio would form the rocket research group at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) and the basis for Jet Propulsion Laboratory in years to come. Parsons, Forman and Malina, under GALCIT director Theodore von Karmen, would advance rocket science to attract the attention of the government.

Parsons then co-founded the Aerojet Engineering Corporation to apply the technology he and his colleagues developed at Caltech to military tactical applications. Key to their success was his development of a semisolid rocket fuel that could remain stable under changing temperatures, an advancement that would have important contributions toward future missiles and spacecraft.

To most, the idea that someone so deeply involved in the scientific process as Parsons could be also a believer in the validity of magic and the occult would be unthinkable. To Parsons though, as described by Pendle, they were "two sides of the same coin."

A follower of the English magician Aleister Crowley, Parsons joined occultists in sexual rituals and animal sacrifices as he sought to apply his knowledge of chemicals to solving the mystery of magic as he did to conquering rocketry.

Ultimately, Parsons found himself forced out of the modern rocketry movement as the government's interest in his work progressed past the need or desire for self-taught and trained outsiders such as himself. Parsons died of wounds received following an explosion in his garage. At the time he was mixing chemicals in preparation for a Hollywood special effect, one of the only jobs he could find.

Headlines proclaiming Parsons a rocket scientist killed tragically in an explosion soon gave way to more sensational banners exposing his occultist alter ego.

Pendle's "Strange Angel" has cover art and a title that would seem closer to the sensational tabloid headlines of the 1950s, yet the book delivers a solid history of the beginnings of American rocketry. He captures Parsons' life while exploring the local and influential landscapes of politics, Hollywood and even the lives of the affluent neighbors along Parsons' home drive.

A journalist for the Times in London and the Financial Times, Pendle adeptly translates Parsons' technical developments into language the layman can understand and appreciate. It is the chapters that deal with the occult that can sometimes lose the reader. Whereas the rocketry chapters tell a story that invite the reader in, the world of the occult — perhaps by its very nature — serve to alienate.

"Strange Angel" brings life to a pioneer otherwise relegated to the footnotes of history — not because his accomplishments weren't noteworthy but because John Whiteside Parsons' other life was too distracting.

KC Stoever
Member

Posts: 1009
From: Denver, CO USA
Registered: Oct 2002

posted 03-08-2006 09:36 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KC Stoever   Click Here to Email KC Stoever     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Robert, thank you!

You should post your (excellent) space-related book reviews, even those about creepy guys like John Whiteside Parsons, on your publications and multimedia site.

Robert Pearlman
Editor

Posts: 29471
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 03-09-2006 08:44 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thank you, Kris. As I write these reviews for Ad Astra, I need to obtain permission for their appearance here. This was the first one I have been able to share. Over time, I may be able to share others I have written.

KC Stoever
Member

Posts: 1009
From: Denver, CO USA
Registered: Oct 2002

posted 03-21-2006 05:59 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KC Stoever   Click Here to Email KC Stoever     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I finished the Pendle book on vacation. DH is now reading, as he's from Pasadena and the book is in part a local history.

I admired several things the author tried to accomplish. I admired the author's restraint with an outlandish and in many ways reprehensible young man with outsized enthusiasms and outsized bonhomie and minuscule credentials.

Pendle nevertheless retains a reserved, analytical sympathy for his unusual subject, Parsons, and tells the story without flinching, allowing the reader to decide what to make of the (1) man he presents and (2) sham religious scene in L.A. at the time.

I came away with the sense that Parsons was a gifted amateur with a pathological interest in explosives, an interest and acumen that never passed muster at Cal Tech.

Having researched and written about the the NACA, I found myself wanting to exhort the Suicide Squad (as the explosives enthusiasts were called at Cal Tech), "Get real jobs, guys, and let the grownups at the NACA figure this out, puh-leez." Yet Pendle argues that they really did make a contribution to the body of knowledge, and I won't argue with him.

In my humble opinion, Pendle's slyest and most significant contribution, in Strange Angel, is the back story on the bohemian, sham religious scene in L.A. He introduces us to L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of Dianetics. It is a damning portrait, and I was much educated.

SpaceAholic
Member

Posts: 3187
From: Sierra Vista, Arizona
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 04-23-2014 06:48 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for SpaceAholic   Click Here to Email SpaceAholic     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
On a related note...
Jack Parsons was a founding member of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, with some crediting him as being one of the "fathers of rocketry" and others joking that JPL was actually Jack Parsons' Laboratory, but you won't find much about him on NASA's websites. Parsons' legacy as an engineer and chemist has been somewhat overshadowed by his interest in the occult and, and has led to what some critics describe as a rewriting of the history books.

"He's lived in the footnotes since his death. He's a forgotten figure," says biographer George Pendle, author of "Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parson" (Jack's full name).

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