That Old Black Magic
Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons
By George Pendle
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.