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"Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons" by George Pendle

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BOOK REVIEW: Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (Harcourt) 2005

While John Whiteside Parsons, known to his friends as Jack, never quite received his due during his lifetime – dying in an explosion at his Pasadena, California home in 1952 at the age of 37 – this occult-minded man never finished college. Nevertheless, he actually was a rocket scientist and co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory there in Pasadena. JPL is noted with regularity on the comedy series The Big Bang Theory, starring another man named Parsons – Jim Parsons, who plays robotic nerd Sheldon Cooper. Not sure if they are related, however.

Regardless, the Strange Angel biography, penned by George Pendle, recently caught the attention of filmmaker Ridley Scott, who some months ago was working on a projected miniseries about the strange life of Jack Parsons. It will be interesting to see if it ever gets off the ground.

Released a decade ago, Pendle’s biography on Parsons remains engaging and very now. In fact there is a renewed interest in Parsons’ and the fact that at the time, in the 1930’s and 40’s, Parsons was recognized as “one of the foremost authorities on rocket propulsion,” while also being  amember of the American Chemical Society, the Army Ordnance Association, and the exclusive Sigma Xi fraternity.

But it wasn’t those accolades that gripped the readers of the tabloids around Los Angeles and beyond. No, the talk of Parsons’ dabbling in “intellectual necromancy” and efforts to “reconcile fundamental human urges with the inhuman, Buck Rogers-type of inventions that sprang from his test tubes.”

Yes, Jack Parsons was an admirer of British magician Aleister Crowley (who a generation later would find acolytes in the rock world ranging from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne, among many others), although they would have a bit of a falling out, as with oft the case when it came to The Great Beast's temperamental behavior.

Writes Pendle: “His life brings together the seemingly disparate worlds of rocketry, science fiction, and the occult. But for Parsons there was never any contradiction in these subjects.” 

And regarding science and magic (much like Dr. John Dee of Elizabeth I’s court), Parsons “treated magic and rocketry as different sides of the same coin.” That both fields were challenging but require those with “the right knowledge” to face these sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles and conquer them.

Building rockets, while engaged in demon-conjuring sex magick, was all the rage with Parsons and his fellow cultists, who would be viewed as mere bohemians today. 

Parsons, we are told, was a visionary and a utopian. He was definitely drawn to the occult, having been a member of the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis in California and a regular correspondent with Crowley, who was back in England.

And there was the incident with L. Ron Hubbard (yes, the founder of Scientology and author of Dianetics) where the "confidence man" essentially takes his woman and a bunch of money set aside for future occultic efforts. Angry, Parsons reportedly flew to Miami, Fla. where the two were holed up on some yacht and he did a magickal working to conjure a storm and force their boat back to port. It apparently was successful, because that actually happened. Hubbard and Parsons never worked together again, primarily since Hubbard had a world religion to establish, as he would in subsequent decades, something Crowley failed to do.

Friends, like Ed Forman, who spent time with Parsons would admit that the the magic was real and warn his children not to mess with it.

Early on, as Parsons delves ever deeper into occultism, he admits fascination with "Crowley's talk of hidden dimensions and access to forbidden planes." Parsons would say that Crowley's magick teachings "seemed to correlate with the worl of the 'quantum' field folks."

Over all, Pendle paints a picture of a sort of renaissance man who probably had too many irons in the fire and ended up getting burned, and literally flaming out at such a young age. One wonders what Parsons would have achieved or created had he not been involved in an explosion of mercury fulminate. It's interesting and Pendle captures this history quite well in Strange Angel

In closing, we would be remiss in failing to mention that Jack Parsons was influential enough to earn his space on the lunar surface, scoring his name - "Parsons" - on a 40-kilometer-wide crater on the dark side of the moon. That's pretty rock n' roll, wouldn't you say?

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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