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).
Pendle did an “archeological dig” into Parsons’ life after finding a mention of him in a science book. “The more I dug, the more bizarre and extreme the story seemed.”
In short: Parsons played a critical role in the formation of rocket science and was instrumental in building the rockets that were eventually used in the Space Race. However, he also believed in magic, was involved in the early stages of Scientology and had an extremely colourful sex life. For that reason, Pendle speculates, Parsons’ was a figure who didn’t fit into the mould of the Industrial Complex. “Wernher von Braun — a former Nazi — was much a much easier fit than Parsons,” says Pendle. “A lot of people would be shocked to find out that the space programme was founded by a man who held orgies in his Pasadena mansion.”
EARLY CHEMISTRY EXPERIMENTS
Parsons’ interest in chemistry stemmed from his teenage years when, inspired by space travel found in science fiction literature, he started amateur rocket experiments with a school friend called Edward Forman. He later studied chemistry and high school and took a holiday job at the Hercules Powder Company, where he got to handle a wide range of explosives.
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