Seventy years ago, on June 17, 1952, Jack Parsons—rocketry pioneer, self-proclaimed Antichrist, disciple of Aleister Crowley and explosives expert, whose work helped lead to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—died in a mysterious, city-shaking explosion in his home lab in a converted coach house behind a mansion on Millionaire’s Row in Pasadena. Was it suicide? Murder? An accident? We still don’t know. What we do know is here, in this 3-part series. (For Part 1, published June 17, please click here.)
Jack Parsons was a rocketry savant. He and Frank Malina of Caltech made key breakthroughs in the 1930s and 40s that led to the establishment of rocketry as a science and the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). But their lives and careers were upended in the 40s and 50s as the FBI investigated them for their unconventional affiliations—Parsons for sex magick and espionage and Malina for Communism—which unfairly diminished their achievements and robbed them of the credit they deserve.
Parsons was born Marvel Whiteside Parsons at Good Samaritan Hospital in LA on Oct. 2, 1914. After his mother Ruth left his father, also named Marvel, for adultery, she changed his name to John, nicknamed Jack. Ruth and Jack moved in with her parents on Millionaire’s Row in Pasadena in 1916, where Parsons had a well-heeled childhood. Parsons attended Washington Junior, Muir High, University School and enrolled in Pasadena Junior College in 1933, but dropped out after one term. He later took night courses at USC.
His wealthy grandfather lost his fortune in the Great Depression, so Parsons got a job at the Hercules Powder Company in LA, where he learned a lot about explosives and used some of their supply for his own projects, along with his lifelong friend Ed Forman.
Parsons and Forman were science fiction buffs and in 1935 read about a lecture on rockets by Caltech student William Bollay, who referred them to Frank Malina, an aeronautics graduate student with similar interests who worked in a 200-mile-per-hour wind tunnel on campus. He also studied under Dr. Theodore von Kármán, one of the greatest scientific minds of the era and a brilliant Hungarian aerodynamicist recruited from Germany to head the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech (GALCIT) in 1930. The edge of space at 62.8 miles—known as the Kármán Line—is named after him.
“When Parsons and Malina met, their enthusiasm for rocketry and space travel bonded them like a Masonic handshake,” George Pendle wrote in Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons. “With Forman they formed a complementary triumvirate: Parsons would act as the chemist, Malina the mathematician and Forman the engineer.”
They set out to design a high-altitude sounding rocket propelled by either solid or liquid fuel, a pipe dream at that time. Rocketry was not yet seen as legitimate science.
“It was certainly considered dubious,” Malina said in a 1978 Caltech oral history interview. “Most of the so-called serious scientists and engineers were very skeptical about rocket propulsion. There was also a surprising lack of understanding among people that should have known better.”
But their initial successful tests convinced Kármán to let them conduct rocket tests on Caltech’s campus, even though Parsons and Forman were not Caltech students.
“It was a decision he would come to regret,” Pendle wrote.
Ad astra per aspera—to the stars through hardship
They became known as the GALCIT Rocket Research Group, the forerunner of JPL. Tension brewed between Malina and Parsons, because the former wanted to collect static test data and the latter wanted to ignite ever bigger rockets.
“But they needed each other,” Pendle wrote. “Malina was Parsons’ link to Caltech and scientific respectability, not to mention the institution’s vast resources; Parsons in turn was Malina’s connection to the scattered history of rocket experiments and a storehouse of valuable firsthand experience of constructing and testing rockets.”
On Halloween 1936, the group conducted what is considered their first official rocket test, using methyl alcohol and gaseous oxygen, in the Arroyo Seco near Devil’s Gate Dam. A JPL plaque near the site now marks the occasion. A photo of Parsons, Forman, Malina and others lounging around their rocket apparatus that day is considered the “Nativity Scene” of JPL.
A couple other Caltech students joined the group around this time, including Martin Summerfield and Tsien Hsue-shen, a Chinese national. In August 1937, the group ruined the green lawn in front of Caltech’s Gates Chemistry Lab by accidentally siphoning too much nitrogen tetroxide, a highly corrosive liquid. Another time, their rocket apparatus inside the GALCIT building leaked a toxic cloud of nitrogen tetroxide and alcohol that rusted scientific equipment throughout the building.
One time on campus, Parsons’ ethylene and gaseous oxygen mixture caused two big explosions that rocked staid and stoic Caltech. A gauge from their equipment was propelled right where Malina’s head had been moments before. “Explosions at Caltech,” Pendle wrote, “were now par for the course.”
“We upset the whole campus,” Malina wrote to his parents.
They became known as the Suicide Squad and soon had to move all their operations to the upper Arroyo, on the spot where the massive JPL complex now stands. They leased six acres from the city of Pasadena and built a few wood and corrugated sheet metal buildings.
Parsons and Malina wrote an extensive outline of a novel and film proposal about a group of young rocket scientists that they hoped to sell to a movie studio to raise money for their rocket projects. The characters closely resemble members of the Suicide Squad. The plot, about right-wing capitalists stealing their rocket research, eerily predicted things which came to pass, such as the Nazis wielding a rocket weapon and even Parsons’ death by explosion. The manuscript is now housed in the Malina archive at Texas A&M.
The problem of escape from the earth
Hollywood wasn’t interest—yet—but the U.S. military was. In 1939, World War II was ramping up and the Nazis were developing the V-1 rocket (and later the dreaded V-2) at Peenemünde. Because the word “rocket” was looked down upon, Malina and von Kármán persuaded the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Army Air Corps Research to fund the development of “Jet-Assisted Take-Offs (JATOs),” small rockets to boost and shorten the take-off time of airplanes on the battlefield. The Suicide Squad became the first rocket research group sanctioned by the U.S. government. They tested their JATOs on a single-engine Ercoupe monoplane in 1941.
The JATOs worked, but they needed a fuel that was less volatile than black powder and would fill the rocket motor casing without pockets of gas, a fuel that was both a solid and a liquid. Malina’s son Roger said Parsons came up with the solution: asphalt to bind potassium/ammonium perchlorate as solid fuel. Parsons also contributed to the new idea of using red fuming nitric acid as an oxidizer with benzine or gasoline as liquid fuel. Malina improved on this idea by replacing gasoline/benzene with aniline.
“Jack and my father were in their office at the von Kármán research lab,” Dr. Roger Malina said. “Jack looked out the window and saw some workmen pouring tar or tarmac on a roof of the building next door. All the rocket fuels they had been making kept blowing up and not burning continuously. Jack had an ‘Aha!’ moment seeing the workmen pour the tar on the roof. He said, ‘Look, [asphalt is] liquid carbon when they pour it and [then] it solidifies.’ They then invented pourable rocket fuel.”
GALCIT-53, the name for their invention, was “nothing less than a new paradigm in rocketry,” Fraser MacDonald wrote in Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket. “It became the antecedent of composite propellants used in everything from Trident nuclear missiles to space shuttle boosters and ejector seats.”
Parsons’ “idea of using asphalt instead of black powder [as the solid-fuel for rockets] overturned centuries of previous thought,” Pendle wrote. “The results of Parsons’ thinking would eventually play a central role in American rocket technology. Although he would not live to see his dream of space travel come true, he was essential to making it a reality.”
Of course, perchlorate also resulted in the eventual contamination of San Gabriel Valley’s groundwater supplies for decades to come.
The JATOs shortened take-off time by a third. These innovations enabled the Suicide Squad to file patents and form a company in March 1942 that produced and sold JATOs to the military for use in the war. They called it the Aerojet Engineering Corporation and set up an office in an old juice cannery on E. Colorado St. in Pasadena. JPL, the new name of the growing GALCIT Rocket Research Group, was officially established in 1944 with a budget of $650,000.
“By the end of World War II, their use in rescuing military personnel from isolated sites with short runways is estimated to have saved 4,500 lives,” MacDonald wrote. “And as von Kármán put it, their success marked ‘the beginning of practical rocketry in the United States.’”
Are you now or have you ever been…
But with government funding came stricter security precautions. The FBI performed background checks and found out about their various oddball affiliations, including Parsons’ occult beliefs and Malina’s membership in the Communist Party.
In 1944, General Tire purchased a majority share in Aerojet. Forman and Parsons were urged to sell their shares of the company, which they did for $11,000 each, having invested $250 each originally. Von Kármán and Summerfield also sold their shares. Had they held on, like Malina did, their shares would have been worth millions within a few years. Forman bought a plane and Parsons bought 1003 S. Orange Grove Ave., an 11-bedroom mansion, where he hosted sex magic rituals as part of Aleister Crowley’s occultist philosophy.
“Parsons and Forman were mistrusted by their own colleagues and were consequently edged out of the company they had helped found,” MacDonald wrote.
According to JPL historian Erik Conway, Parsons’ sex magick “helped color a lot of the community at JPL and Aerojet against Parsons, because lots of people thought the kinds of things he was involved in were just beyond the pale and no right thinking American should be involved in those sorts of things. It helped drive Parsons out of the realm of the acceptable at Aerojet.”
It was Parsons’ unorthodox, out-of-the-box thinking that led to the biggest early rocket science breakthroughs, but the buttoned-down, post-war business environment had no patience for eccentrics or nonconformists, savant or not.
Pendle wrote that Parsons was “cut adrift from the world of rocketry for the first time in his adult life. It was plain to see that he was being left behind as the very science he had helped to create soared up and away from him.”
Malina, who was never part of Parsons’ occult world, was installed as the second director of JPL at age 31, after a short stint by von Kármán. In 1945, Malina oversaw the development and testing of the WAC Corporal and later the BUMPER WAC Corporal, the first high-altitude rockets, even before Sputnik.
“The WAC Corporal represents the first moment that the promise of rocketry—attaining extreme altitudes—was successfully realized in the United States,” MacDonald wrote. “With the BUMPER WAC Corporal, the United States first entered the Space Age.”
During a virtual Caltech event in March, MacDonald pointed out that Malina was “pretty much the only person left from the original [Suicide Squad] crew to see that success.”
But Malina was pushed out of JPL as the postwar Red Scare and Cold War heated up. The third director of JPL on Malina’s recommendation, Dr. Louis Dunn, was an FBI informant against Malina, accusing him of espionage. Malina moved to Paris and worked for UNICEF in 1947.
Many of his Caltech associates who attended a Communist discussion club called Unit 122 in the 1930s got caught up in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 40s and 50s, lost their jobs, got arrested, lost friends and family and had their lives ruined. The same fate did not befall Nazi scientists such as Wernher von Braun who the United States welcomed with open arms in order to harvest their rocketry knowledge.
In 1947, President Truman signed an executive order that created loyalty review boards, allowing the FBI to look into what they considered activist scientists at government-funded institutions like JPL.
“The FBI massively scaled up the extent of their investigation and that had huge implications for all of these engineers, many of which lost clearances and jobs, ended up in prison,” MacDonald said. “We know now of course that Parsons himself was one of those confidential informants. In other words, Parsons was an FBI rat.”
In fact, Parsons had been a regular FBI informant since 1942. He even gave the FBI a list of Unit 122 members and told agents that Malina, his old friend and rocketry partner, was “associated with groups of ‘pinks’ at Caltech.” He even said Malina’s loyalty “would be questionable if [Malina] had to decide between our form of government and that of Russia.” But the government saw Parsons as an unreliable witness, which was a moot point after his death, anyway.
In 1951, Malina became head of UNESCO’s Division of Scientific Research in Paris, and then left UNESCO in 1953. He went on to become an influential kinetic artist building sculptures that incorporated motion and light and other elements from his engineering career. In 1960, he was a founding member of the International Academy of Astronautics, and became president in 1963. In 1968, he founded the journal Leonardo about the intersection of art and science, which still publishes. He wrote three memoirs and died in 1981.
“Frank Malina was a co-initiator of very different organisations: Aerojet, JPL, UNESCO, IAA, Leonardo, in very different fields of activity, and all of these still function,” his son Roger said.
On the dark side of the moon
After the war, things went downhill for Parsons as well. While working on an intercontinental cruise missile at North American Aviation, the Counter Intelligence Corps revoked his security clearance and he lost his job. He and his second wife Marjorie moved to Manhattan Beach.
“I have no idea of the reason for this action,” he wrote to von Kármán in a 1948 letter housed in the Caltech archives. “Possibly it is simply because I am not enough of a rubber stamp personality. As you know, I am not a communist, and have no connection with communists or communist front organizations. I feel it is desirable to leave this country, and to begin a career elsewhere in a more liberal atmosphere, as soon as possible.”
Von Kármán connected Parsons with Herbert Rosenfeld of the American Technion Society, which passed scientific information to the burgeoning nation of Israel. Rosenfeld asked Parsons to help develop Israel’s rocket program. In the meantime, his security clearance was restored and he got a job at Hughes Aircraft.
Rosenfeld asked for a cost breakdown for the rocket program, so in September 1950 Parsons planned to “lift information on costs from similar work he was doing at Hughes” and “send through  reports that he had co-authored while at GALCIT and Aerojet,” MacDonald wrote. “First, he’d need to get them copied, which wasn’t straightforward given that much of the work was still classified as ‘confidential.’ He’d taken them to Hughes to be stored for safekeeping. As far as Jack was concerned, these were personal copies of papers that he wrote himself.”
However, the secretary at Hughes who he asked to make the copies, Blanche Boyer, didn’t see it that way.
“She alerted authorities at Hughes, who in turn called the FBI, who descended with the energy of a full espionage investigation,” MacDonald wrote. Parsons “naturally claimed that it was all a misunderstanding, and that he had intended to run the proposal past the State Department after the document was typed. But it was too late for that.”
In October 1951, the assistant U.S. attorney of Los Angeles declined to prosecute Parsons. But in January 1952, the Industrial Review Employment Board rescinded his security clearance again anyway.
“You do not possess the integrity, character and responsibility essential to security of classified military information,” the board wrote to him. They thought he “might voluntarily or involuntarily act against the security interest of the United States and constitute a danger to national security.”
He started working for powder companies again and launched his own Parsons Chemical Manufacturing Company in North Hollywood. He and Marjorie moved back to Pasadena, into an old coach house behind a mansion at 1071 S. Orange Grove, the old F.G. Cruikshank estate.
“He was reduced to making explosive squibs for Hollywood films,” Pendle said in the 2014 documentary “Jack Parsons: Jet-Propelled Antichrist.” “That’s how the man who founded the American rocketry complex ended his life, as a special effects designer.”
On June 17, 1952, an explosion in the coach house killed Parsons. (Read part I of this series here).
In 1968, at an event at JPL celebrating the 32nd anniversary of the Halloween 1936 tests that started it all, Malina said, “I would like to pay homage to Jack Parsons, who made key contributions that play such an important role in American and European space technology. He has not received as yet his due for his pioneering work.”
In 1972, the International Astronomical Union named a 40-kilometer wide crater on the dark side of the moon after Parsons.
In part III, we’ll explore Parsons’ occult beliefs.
3 thoughts on “How Jack Parsons and the Suicide Squad Created a ‘New Paradigm in Rocketry’”
Another great read, as was part 1. Can’t wait for part 3. Kudos to Justin for spinning this fascinating and true story and to James McPherson for publishing this bit of long-form journalism.
You might want to mention the Caltech-produced play about Jack Parsons, Pasadena Babalon. It was staged by their theatre department in 2010. You can find photos and some information here: http://www.georgedmorgan.com
Been following Jack Parsons info for a few years after my Marvel Comics-addicted son introduced me; he thought I’d be interested because my academic research focus is ritualism and occult emerging from the 19th century. So much loosely supported info out there on Parsons’ involvement with magic and occult, but this is incredibly well done and I’m eager to read Part III.