From Rocketry Pioneer To Deviant Occultist, Jack Parsons Was The Ultimate Mad Scientist

Published August 8, 2018
Updated February 19, 2024

Jack Parsons helped invent rocket science itself, but his sordid extracurricular activities caused him to be all but written out of history.

Jack Parsons

Wikimedia Commons
Scientist and occultist Jack Parsons in 1938.

Once upon a time, the idea of humankind exploring out among the stars was relegated strictly to the realm of science fiction, rather than actual science. That changed, however, beginning around the end of the 1930s and early 1940s, when a group of pioneering young scientists began developing rockets and technology that would eventually go on to put man on the moon. Among these early pioneers was Jack Parsons.

Today, though, Jack Parsons name is rarely mentioned in conversation. Strange, given his contributions to the scientific world at large — but there is perhaps a reason for it. In addition to being a brilliant rocket scientist, Jack Parsons Parsons became involved in occulstist practices, particularly Thelemic rituals, a series of esoteric beliefs put forth by Aleister Crowley in the early 1900s.

Parsons had also been involved with the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard — though perhaps it would be fairer to say Parsons’ wife had been involved with Hubbard, as the two would later defraud Parsons of his life savings. Parsons was also accused of espionage under McCarthyism, leading him to be cast out from the larger scientific community.

In the end, Parsons’ short life came to a sudden, dramatic end, leaving behind a complicated — and fascinating — legacy.

Jack Parsons’ Early Life

It was the outlandish stories that Jack Parsons read in pulp science fiction magazines that first got him interested in rockets.

Born in Los Angeles, California on Oct. 2, 1914 to Ruth and Marvel Parsons, the family were newcomers to the West Coast, having previously lived in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the marriage ended shortly after Jack was born, as Ruth soon learned that Marvel had paid a prostitute for sex on several occasions. Following the dissolution of their marriage, Marvel returned to Massachusetts, and Ruth forbade him from contacting their son.

Shortly after, Ruth’s parents moved to California to help raise Jack, purchasing a nice home on “Millionaire’s Mile” in Pasadena. As a result, Jack Parsons grew up well taken care of, attended to by various domestic servants, but sadly few friends.

As a relatively isolated, well-to-do child, Parsons spent much of his time reading various pieces of mythology, legend, and science fiction — particularly the works of Jules Verne and pulp magazines.

Amazing Stories Pulp Magazine

Wikimedia CommonsAmazing Stories, a science fiction pulp magazine that Jack Parsons read.

Oddly, given what Parsons would later achieve, he performed poorly in school at a young age. His biographer George Pendle, in Strange Angel, would later attribute this to undiagnosed dyslexia. School hadn’t been easy for Parsons socially either; he was often bullied for coming from a rich family and having effeminate mannerisms.

But it was during these formative years that he met Edward Forman, a child who frequently defended Parsons from bullies and, like Parsons, had an interest in science fiction. Eventually, the two began conducting their own rocket-based experiments. Later, they would work together for NASA.

How Jack Parsons Became A Pioneering Rocket Scientist

Jack Parsons began his first experiments in his own backyard, where he would build gunpowder-based rockets along with Ed Forman.

Unfortunately for Parsons, the Great Depression affected his family like it did many others, and with little money to the family’s name, Parsons was forced to drop out of college.

Then, in 1934, Parsons and Forman decided to approach Frank Malina, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, and form a small group devoted to the study of rockets that self-deprecatingly referred to themselves as the “Suicide Squad,” given the dangerous nature of their work.

Parsons And Colleagues In The Arroyo Seco

Wikimedia CommonsJack Parsons and colleagues from GALCIT in the Arroyo Seco on Halloween, 1936.

In the late 1930s, when the Suicide Squad began conducting their explosive experiments, rocket science belonged largely to the realm of science fiction. In fact, when engineer and professor Robert Goddard proposed in 1920 that a rocket could one day be capable of reaching the moon, he was widely mocked by the press, including The New York Times (the paper was actually forced to issue a retraction in 1969, as Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon).

Nevertheless, the Suicide Squad quickly realized that Jack Parsons was a genius at creating rocket fuels, a delicate process that involved mixing chemicals in exactly the right amounts so that they would be explosive, yet controllable (versions of the fuel he developed were later used by NASA).

Rocket Boys

Wikimedia Commons“The Suicide Squad”: Frank Malina (center), and Ed Forman (to Malina’s right), and Jack Parsons (far right) with two colleagues in 1936.

And by the dawn of the 1940s, Malina approached the National Academy of Sciences for funding to study “jet propulsion” and suddenly rocket science was not just outlandish science fiction.

In 1943, the former Suicide Squad (who were now known as the Aerojet Engineering Corporation) saw their work legitimized as they played a crucial role in the founding of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the research center that’s sent crafts to the farthest possible reaches of space.

However, although more government involvement led to greater success and opportunities for Jack Parsons, it would also mean closer observation into his personal life, which contained some shocking secrets.

Jack Parsons’ Occult Interests And Relationship With Aleister Crowley

At the same time that Jack Parsons was pioneering scientific developments that would eventually help put men on the moon, he was also engaging in activities that would have newspapers referring to him as a madman. While developing rocket science itself, Parsons had been attending meetings of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), led by notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley.

Aleister Crowley

Wikimedia CommonsAleister Crowley

Popularly known as “the wickedest man in the world,” Crowley encouraged his acolytes to follow his one commandment: “Do What Thou Wilt.” Although many of the OTO’s creeds were based more around fulfilling individual desires (particularly sexual ones) than, for example, communing with the devil, Parsons and other members did partake in some strange rituals, including eating cakes made of menstrual blood.

And Parsons’ interest in the occult did not wane as his career progressed — quite the contrary. He was appointed the West Coast leader of the OTO in the early 1940s and corresponded directly with Crowley.

He even used the money from his rocketry business to buy a mansion in Pasadena, a den of hedonism that allowed him to explore sexual adventures like bedding his wife’s 17-year-old sister and holding cult-like orgies.

Frank Malina’s wife said that the mansion was “like walking into a Fellini movie. Women were walking around in diaphanous togas and weird make-up, some dressed up like animals, like a costume party.” Malina shrugged off his partner’s eccentricities, telling his wife, “Jack is into all kinds of things.”

L Ron Hubbard

Wikimedia CommonsL. Ron Hubbard in 1950.

The U.S. government, however, was not able to so easily dismiss Parsons’ nocturnal activities. The FBI began to surveil Parsons more closely and suddenly the quirks and behaviors that had always marked his life became a liability to national security. In 1943, he was paid off for his shares in Aerojet and essentially expelled from the field that he had helped develop.

Without work, Jack Parsons buried himself ever deeper in the occult. Then things took a turn for the worse when the former scientist became acquainted with the science-fiction writer and soon-to-be Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Sara Northrup

Wikimedia CommonsSara Northrup in 1951.

Hubbard encouraged Parsons to attempt to summon an actual goddess to Earth in an outlandish ritual that involved “ritual chanting, drawing occult symbols in the air with swords, dripping animal blood on runes, and masturbating in order to ‘impregnate’ magical tablets.” This prompted even Crowley to dismiss Parsons as a “weak fool.”

However, Hubbard soon vanished with Parsons’ girlfriend, Sara Northrup (who he eventually married), and a significant sum of his money.

Jack Parsons’ Final Years And Dramatic Death

Then, during the onset of the Red Scare in the late 1940s, Parsons once again came under scrutiny from the U.S. government due to his involvement with the “sexual perversion” of the OTO. The fact that he’d sought (and sometimes carried out) work with foreign governments because the U.S. government had shut him out also helped make authorities suspicious of him. For what it’s worth, Parsons insisted that the FBI was following him.

Under suspicion and with no hope of returning to government work, Parsons wound up using his explosives expertise to work on special effects in the film industry.

FBI Synopsis Of Allegations Against Jack Parsons

Public DomainAn FBI synopsis of espionage allegations against Jack Parsons from November 1950.

An expert though he was, Parsons never ceased the reckless backyard rocketry experiments he’d been carrying out since he was young. And in the end, that’s what finally did him in.

On June 17, 1952, Jack Parsons was working on explosives for a film project in his home laboratory when an unplanned detonation destroyed the lab and killed him. The 37-year-old was found with broken bones, a missing right forearm, and half of his face nearly ripped off.

Authorities ruled the death an accident, theorizing that Parsons had simply slipped up with his chemicals and things got out of hand.

However, that hasn’t stopped some of Parsons’ friends (and plenty of conspiracy theorists) from suggesting that Parsons would have never made a deadly mistake and that the U.S. government may have just wanted to get rid of this now-embarrassing icon of American scientific history for good.

After learning about the turbulent life of Jack Parsons, read up on the most unusual things that Scientologists believe. Then, discover the story of Michele Miscavige, the disappeared wife of Scientology’s leader.

Gina Dimuro
A graduate of New York University, Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.
Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.