Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Strange Angel

A long while ago, I checked out George Pendle's Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons and finally got around to reading it.

A long while back, I brought up Parsons in a post:

In June of 1952, while working in his garage/lab in Pasadena, Jack Parsons, chemist for the Caltech Rocket Propulsion program, mixed cordite and fulminate of mercury. The resulting explosion killed him and tore apart his house. Initially investigators had a hard time believing an experienced chemist would make such a careless mistake.

The most convincing explanation that anyone ever came up for his death was that Parsons had been reading the works of Aleister Crowley and attempted to create the "homunculus," a tiny man/demon that granted magical powers. Crowley's homunculus recipe called for a cordite/mercury mix and apparently Parsons followed it without thinking.

The homuculus was mentioned but it's actually a far-fetched theory. It's possible it was murder (Parsons had been an expert witness for a bombing case) or simply an accident. One of his closest friend blamed the explosion on the fact Parson had sweaty hands so that the vial of mercury could have slipped out of his grip.

He did have direct ties with Crowley but much worse was his relationship to L. Ron Hubbard. He was L.Ron's fencing partner until he stole Parsons' girlfriend, Betty. Witnesses confirm L.Ron was "making out with her right in front of Parsons." Shortly after this a friend saw Parsons in a ritual that looked like he was trying summon a demon to take out L.Ron (Parsons later explained that he was simply trying to conjure a new lover). After the ritual the electricity went out and L.Ron was struck violently in the shoulder, paralyzing him for the night. He and Parsons reported a yellow glowing entity that they chased from the house with swords.

L.Ron also entered into a business arrangement with Jack which seemed to have drained Parsons of his money and ended his rocketry research but it might just be the dead aliens in my head telling me that. L.Ron bought three yachts and planned to leave the country on them with Betty. Parsons took L.Ron to court and got back a small fraction of his money but did not press criminal charges. A month later L.Ron and Betty married. Scientologists claim that the U.S. Navy sent Hubbard to break up Parson's "black magic cult" and that Betty had been "rescued," but Hubbard once wrote Parsons a letter, offering to give Betty back. Betty came to Parsons' funeral. By that time, she and L.Ron had divorced.

L. Sprague de Camp was involved in the situation through Hubbard and Parsons' ties to science fiction. De Camp wrote a letter to Isaac Asimov about the events, warning to beware of Hubbard, that he was "looking for another easy mark."

The use of the words "Rocket Scientist" in the book's title was deliberate. For much of Parsons' life, rocketry was the equivalent to UFOlogy or ghost-hunting. In Congress in 1941, a rocket scientist was ridiculed as "a crackpot with mental delusions that we can travel to the moon!" The entire House of Representatives was said to have burst into laughter. Rocket science was such a joke that it spawned a novelty song, "Oh, They're Going to Shoot a Rocket to the Moon, Love."

Rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard was mocked mercilessly for his advances. Unable to stand the humiliation, in 1930 he moved from Massachusetts to . . . Roswell, New Mexico. And now you know the rest of the story.

No comments: