Jack Parsons

Geek spirit: The man who kick-started the US rocket programme

Maverick genius or eccentric? Jack Parsons, whose centenary falls in October, was undeniably a founding father of the US rocket industry.

If Jack Parsons was one of the smartest and most influential American rocket scientists, why aren't there statues of him all over the USA?

Jack Parsons advocated rocket propulsion for spaceflight when most thought rockets were sci-fi. He co-founded the Jet Propulsion Lab, which Nasa later took over. With two colleagues, he won the first US government-backed rocket propulsion research grant since the First World War and soon after gave the US military jet-assisted take-off (JATO) technology for their aircraft.

Parsons also developed solid rocket fuel, stable enough for mass production. He co-founded Aerojet, a company that would go on to supply engines for the US military and Nasa, using his own designs.

George Pendle, author of 'Strange Angel, the otherworldly life of John Whiteside Parsons', says that without Parsons, the US wouldn't have been interested in rockets until after the Second World War. Nasa's Erik Conway, resident historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is more conservative in his estimate. But even he admits that US rocket research would have taken another year or two to get going if Parsons had not come along.

However, just as technological innovations can make a scientist's name, so too their choice of lifestyle and belief system outside the lab can undo the most brilliant of reputations.

In the late 1930s, Parsons joined a cult. Thereafter, he practised occult rituals and mixed with the likes of Aleister Crowley and L Ron Hubbard. In mainstream eyes he was at best an oddball, at worst, an affront to common decency, and eventually, a threat to national security.

In 1944, Parsons was fired from Aerojet. Two years later, the US government revoked his security clearance, ending his career in the rocket industry. In 1952, Parsons died in an explosion of his own making.

In the early 2000s, George Pendle found Parsons in a footnote while researching an article on rocket science. Pendle believes that Parsons was deliberately removed from the official record. "It must be embarrassing for Americans to admit that the founding father of their rocket technology worshiped the Devil, held orgies in his Pasadena mansion and once tried to conjure up an elemental lover after his girlfriend left him," Pendle says. "Americans prefer their founding fathers to be beyond reproach, like George Washington."

Conway disagrees. "Parsons has been recognised," he says. "We shouldn't forget that there were others working in rocket science, too. Martin Summerfield, a co-founder of Aerojet who carried on working until the 1980s, and Wernher von Braun (the former Nazi rocket scientist later employed by the US) were experimenting with liquid fuels around this time."

Home-made rockets

John Whiteside 'Jack' Parsons was born one hundred years ago this October. He didn't go to university. His family were wealthy, lived on Millionaire's Row in Pasadena, but they'd lost their money in the early stages of the Great Depression. Parsons enrolled at Pasadena Junior College and then Stanford University, but had to drop out both times because he couldn't afford the tuition fees. Instead, Parsons built his rockets at home and in his back garden.

"Parsons was part of a new generation of self-taught rocket scientists," George Pendle says, "Not trained scholars in universities and research institutes, but young men who loved sci-fi, believed that the technology they read about was possible and set about turning this belief into reality."

Pendle believes that it was this geek spirit that kick-started the US's rocket programme. "Before Parsons, people didn't take rocket science seriously," he says. "The idea was even laughed at in Congress. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon nonsense, people thought."

Parsons fully believed that one day, he'd send a rocket to the Moon. The rules and regulations of conventional science were not for him. It's what made him inventive, creative, brilliant and unique. Back in the 1930s, Parsons was just the sort of maverick genius that the US military needed to kick-start their rocket research.

In 1934, Parsons and his friend Edward Forman went along to a lecture on rocket engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). There they met a mathematics student called Frank Malina, and between the three, persuaded Caltech aeronautics expert Theodore Von Karman to let them use a room in Caltech's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT) for their experiments. After a few too many risky experiments, explosions and damaged laboratories, the Suicide Squad, as they became known, were exiled to some iron sheds in Arroyo Seco canyons where they could do less damage. It was here that the JPL would later be founded.

Over the next four years, others joined the Suicide Squad and the group eventually succeeded in building a static rocket that could burn for a few seconds. In 1938, Parsons' testimony as an explosives expert helped convict the Los Angeles police intelligence chief, Earl Kynette, for the attempted murder of private investigator Harry Raymond. In court, Parsons reconstructed the bomb Kynette had planted, establishing his expertise in the public eye.

The US military knew that if war came, it would be a naval war in the Pacific, against Japan. They funded Parsons and his colleagues to find a way of boosting take-off over a short distance, from aircraft carriers or island runways. "The military preferred 'jet propulsion' because of the stigma attached to rockets," Pendle says. "Parsons and the others weren't military supporters, if anything they were pacifists, but they were happy to take any funding that was going to continue their research."

The problem was coming up with a fuel that provided enough power, but which didn't blow a hole in the plane during take-off.

Existing black-powder rocket motors, made of charcoal, sulphur and potassium nitrate with dectin as a binder, were too volatile. The fuel was prone to settling in its storage canisters and could be adversely affected by changes in temperature. Parsons came up with a solid fuel made from amide, corn starch and ammonium nitrate bound together with glue and blotting paper. He called it GALCIT 27. He believed solid fuel was potentially more effective than previous liquid fuels.

GALCIT 27 reduced take-off distance by 30 per cent. But there were still explosions. Further tests proved that liquid rocket fuels would reduce take-off distance by an additional 30 per cent. Parsons and Malina worked out that using aniline and red fuming acid as an oxidiser made the liquid fuel less volatile, but Parsons still believed that a more reliable solid fuel was the way forward.

He tried replacing the ammonium nitrate in GALCIT 27 with guanidine nitrate, without luck. Soon after, however, he had his breakthrough moment. Parsons wondered whether it was the black binding powders and not the oxidisers that made rocket fuel volatile. He watched manual workers use molten asphalt to fix tiles to roofs, and tried liquidised asphalt to bind his fuel. GALCIT 53, as he called it, was a success. Not only was the fuel less volatile, but it provided a thrust 427 per cent more powerful than GALCIT 27. The asphalt casting meant the new fuel wouldn't settle in the canisters. It could be stored indefinitely without combusting and, therefore, could be mass-produced.

In August 1940, Parsons and Forman were on the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine. Inside the magazine, they spoke about sending a rocket to the Moon. This time, no-one laughed. The following year Parsons co-founded Aerojet. By 1943, the US Air Corps had ordered 3,000 JATOs.

But just as his professional star shone at its brightest, Parsons' private life began to take a direction that would see him ostracised from the scientific community. In 1939, he converted to Aleister Crowley's cult, Thelema, and started practicing occult rituals with friends, lovers, concubines and acolytes. He even ran his own Thelema Lodge from 1942, encouraging friends and colleagues, usually female, to join in. In 1944, Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard joined Parsons' Pasadena Lodge. "That sort of thing was OK for a maverick genius working in a tin shed in the desert," Pendle says, "but it didn't go down too well in the corporate world."

In December 1944, when Aerojet sold 51 per cent of its stock to the General Tire and Rubber Company to deal with the increased demand for its JATOs from the US military, Parsons was fired from the company, with a mere $11,000 payoff.

Pendle explains that Parsons believed in magic as strongly as he believed in his rockets. "The two were closely linked, in his mind," Pendle says. Parsons believed that both would free mankind from the chains of the Earth." By then he was also viewed as politically risky. Pre-war, he and other Suicide Squad members had experimented in Marxism, a dabbling he later forgot about. However, the FBI did not forget these things.

Erik Conway adds that corporations also insist upon procedure and safety. "Parsons still wanted to work in the same way as he'd done in his backyard, instinctive and without regard for safety," he says. After Aerojet, for a short time Parsons worked for the Hughes Corporation. Conway adds: "He was in contact with the Israelis about designing rockets for them, took some top-secret plans home to work on one night and as a result lost his security clearance." He was then accused by the FBI of industrial espionage.

Eight years later, Parsons was dead. He had blown himself up. The pioneer of the US rocket industry had been making pyrotechnics for a film set.

The maverick genius with the eccentric private life, who started off the US's rocket industry, no longer fitted in to a post-war America, where rockets were big business and subversive threats were seen around every corner.

After the Second World War, Americans realised that they could no longer hide from world affairs behind the Atlantic and Pacific. Communist Russia was an ideological challenge to the capitalist world, as well as a military one. In this climate, the last thing the authorities wanted was a madman with dubious political affiliations playing with rockets: not when they already had his work and others of more reliable temperament and acceptable leanings to further develop his concepts.

After the war, the US military attached a JATO to a Nazi V2 rocket and sent it 70km high, the first American rocket to exit the Earth's atmosphere. The JPL continued working on military concepts until Nasa took it over in 1958. The house that Jack built making rockets for space travel, just as Parsons had said it would.

Plasticised variants of Parsons' solid fuel design would later power the US Minuteman and Polaris missiles. Aerojet also provided the main engine for the Apollo command and service module and the Space Shuttle's manoeuvring system. When the first US satellite, Explorer, was launched in 1958, the upper parts of the launcher were direct descendants of the rockets Parsons built in the late 1930s.

This later technology was more sophisticated than anything Parsons himself had ever imagined. But it was Parsons who kick-started the USA's involvement in the space race; the geek who showed America that rockets weren't just for Flash Gordon.

Further information:

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles