Jack Parsons was a legendary explosives-obsessed rocket engineer with an interest in the occult. He helped to put a man on the moon—and summon a demoness.
1. He Was The Occult Oppenheimer
John Parsons was the American rocket engineer who dabbled as much in chemistry as he did in blood magic. His work in rocketry shaped the early years of space exploration but it was his devotion to Thelema and the dark arts that defined his life. He could have been an occult Oppenheimer—if it hadn’t all blown up in his face.
2. His Parents Were Oddballs
John Whiteside Parsons was born to parents Ruth Virginia Whiteside and Marvel H. Parsons on October 2, 1914. His suburban Los Angeles, California upbringing was anything but normal. Parsons’ parents were in a “dark whirlwind romance” of “new-age spiritualism” by the time he was born. Their lifestyle certainly left an impression.
3. He Couldn’t See His Father
Shortly after his birth, Parsons’ mother made a devastating discovery. Her husband, as it turns out, had been carrying on an affair with a well-known, shall we say, scarlet woman (remember that term). Enraged, Ruth publicly humiliated her husband, filed for divorce, and ran him out of town. What’s more, is that she forbade any contact between Parsons and his father.
He would follow in his father’s footsteps anyway.
4. He Was Super Rich
Following his parents’ divorce, life actually improved for Parsons—at least, at first. His uber-wealthy grandparents moved to Los Angeles to help take care of him. The family then moved together to a sprawling mansion on Orange Grove Avenue, Pasadena’s “Millionaire’s Mile”. However, his pampered lifestyle didn’t last long.
5. He Was A Loner
Apparently, Parsons’ mother managed to isolate the young boy too well. He grew up very much as a loner. The only company that he seemed to find was between the pages of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories or the works of Jules Verne. The fantastic stories fuelled his desire for escapism—and ignited his lifelong interest in rocketry.
6. He Made Tiny Rockets
By the age of 12, Parsons had already embarked on his lifelong obsession with rockets. Along with his only friend and classmate, Edward Forman, he would go around collecting materials to build his own experimental devices. Using the unburnt black residue of fireworks, glue and aluminum foil, he left his backyard cratered like the surface of the moon.
It was what he did in his bedroom, however, that troubled his mother most.
7. He Contacted The Devil
When he wasn’t attempting to build rockets in his backyard, Parsons kept busy with other peculiar hobbies. Namely, dabbling in the occult. Inspired by the things he had read in Amazing Stories, Parsons carried on terrifying rituals in his bedroom during which he would attempt to contact the Devil. It would not be the last time that he tried to summon a demon.
Only, the second time, he wouldn't fail.
8. He Went To A School For Boys
Between his two hobbies, Parsons paid little attention to school—and his grades began to reflect it. Concerned about his future (and his eternal soul), his mother decided to use the family wealth to send Parsons away to the Brown Academy in San Diego, known for its rigorous discipline. The strict school had developed a reputation as “The West Point of the West”.
Too bad they couldn’t point Parsons in the right direction.
9. He Blew Up The Toilets
Despite their strictness, the Brown Defense School could not discipline Parsons, nor could it dampen his fascination with the supernatural. Not only did his academic performance not improve, but his obsession with rockets and explosives became even more intense. In a crazy stunt, the young rocketman blew up the school’s toilets, resulting in his immediate expulsion.
10. His Family Lost Everything
Parsons returned to Pasadena in 1933 but, just as he was about to finally take his education seriously, his family's fortunes took a turn for the worse. The Great Depression wiped out his family’s money and, even though he had secured a spot at Stanford University, he couldn’t afford to go. He would have to learn on the job.
11. He Was Only A High School Graduate
Today, most people will begrudgingly acknowledge that Parsons was the “father of modern rocketry”. Without him, Neil Armstrong may never have landed on the moon—at least, not safely. Oddly enough, however, Parsons was never a good student and was famously terrible at math, never advancing beyond a high-school diploma.
But that didn't stop him.
12. He Was Headed To The Stars
Throughout his school years, Parsons’ odd behavior had made him a social pariah. His only true companion, Forman, shielded him from individuals who targeted him due to his perceived effeminacy. The two became thick as thieves and adopted a motto that they would carry through life: per aspera ad astra. It meant “through hardship to the stars”.
13. He Worked For Hercules
With his family’s financial difficulties, Parsons had to put his studies aside and find work. Naturally, he gravitated to the Hercules Powder Company, where he had easy access to massive quantities of explosives. Along with his best friend Forman, Parsons continued to experiment with rockets, but he knew he needed a better laboratory than his backyard.
14. He Has Weird Friends
As Parsons continued experimenting with rockets and different kinds of explosives, he also continued pursuing his other interest—the occult. With a steady job and sizable income, he turned his home into a haven for occultists, dropouts, artists, and other non-conformists.
It was a small taste of the strange company that he would keep later on.
15. He Needed A Real Lab
By 1934, Parsons and Forman realized that they had taken their homemade rockets as far as they could on their own. If they really wanted to reach the stars, they would need a proper laboratory. So, in an effort to get access to better resources for their experiments, they attended a lecture at the California Institute of Technology, where they met PhD candidate, Frank Malina.
That was the moment that everything changed.
16. He Was Going To Prove Everyone Wrong
Along with Malina and Forman, Parsons managed to negotiate his way into CalTech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT). However, Parsons and his fellow stooges had not been entirely honest about their intentions. At the time, reputable scientists thought that rocketry was just science fiction.
Parsons intended to prove them all wrong. Even if he had to conjure spirits to do it.
17. He Lacked Discipline
With the resources of GALCIT behind him, Parsons was free to explore all of his crazy rocketry ideas. Writing in 1968, Malina remarked that Parsons “lacked the discipline of a formal higher education, [but] had an uninhibited and fruitful imagination”. His imagination might have been a little too fruitful—or, perhaps, way too uninhibited.
18. He Was Part Of A Squad
Parsons, Forman, and Malina began calling themselves the GALCIT Rocket Research Group. In the ensuing decades, their research would form the foundation of NASA’s rocket program that put the first man on the moon. However, their initial experiments had disastrous results.
The rest of the CalTech community began referring to them as the "Danger Squad" due to their frequently explosive misadventures.
19. He Drank To Excess
Just as he had when he was a child, Parsons experimented as much with rockets and explosives as he did with the occult and substances. When they weren’t nearly blowing themselves and the wider CalTech community to smithereens, Parsons, Forman and Melina spoke openly about their bohemian values. They “[smoked] marijuana, and [drank] to excess”.
And believe it or not, these were his tame days.
20. He Married A Church Girl
Parsons, perhaps seeking divine inspiration, met Helen Northrup at a local church dance. Their love ignited like a comet streaking through the night sky and by July 1934, Parsons boldly dropped to one knee and proposed. Enraptured by Parsons’ imaginative mind, Helen accepted and the two were married in April 1935.
It was a strange marriage from the very beginning.
21. He Brought His Explosives Home
The newlyweds moved into a quiet home on South Terrace Drive in Pasadena. But Helen learned pretty quickly that Parsons could only ever love rocketry and explosives. Parsons poured almost all of his hard-earned wages into the coffers of the GALCIT Rocket Research Group.
He even had a dangerous habit of bringing his work home.
22. He Turned His Home Into A Lab
Driven by his insatiable hunger for discovery and obsession with rockets, Parsons transformed his humble home into a veritable laboratory. To save money for his research, he began manufacturing the highly volatile chemical, nitroglycerin, right inside his home. It seemed he would sacrifice anything to make a star-bound rocket.
23. He Sold His Wife’s Ring
If Helen ever had any doubts about who her husband loved more, her or rocketry, she quickly got her answer. Consumed by his obsession, Parsons pawned Helen's precious engagement ring off to continue funding his research. He even went to Helen’s family, seeking loans that he likely never intended to pay back. His desperation did, however, pay off.
24. He Went To The Devil’s Gate
By 1936, Parsons’ compulsive research habits finally paid off. Having expanded the Special Operations Squad to nearly ten members, he was finally ready to test his first liquid-fuel rocket. True to form, however, he combined elements of science with mysticism. Parsons chose to hold the rocket launch on Halloween Day near the Devil’s Gate Dam.
He was certainly tempting the spirits.
25. He Set His Team On Fire
Parsons couldn’t have chosen a more auspicious time or place for his first real liquid-fuel rocket test—or a more dangerous one. The team’s first three attempts to launch the rocket all failed. Then it all went terribly wrong. Suddenly, the oxygen line ignited, sending a plume of flames directly at the group of occult scientists.
Fortunately, they all survived. But Parsons caught fire.
26. He Was An Expert Witness
Parsons had achieved a minor level of infamy amongst scientists and academics. But, in 1937, a scandalous trial turned him into a bonafide star. He testified as an explosives expert in the highly publicized trial of a former officer who had tried to detonate a whistleblower's car.
Parsons’ testimony was largely responsible for the conviction. After that, he certainly developed a “cult” following.
27. He Found Religion
With his newfound celebrity, Parsons began to make ever more interesting friends. Two of those friends, John and Frances Baxter, introduced him to the Aleister Crowley founded Church of Thelema. The highly secretive and preternatural church reignited Parsons’ love for the occult and he soon began spending more time drawing pentagrams than chemistry equations.
28. He Was The Most Valuable
Parsons devoted himself completely to the Church of Thelema, moving quickly up the ranks. The sinister founder of the dark order, Aleister Crowley himself, even called Parsons “the most valued member of the whole Order”. Pretty soon, the international cult following of Thelemites began to see Parsons as Crowley’s inevitable successor.
29. He Combined Sorcery And Science
Parsons believed that he could combine the dark arts of Thelemic magick with quantum physics to reach new levels of understanding. Unorthodox as his approach was, it must have had its merits. Soon after he joined the Thelemic Order, Parsons’ rocketry research gained major funding from the government. But he still had to sing for his supper.
30. He Carried On Incendiary Experiments
Most of the money the GALCIT Rocket Research Group got went to repairing the damage they had already done to CalTech’s buildings with their incendiary experiments. With an influx of cash, however, Parsons and his ragtag team of occult scientists continued blowing things up in the hopes of sending a rocket into outer space.
Or blowing a hole through the fabric of spacetime.
31. He Escaped With His Life
With the outbreak of WWII, Parsons’ research into engine fuels became of the utmost importance. But he and his team of scientists pushed their research too far. When testing one of their new fuels, the rocket motor exploded, sending shrapnel flying across the field.
It was a miracle that Parsons and the other researchers escaped unscathed.
32. He Was A Risk To National Security
Parsons’ research was helping the Allies stay ahead of the Axis forces during WWII. Valuable as he was to the US government and the scientific community, however, it became increasingly difficult for them to ignore his occult extracurriculars. As his connections to the Ordo Templis Orientis (a.k.a. the Church of Thelema) deepened, Parsons went from being a “delightful screwball” to a national security risk.
33. He Found Another Woman
After joining the O.T.O. Parsons adopted a far more, shall we say, permissive view of marriage and relationships. In 1941, he and Helen spent an extended period of time apart. In his wife’s absence, however, and encouraged by other members of the O.T.O., he found the loving embrace of another woman.
Or, another girl to be more specific.
34. He Dated Sisters
Parsons had always been so obsessed with his rockets and exploding devices that he had barely ever shown any affection towards his wife, Helen. He also, it would seem, had the hots for her younger sister. When Helen returned from her extended trip, she made a chilling discovery: Parsons had started carrying on an affair with her 17-year old sister, Sara.
35. His Wife Left Him
To add insult to injury, Parsons refused to end his affair with the precocious younger Northrup girl. The radical rocketman even boasted to Helen that he found Sara to be more physically attractive than she was. Devastated, Helen began an affair of her own with another Thelemite, Wilfred Talbot Smith. As they say; all’s well that ends well.
36. He Kept His Own Animals
Parsons’ strange love square became even stranger when both couples—along with another handful of Thelemites—moved into a sprawling estate at 1003 South Orange Grove Boulevard. Their lifestyle shocked the neighbors. Parsons and his Thelemite cultists kept their own livestock which they regularly butchered for meat—and blood rituals.
37. He Liked Chemicals
As he descended further and further into the occult world, Parsons’ experiments took on another dimension. He was no longer simply interested in the chemicals that went, “Boom!” but also became fascinated with other substances. He developed a serious addiction to intoxicants such as methamphetamine, peyote, mescaline, and opiates—to name just a few.
38. He Was A Poet
Torn between sorcery and science, Parsons’ involvement with the O.T.O. began to impact his professional career and reputation. He would often show up to work hungover. During rocket tests, he would also loudly and dramatically recite Aleister Crowley's poem “Hymn to Pan”.
His rabid recitals sent shivers down the spines of his fellow researchers.
39. He Was Part Of A “Black Magic Cult”
With terrifying tales of pregnant women leaping through open flames coming out of Parsons’ O.T.O. estate, the FBI launched an investigation. They claimed that Parsons and his fellow Thelemites were, in fact, a “black magic cult”. While, ultimately, the FBI dropped their investigation, the writing was on the wall for Parsons to see.
40. He Was Out Of Control
Inside their dark estate, now nicknamed the “Parsonage”, personal dramas amongst the Thelemites continued to unfold. As the new head of the chapter, Parsons encouraged all forms of debauchery, including a complicated network of affairs, polyandry and polygamy.
His more wildly promiscuous approach to Thelema met the disapproval of the higher-ups.
41. He Crowed About Crowley
As WWII neared its end, Parsons saw that it was time for a change. He grew disillusioned with Thelema, and openly criticized Crowley’s “appalling egotism, bad taste, bad judgment, and pedanticism”. At the same time, his deepening obsession with the occult finally proved to be too much for the scientific community and they encouraged the government to cut its ties with him.
42. He Met Another Cult Leader
Immediately after WWII, Parsons began to distance himself from the O.T.O. But that doesn’t mean that he was giving up on the occult. Quite the opposite. He began to rent out rooms in the Parsonage to non-Thelemites. His open call for “bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or any other exotic types” brought him face-to-face with another infamous cult leader.
43. He Was Humble Around Hubbard
One of the people who responded to Parsons’ ad for room rentals was none other than a young L. Ron Hubbard, the future controversial founder of Scientology. Parsons and Hubbard hit it off from the beginning, with Parsons heaping praise on Hubbard. He even believed that Hubbard was “in direct touch with some higher intelligence”.
44. He Was Jealous
Parsons wasn’t the only one who became enamored with Hubbard. Almost as soon as he moved in, the future Scientologist sparked up a romance with Sara, Parsons’s girlfriend (and, yes, still technically his sister-in-law). Not wanting to be a hypocrite, Parsons tried to muster up the courage to bury his jealousy. But he only mustered up spirits. Evil spirits.
45. He Went Black
Losing Sara to Hubbard sent Parsons into a ritualistic tailspin. He openly began to practice black magic in an apparent effort to replace her. One fellow Thelemite wrote to Crowley saying, “our own Jack is enamored with Witchcraft, the [hounfour], voodoo”. Yet his most recent foray into the dark arts might actually have yielded results.
46. He Haunted His House
After beginning his dark incantations, Parsons reported all manner of supernatural occurrences at the house. Poltergeists, disembodied voices, and ghostly apparitions began to haunt the Parsonage. Even Forman recalled an instance when one of Parsons’ rituals brought “screaming banshees to the windows”.
The event haunted him for life. But Parsons was just getting warmed up.
47. He Spilled His Nuts On Tablets
As his jealousy intensified, so too did his rituals. You might say that they became a kind of relief for him. Borrowing from ancient Enochian magic, Parsons began to climax all over magical tablets while listening to classical music. If that puts an odd image in your mind, here’s the rub (no pun intended): Parsons allowed Hubbard to take part in the rituals as his scribe.
48. He Summoned Mother Earth
Strange and sordid as Parsons’ new ritual was, it actually seemed to yield results. He claimed that the sleazy ceremony would bring forth the Thelemite goddess, Babalon. This alleged otherworldly being was, for the Thelemites, the embodiment of Mother Earth “in her most fertile” state. Presumably, Parsons intended to mate with her.
49. His Seed Worked
For months, Parsons kept, shall we say, trying his hand at his curious ritual, to no avail. Then, one day in February 1946, in the middle of Mojave Desert, Parsons ended the ritual midway through and declared that it had been a success. When he and Hubbard returned to the Parsonage, Hubbard was shocked to learn that Parsons had been right.
50. He Fell For The Scarlet Woman
Parsons and Hubbard returned to the Parsonage that night to find an unannounced guest in their home—Marjorie Cameron. Convinced that his ritual had worked, Parsons perceived the scorching hot artist, poet and actress to be his Thelemite goddess; the Scarlet Woman and Mother of Abominations. There was definitely an abomination.
51. He Made Love For Two Weeks
Not wanting to waste any time, Parsons married Cameron later that same year and quickly got to the task of “worshiping” his goddess. For two whole weeks, Parsons and Cameron remained locked up in his bedroom. Behind those closed doors, Parsons performed sensual “rituals” in an effort to bring about a “magical child” whom he believed would usher in a new era.
52. He Lost His “Magical Child”
Shortly after, Cameron departed for a trip to New York, where she learned that Parsons’ magical “rituals” had, in fact, worked. Unsurprisingly, after two weeks of passionate, ritualistic intimacy, she had become pregnant with Parsons' child. Sadly, Parsons’ “magical child” never came into being. Cameron terminated her pregnancy.
53. He Went Into Business
Believing that he had successfully brought forth Babalon and ushered in a new era, Parsons returned his focus to the O.T.O. He co-founded a company called Allied Enterprises with Hubbard and Sara, with the intention of buying three yachts and reselling them after sailing them through the Panama Canal. No amount of magic could have predicted what happened next.
54. His Friends Took His Money
Parsons entrusted his entire life savings to Hubbard and Sara—but they had less than honorable intentions with his hard-earned cash. Secretly, Hubbard planned to take Parsons’ money and embark on a globe-trotting escapade on the high seas. Once the other O.T.O. members learned what Hubbard had done, however, Parsons had to save face.
55. He Was A “Weak Fool”
Hubbard and Sara’s scheme left Parsons totally penniless. When Crowley learned about the deceit, he sent a telegram to the California chapter of the O.T.O. branding Parsons a “weak fool”. In a desperate attempt to regain his reputation (and his money), Parsons flew to Miami to confront his fellow cult members. But he was too late.
56. He Summoned Another Demon
By the time Parsons arrived in Miami, Hubbard and Sara had already set sail on the high seas. Parsons, however, had dark magic on his side. A terrible squall forced Hubbard and Sara to turn back. Parsons believed that he had summoned otherworldly forces, invoking the vengeful spirit of Mars to bring the deceitful duo to justice.
57. He Lost His Faith
Parsons managed to bring Hubbard and Sara to justice but only recovered a small fraction of the money they had swindled from him. Nevertheless, the entire experience convinced Parsons of something he had long since believed. It was time for him to part ways with the O.T.O. In a letter to Crowley, Parsons denounced the O.T.O. as an “autocratic organization” and set out on his own.
58. He Cheated Just Like His Father
Following his split from the O.T.O. Parsons struggled to find work in rocketry and doubled down on his occult practices. Even though he remained married to Cameron, the two were seldom together. Probably because Parsons—like his father decades earlier—carried on numerous affairs with women of ill-repute while performing demonic rituals.
59. He Made Explosives For Movies
By 1952, Parsons’ reputation as an occultist, philanderer and possible communist prevented him from finding work in rocketry. As such, he began making explosives for movies. Ironically, making fake explosives turned out to be more dangerous for Parsons than his years of rockets and rituals. In fact, it turned out to be fatal.
60. He Mixed Mercury
While mixing chemicals, Parsons dropped a tin of mercury. The volatile substance mixed with other chemicals on the floor and set off a catastrophic explosion. The force of the blast completely destroyed the lower half of the building in which Parsons had been working. The real carnage, however, was Parsons himself.
61. He Blew Himself Up
The sheer force of the blast completely severed Parsons’ right forearm and shredded his left. Both of his legs had been broken in the blast, but the scariest injury was a giant hole straight through the right side of his face. By some miracle (or witchcraft) Parsons survived the blast and first responders found him conscious at the scene.
62. His Mother Couldn’t Live Without Him
In the end, there was no incantation, pentagram or demonic ritual that could save Parsons. He briefly tried to communicate with the medics but, ultimately, succumbed to his severe injuries. In an even more tragic twist to Parsons’ story, his mother overdosed on barbiturates when she learned about her son’s passing.
63. He Was A Mad Genius
Parsons remains a mysterious figure. However, the science fiction author L. Sprague de Camp described Parsons better than anyone when he called him, “An authentic mad genius if I ever met one”. Mad or not, however, Parsons’ work with rocketry laid the foundation for space exploration. Even if he did get a little help from Babalon.