Awesome Men Throughout History: Jack Parsons
If there’s one thing I hope to discredit with this column, it’s the idea that science is dull and fact-obsessed and full of nerds who can’t have fun. Scientists are crazy, and not always in a marketable, Charlie Sheen kind of way. Some of them are misguided (Sergei Bryukhonenko, Giovanni Aldini), some cross over into evil supervillainy (Josef Mengele, Harry Harlow, that weird Japanese military scientist who gave people syphilis), and some were just bonkers in a way that defied any moral spectrum. This week’s subject, Jack Parsons, is of that third category, and yet he still made our world a better and more interesting place to live.
First off, he was a genius. He got a job at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at CalTech despite his education – he only had two years logged at the University of Southern California, and junior college before that. Listen to one of Adam Carolla’s old Loveline rants about junior college and then consider the odds of anyone from that system becoming a respected chemist. Yeah. That’s how smart Parsons was.
At CalTech, Parsons was a major player in developing solid fuel for rockets and inventing JATO units for aircraft, two things that basically made the space age possible. Most notably, Parsons figured out how to make rocket fuel from asphalt and potassium perchlorate, which did wonders for American rocket propulsion. Man’s first steps (and later, first golf swings) on the moon wouldn’t have been possible without Parsons’ research.
From hearing all that, you’d think that Parsons was some dork in a lab coat and Buddy Holly glasses who spent his life pouring liquids in and out of beakers and occasionally posing for extremely awkward press photographs. But that wasn’t the case at all. For one thing, Parsons looked like a sleazier Clark Gable. One could almost picture him as a dashing international jewel thief, someone who could easily win the confidence of rich heiresses and seduce them before stealing their stuff and making an escape from the bedroom window. Given Parsons’ strong opinions about sexual liberation (he was really, really for it), that wouldn’t have been out of the question.
But Parsons was also deep into the occult. A contemporary of Aleister Crowley, Parsons would chant Crowley’s hymn to the Greek god Pan before every rocket test launch he conducted, and was an esteemed member of Crowley’s goofy religion. Parsons was also friends with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard for a time, until Hubbard (who was a piece of crap human being at the best of times) ripped him off and tried to flee the country with Parsons’ money and girlfriend, leaving Parsons no choice but to try and summon a typhoon to keep the author of Dianetics from escaping. I am not making any of that up.
But batshit crazy or not, Parsons contributed a lot to the sciences, and to our identity as a nation when you consider the long-term impact of the space age. And his political views, complex though they were, show a compassion for humanity and a clear understanding of the balance between personal liberties and one’s obligations to their community.
That said, I’m going to thank him the only way my unscientific mind can think of: by watching Apollo 13 and giving him silent props for how much of it he made possible. No hymns to Pan, though. That’s pushing it a little far.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.