The Three Rocketeers
Strange Angel: The Otherwordly Life of Rocket Scientist John
Whiteside Parsons. George Pendle. xii + 350 pp. Harcourt,
Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science. M. G. Lord.
xii + 259 pp. Walker and Company, 2005. $24.
In 1935, three California experimenters—John Whiteside
("Jack") Parsons, Edward Forman and Frank Malina—got
together to develop and test rocket engines. Parsons and Forman were
barely more than enthusiastic kids fresh out of high school, and
Malina was a 22-year-old graduate student at Caltech. They would go
on to become founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the
Aerojet Engineering Corporation. The fascinating story of this trio
and the early days of American rocketry research can be found in two
new books, Strange Angel, by George Pendle, and Astro
Turf, by M. G. Lord.
Parsons, Forman and Malina had diverse backgrounds and interests,
but their skills were perfectly complementary. Parsons, the group's
chemist, grew up on Millionaire's Row in Pasadena, scion of a rich
family from back East, but his family lost their money during the
early years of the Depression, so he was unable to afford college.
He had enthusiasm for a hundred different subjects: poetry, fencing,
classical music, the occult, explosives and, above all, rockets.
Most of his knowledge of chemistry was self-taught or learned on the
job at an explosives manufacturing plant.
Forman, who had been Parson's best friend since high school, was the
machinist of the group—a skill that would prove critical for
their endeavors. According to Lord, he "could cobble together
almost any device out of junkyard finds." Looking back on their
early efforts, Forman later said that "It was our desire and
intent to develop the ability to rocket to the moon." In the
1930s, that was an ambitious goal indeed.
Malina, the group's theoretician and mathematician, was the son of
Czech dissidents who had come to America to escape repression. He
had studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, but he was
also a musician and an artist. As a graduate student, he convinced
aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán to approve a thesis
in rocket design at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratories of the
California Institute of Technology (GALCIT). Parsons and Forman met
Malina when they were drawn to the Caltech campus by a newspaper
article about a lecture on rocket technology, and through him they
gained access to Caltech's resources.
Strange Angel focuses on Parsons, who was certainly the
craziest and arguably the most interesting of the three. The book
tells a spellbinding story of a man with eccentricities that went
well beyond a fascination with rocketry and included a penchant for
the occult. He became an acolyte of the English writer and magician
Aleister Crowley, who was the founder of a cult that practiced
rituals of magick, "the Science and Art of causing
Change to occur in conformity with Will." Crowley, who called
himself "666" and "The Great Beast" (among other
things), was dubbed the "wickedest man in the world" by
the British press. His Ordo Templi Orientis (which claimed descent
from the Knights Templars and the Bavarian Illuminati) was by no
means the most bizarre cult in freewheeling 1930s California, but it
was strange enough.
Pendle's book follows the 1999 biography Sex and Rockets: The
Occult World of Jack Parsons, by a writer using the
pseudonym John Carter. Strange Angel is longer and gives a
more nuanced portrait of the subject's conflicted and contradictory
personality. Pendle also seems to have had access to some
biographical sources unavailable to Carter. Sex and
Rockets, however, provides more details about Parson's occult
rituals and has better photographs.
The cover of Strange Angel (see left) shows a young,
resolute Jack Parsons examining two wires protruding from an odd
cylindrical object—perhaps some piece of scientific equipment?
The object is, in fact, nothing less than a large pipe bomb. This
photograph—printed on the cover as a mirror
image—was taken during a famous 1938 trial in Los Angeles in
which Parsons testified as an explosives expert and built a replica
of a bomb that had been used in an assassination attempt. He was
only 23 at the time. This is the young, self--confident rocket
scientist and explosives expert, only a few years from his greatest
success, which was followed by his equally rapid plunge from science
into magick, and from there to his death. The photo is oddly
prescient: Just 14 years later, Parsons was killed in a mishap with
his own explosives.
Strange Angel has a strong narrative drive and reads like a
novel—except that a novel has to be plausible, whereas the
life of Jack Parsons, poet, magician and rocket pioneer, had no such constraint.
Lord's Astro Turf, a much shorter book, looks at the same
history from a different direction. Her story centers on her
personal search to understand her father, who was an aerospace
engineer in the early days of JPL's interplanetary probes. In
narrating her quest, she weaves backward and forward in time,
exploring the history of JPL and interviewing present-day engineers
who have worked on the Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover missions.
Lord is more interested in Malina than in Parsons (although the
latter does, of course, play a costarring role). Her chapters on
Malina, titled "The Rockets' Red Glare, Parts I and II,"
form the heart (and most interesting portion) of her book.
In 1935, rocket engineering had barely advanced from the technology
developed by Sir William Congreve (whose rockets, fired by the
British in the War of 1812, inspired the "rockets' red
glare" line in "The Star-Spangled Banner"). Indeed,
little improvement had been seen since the Chinese had used
black-powder rockets in warfare a thousand years earlier. That was
about to change rapidly as a result of work on liquid-fueled rockets
being done on three fronts: in New Mexico by Robert Goddard; in
Germany by Wernher von Braun's Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR),
or Society for Space Travel; and in California by GALCIT's Rocket
Research Group—the "Suicide Squad," consisting of
Parsons, Forman, Malina and their coterie.
By 1938 members of the Suicide Squad, no longer allowed to carry out
their experiments on the Caltech campus, were testing their engines
outside Pasadena in the Arroyo Seco, which later became the site of
JPL. They reveled in their nickname. Parsons would dance and chant
poetry—most notably Crowley's "Hymn to
Pan"—before rocket tests. (Von Kármán
called Parsons a "delightful screwball.") Slowly and
painstakingly, they developed a practical theory of rocket motors.
They also invented propellant combinations that were robust and
storable. What is more important, these new liquid and solid
propellants fueled working engines—in contrast to the
concoctions that preceded them, which had chiefly fueled explosions
(hence the group's nickname). In the early days Parsons, Forman and
Malina were the driving force, although others of course contributed
The war brought respectability and badly needed funding to the
rocket-crazy trio. Malina sold the U.S. Army on the utility of
rocket boosters, which were tagged Jet-Assisted Takeoff (JATO)
units, to boost overladen bombers from short runways. With von
Kármán as its titular head, GALCIT suddenly had a
funded rocket-research project. "We could even expect to be
paid for doing our rocket research," Malina marveled. And,
thanks in good part to the trio's diligence and to the chemical
genius of Parsons, their experiments succeeded. Both Pendle and Lord
recount how the men launched a small airplane, an Ercoupe, into the
air on rocket power. Within a year they incorporated Aerojet to
manufacture the JATO units. In 1944, GALCIT was renamed the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. (At the time, the word rocket, which
was associated with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, was not taken
seriously, so jet was substituted, having been deemed more
appropriate for marketing purposes.)
If the story had stopped at 1945, the success of Malina, Parsons and
Forman would have been a classic American tale of triumph against
long odds, illustrating the merits of a small, dedicated technical
team. The three men reinforced one another. Malina, guided by the
genius von Kármán, reined in the impulses of the other
two men, who were eager to try whatever idea happened to spring to
mind. Malina insisted on gathering rigorous data. The enthusiasm of
Parsons and Forman for experimentation, on the other hand, kept
Malina focused toward building actual rocket engines, not just
solving equations on paper.
In October 1945, the WAC Corporal rocket, the final achievement of
the GALCIT rocket project, flew to an altitude of more than 70
kilometers, becoming the first American rocket ever to exit the
Earth's atmosphere. (When I started flying model rockets 20 years
later, my first launch was a scale model of the WAC Corporal. I did
not know its venerable history!)
But the story did not end with the WAC Corporal launch. The descent
and fragmentation of the team was as chaotic and complicated as its
rise had been triumphant. Of the original three, only Frank Malina
was still at JPL when the WAC Corporal penetrated into space, and he
was only to remain for another year.
Malina's fate diverged from that of Parsons in 1945, after the trio
had succeeded in their original objectives. Parsons and Forman,
ill-suited to running a business, were persuaded to sell their
Aerojet shares for a modest amount: Parsons netted enough to buy a
house, with some money left over to invest—but if he had kept
his stock another 15 or 20 years, it would have been worth millions.
The buyout was a move on the part of Aerojet to dissociate itself
from the increasingly bizarre behavior of Parsons, who was
experimenting with "sex magick" and running a bohemian
commune and an occult temple out of his home. His behavior got crazy
here, as he tried—but ultimately failed—to be as
successful in his experiments with magick as the trio had been in
their rocket experimentation.
Malina kept his Aerojet shares. It was a youthful interest in the
Communist Party that catalyzed his departure from rocket research.
After the war, official attitudes turned increasingly toward
paranoid anticommunism. Lord puts together a good case that Malina
indeed had close associations with the Communist Party in the 1930s,
but she also notes that, like most liberals of the era, he broke
completely with communism following the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.
As Lord points out, although being an ex-Nazi did not preclude being
considered a solid American citizen, being an ex-Communist, or even
having attended a single meeting of the Communist Party, branded one
forever as un-American. Malina's youthful interest resulted in
increasingly hostile attention from the Federal Bureau of
Investigation. Meanwhile, the development of rockets as a means for
delivering atomic warheads, an application the young trio had never
imagined, increasingly disturbed Malina's conscience. In 1947 he
left Pasadena, and rocket research, accepting a job offered by
Julian Huxley to join the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.
Moving to Paris did not solve Malina's problems with the FBI. In
1952, he was indicted for having failed to list his Communist Party
membership on an old security questionnaire from Caltech. He was
declared a fugitive, to be arrested if and when he returned to the
United States. Malina's stock in Aerojet gave him enough savings to
live independently. He went on to have a successful career as an
artist and sculptor, and founded the interdisciplinary magazine of
arts and sciences Leonardo, which still exists today.
Lord recounts the early days of JPL's founders in pieces,
alternating with chapters about her family and about present-day
JPL. Her story is weakest, oddly enough, when she talks about her
own family and her experiences growing up in the 1950s and early
1960s with an aerospace engineer for a father. Her characterizations
of engineers rarely rise above stereotype, and her analysis relies
on pop psychology and overused metaphors: Rockets are always
"phallic" and "tumescent"; the launch process is
"steeped in left-brain, masculine communication patterns."
Even mild engineering humor is opaque to her.
In one chapter, Lord blames her father for failing to encourage her
to study science and engineering. Her family stories, though, give
the opposite impression. A pressure-suit helmet given to her by her
father was her favorite childhood toy, and she writes about how she
and her father spent "twenty-four weekends" together
building model airplanes, which she lists lovingly by name. She
states that she was brilliant in all subjects in school, except for
having "no aptitude" for "rock-hard, number-filled
courses." Yet she never thinks that her lack of interest in
math might have been a factor in her father not encouraging her to
Lord's cultural critiques are a bit shallow. We hardly need her
exaggerated scorn to tell us that in the '50s and '60s sex roles
were stereotyped, or that families who are apparently happy can
Some of her accusations are oddly off-target. To illustrate
intolerance of homosexuality at JPL in the 1960s, she relates the
British persecution of mathematician Alan Turing. It is no
particular revelation that workplaces of that era were peculiarly
intolerant of homosexuality, but it is odd that Lord had to look
back several decades and across an ocean to find a noteworthy
example. (The main example she finds of intolerance of homosexuality
at JPL is that a 1989 seminar titled "Homophobia in the
Sciences" did not rate an announcement in the JPL in-house publication.)
Lord's interviews and capsule sketches of many of the engineers
involved in Mars projects past and present at JPL (many of whom I've
worked with) are a bright point of the book. The work environment in
engineering has advanced since the '50s and '60s, and she excels at
personalizing the people involved in missions. In the process, she
demonstrates that engineering is no longer the exclusive fraternity
of white men with slide rules and crew cuts.
These two books paint a portrait of a remarkable time and
place—Pasadena before and after the Second World War, when a
small band of enthusiastic kids experimenting in an empty arroyo
created a fantastic invention that has shaped today's world. Indeed,
when the first American satellite, Explorer, was launched
in 1958, the Army team led by von Braun built the first stage of the
rocket that launched it—but the upper stages, and the
satellite, are direct descendants of the rockets built by the