Depending on who you ask, I’m about to be sucked into a Hell portal that allegedly sits in caverns somewhere around NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. The place looks almost calm from here—I’m standing midway across a footbridge over the Arroyo Seco canyon, near La Cañada Flintridge, California, a good quarter-mile southeast of the lab’s campus. The old line is that JPL is really Jack Parsons’ Lab. Marvel “John” Whiteside Parsons, the late chemist, rocketeer, and high school dropout had a hand in some of the first rocket tests on what would later become the grounds of the JPL, NASA’s famous rocket incubator.
It was the dawn of World War II when Parsons, who’d also co-founded the missile manufacturing firm Aerojet around the same time as JPL’s inception, took to the Ordo Templi Orientis. The OTO was a Thelema-based, fraternal-religious sex-magick order founded by Aleister Crowley, the British mystic variously known as the Great Beast 666 and the “most evil man who ever lived.”
Parsons saw in Crowley a master-mentor figure. The Feds saw suspicious activity. In 1950, the FBI would investigate Parsons over the theft of rocket documents from the Hughes Aircraft Company; after being discovered, Parsons was immediately fired, and would later lose his top secret clearance. “He planned to submit the documents with an employment application through American Technion Society for employment in the country of Israel,” read the original FBI report.
Whether or not Parsons was acting as an Israeli spy or simply being cavalier, his connection to the occult earned him special attention. The US Air Force advised the FBI that the USAF had already collected files on Parsons and his relationship with Crowley, one of which, dated May 17, 1948, stated: “A religious cult, believed to advocate sexual perversion, was organized at subject’s home at 1003 South Orange Grove Avenue, Pasadena, California, which has been reported subversive…” “This cult,” it continued, “broadly hinted at free love”: there had been “several complaints of ‘’strange goings on at this home,’” and an unnamed source had described the church as “a gathering place of perverts.” Furthermore, “…women of loose morals were involved and… the story of Parsons’ activities had become fairly common knowledge among scientists in the Pasadena area.”
But soon enough the young explosives guru was running with another OTO buck, a young writer named L. Ron. Hubbard. When Parsons, then in his early 30s, wasn’t ranging the canyon beneath me, chanting mantras to Pan before field-testing one of NASA’s nascent projectiles, there’s good chance the guy could’ve been found with Hubbard, caught up in all manner of weirdo rites in and around the Arroyo Seco and greater San Gabriel Valley. They indulged stuff you’d expect—wearing robes and bejeweled hoods; scheming to conceive a hulking Moonchild with Parsons’ mistress, dawning the Aeon of Horus; plotting the overthrow of 4D spacetime; drug-addled anal parties; animal sacrifices. You know. Cult stuff.
Parsons' embrace of this seemingly double life is a knotty bit of history, though maybe not impossible to untangle. It could’ve been that because he wasn’t studying at neighboring CalTech—Parsons and only one other of the core of JPL’s founders weren’t fully immersed in academia, I’m told—the brilliant, if undisciplined Parsons had no qualms in latching onto the OTO. Or maybe it was the occult’s general grasp over southern California that pulled Parsons to the dark arts.
Whatever it was, the move drew fire from some of his contemporaries. More poignantly, it triggered Parsons’ migration from JPL’s founder’s circle, a disparate group of aerospace experimentalists, mechanics, and others known as the “rocket boys,” and into the folks-y, tragicomic dustbin of national lab heroism.“As I write,” Parsons lamented in 1950, “the United States Senate is pursuing a burlesque investigation into the sphere of private sexual morals, which will accomplish nothing except to bring pain and sorrow to many innocent persons.” Indeed, Parsons’ contentious modus operandi and his untimely, fiery demise may shed light on just why it is that we Americans choose to canonize some minds and not others. And perhaps it may even point to why popular opinion continually pits science and reason and religi-magic against each other as eternally incompatible forces.
Crowley says it was the sheer force of Parsons and Hubbard’s ritualisms around here that opened the portal. Still others say the steady beam of strange vibes over the region was so intensely powerful over Parsons that there was simply no other option besides rocketeering here, despite being trolled by the FBI. The Arroyo’s dark energies wouldn’t only boost rockets’ precision, Parsons thought. They’d have them cruising further, faster.