Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Reading List: Strange Angel
- Pendle, George. Strange Angel. New York: Harcourt, 2005. ISBN 978-0-15-603179-0.
- For those who grew up after World War II “rocket science” meant something extremely difficult, on the very edge of the possible, pursued by the brightest of the bright, often at risk of death or dire injury. In the first half of the century, however, “rocket” was a pejorative, summoning images of pulp magazines full of “that Buck Rogers stuff”, fireworks that went fwoosh—flash—bang if all went well, and often in the other order when it didn't, with aspiring rocketeers borderline lunatics who dreamed of crazy things like travelling to the Moon but usually ended blowing things up, including, but not limited to, themselves. This was the era in which John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons came of age. Parsons was born and spent most of his life in Pasadena, California, a community close enough to Los Angeles to participate in its frontier, “anything goes” culture, but also steeped in well-heeled old wealth, largely made in the East and seeking the perpetually clement climate of southern California. Parsons was attracted to things that went fwoosh and bang from the very start. While still a high school senior, he was hired by the Hercules Powder Company, and continued to support himself as an explosives chemist for the rest of his life. He never graduated from college, no less pursued an advanced degree, but his associates and mentors, including legends such as Theodore von Kármán were deeply impressed by his knowledge and meticulously careful work with dangerous substances and gave him their highest recommendations. On several occasions he was called as an expert witness to testify in high-profile trials involving bombings. And yet, at the time, to speak seriously about rockets was as outré as to admit one was a fan of “scientifiction” (later science fiction), or a believer in magic. Parsons was all-in on all of them. An avid reader of science fiction and member of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, Parsons rubbed shoulders with Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Forrest J. Ackerman. On the darker side, Parsons became increasingly involved in the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), followers of Aleister Crowley, and practitioners of his “magick”. One gets the sense that Parsons saw no conflict whatsoever among these pursuits—all were ways to transcend the prosaic everyday life and explore a universe enormously larger and stranger than even that of Los Angeles and its suburbs. Parsons and his small band of rocket enthusiasts, “the suicide squad”, formed an uneasy alliance with the aeronautical laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, and with access to their resources and cloak of respectability, pursued their dangerous experiments first on campus, and then after a few embarrassing misadventures, in Arroyo Seco behind Pasadena. With the entry of the United States into World War II, the armed services had difficult problems to solve which overcame the giggle factor of anything involving the word “rocket”. In particular, the U.S. Navy had an urgent need to launch heavily-laden strike aircraft from short aircraft carrier decks (steam catapults were far in the future), and were willing to consider even Buck Rogers rockets to get them off the deck. Well, at least as long as you didn't call them “rockets”! So, the Navy sought to procure “Jet Assisted Take-Off” units, and Caltech created the “Jet Propulsion Laboratory” with Parsons as a founder to develop them, and then its members founded the Aerojet Engineering Corporation to build them in quantity. Nope, no rockets around here, nowhere—just jets. Even as Parsons' rocket dreams came true and began to make him wealthy, he never forsook his other interests: they were all integral to him. He advanced in Crowley's OTO, became a regular correspondent of the Great Beast, and proprietor of the OTO lodge in Pasadena, home to a motley crew of bohemians who prefigured the beatniks and hippies of the 1950s and '60s. And he never relinquished his interest in science fiction, taking author L. Ron Hubbard into his community. Hubbard, a world class grifter even in his early days, took off with Parsons' girlfriend and most of his savings on the promise of buying yachts in Florida and selling them at a profit in California. Uh-huh! I'd put it down to destructive engrams. Amidst all of this turmoil, Parsons made one of the most important inventions in practical rocketry of the 20th century. Apart from the work of Robert Goddard, which occurred largely disconnected from others due to Goddard's obsessive secrecy due to his earlier humiliation by learned ignoramuses, and the work by the German rocket team, conducted in secrecy in Nazi Germany, rockets mostly meant solid rockets, and solid rockets were little changed from mediaeval China: tubes packed with this or that variant of black powder which went fwoosh all at once when ignited. Nobody before Parsons saw an alternative to this. When faced by the need for a reliable, storable, long-duration burn propellant for Navy JATO boosters, he came up with the idea of castable solid propellant (initially based upon asphalt and potassium perchlorate), which could be poured as a liquid into a booster casing with a grain shape which permitted tailoring the duration and thrust profile of the motor to the mission requirements. Every single solid rocket motor used today employs this technology, and Jack Parsons, high school graduate and self-taught propulsion chemist, invented it all by himself. On June 17th, 1952, an explosion destroyed a structure on Pasadena's Orange Grove Avenue where Jack Parsons had set up his home laboratory prior to his planned departure with his wife to Mexico. He said he had just one more job to do for his client, a company producing explosives for Hollywood special effects. Parsons was gravely injured and pronounced dead at the hospital. The life of Jack Parsons was one which could only have occurred in the time and place he lived it. It was a time when a small band of outcasts could have seriously imagined building a rocket and travelling to the Moon; a time when the community they lived in was aboil with new religions, esoteric cults, and alternative lifestyles; and an entirely new genre of fiction was exploring the ultimate limits of the destiny of humanity and its descendents. Jack swam in this sea and relished it. His short life (just 37 years) was lived in a time and place which has never existed before and likely will never exist again. The work he did, the people he influenced, and the consequences cast a long shadow still visible today (every time you see a solid rocket booster heave a launcher off the pad, its coruscant light, casting that shadow, is Jack Parsons' legacy). This is a magnificent account of a singular life which changed our world, and is commemorated on the rock next door. On the lunar far side the 40 kilometre diameter crater Parsons is named for the man who dreamt of setting foot, by rocketry or magick, upon that orb and, in his legacy, finally did with a big footprint indeed—more than eight times larger than the one named for that Armstrong fellow.
Posted at July 10, 2012 23:40