John Whiteside Parsons was a pioneering rocket scientist. His principal achievement was the development of solid rocket fuel.
Initially, this was developed to provide jet-assisted take-off for military aircraft. In subsequent years, however, Parsons’ technology has developed into massive solid rocket boosters, which have become an essential workhorse for modern, modular space launch vehicles.
However, Parsons was not a conventional scientist. He lived a strange, double life as a secret follower of British occultist Aleister Crowley, and member of the California Lodge of Crowley’s ‘magickal’ group, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).
Parsons is of interest to anyone interested in the history of Scientology because of his relationship with L Ron Hubbard, in the days before the creation of Dianetics, when they performed ‘black magic’ rituals together.
This period of Hubbard’s life is to this day, a major embarrassment to the Church of Scientology- so much so that they have devised an elaborate ‘cover story’ concerning those years. The Church suggests argues that Hubbard was actually engaged in an undercover operation for Naval Intelligence which, “Broke up black magic in America” and protected Parson’s cutting-edge rocket technology.
The only occasion when this cover story has been taken semi-seriously is in a 1987 BBC radio programme called “Ruthless Aventure”. It became untenable when accurate information about Hubbard’s life was leaked by Gerry Armstrong, a Scientologist tasked with preparing an archive of Hubbard’s personal papers for a biography of Scientology’s founder.
Armstrong had found the documented facts of Hubbard’s life (especially his farcical war record) completely at odds with the Church of Scientology’s version, and left the Church when it was made clear to him that those in power were actively hostile towards anyone who wanted to reveal the truth.
Although this article only covers the relationship between Parsons and Hubbard briefly (at the end) it provides a good introduction to, and overview of, Parson’s life. It is worth reading before tackling any of the more detailed accounts (and please don’t be put off by the silly cover image).
The best biography of Parsons is probably Strange Angel followed by Sex and Rockets (the link includes a free download). Also available here is my own post Based on the official biography of the science fiction writer Robert A Heinlein, it discusses the complex relationship between Heinlein, Hubbard and Parsons.