We Value Your Privacy

This site uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to browse, you accept the use of cookies and other technologies.


The Occult-Obsessed Rocket Scientist You Need to Know About

A founder of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

black and white photo of jack parsons holding a bomb
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Science and the occult are usually pitted against one another, and for good reason: While science is rooted in facts, the occult is messier, harder to define. Science deals with what we know; the occult confronts the fundamentally unknowable. 

Magick (notorious English esotericist Aleister Crowley added the “k” to differentiate his attempts to harness the arcane energies of the universe from the kinds of stage performances that involve pulling a rabbit out of a hat) and a branch of science as complex as rocketry may seem worlds apart.

Enter the enigmatic Jack Parsons, a movie star-handsome LA native and Crowley disciple who also happens to be one of the world’s first bona fide rocket scientists. 

Who is Jack Parsons? 

Born John Whiteside Parsons in 1914, Jack grew up in a mansion on Orange Grove Boulevard, in a section of Pasadena known as “Millionaire’s Row.” By the time Jack reached college, most of his family’s fortune had been lost and he was forced to drop out of school. 

Parsons' subsequent inability to gain admission to the prestigious California Institute of Technology (Caltech) had little effect on his interest in a nascent subset of aerospace engineering known as “rocket science,” which combined two of Jack’s most enduring loves: science fiction—which is what most of the scientific establishment considered rocketry to be at that time—and good old-fashioned destruction.

Jack Parsons loved explosions and spent hours in the arroyos of Pasadena blowing things up while dreaming of other worlds beyond our own.

Despite never officially joining its student body or faculty, Jack Parsons made his mark as one of the founders of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which remains a prominent NASA laboratory for solar system exploration to this day. 

Jack Parsons' occult fascination

Parsons' desire for a knowledge that transcends the boundaries of the planet may also explain Jack’s lifelong interest in magick and the occult.

He was a practicing Thelemite and personal friend of Aleister Crowley, who hand-picked Jack to head the Agape Lodge, the American branch of his Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). 

It was via the OTO that Jack also made another very interesting frenemy: Future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who eventually ran off with Jack’s girlfriend, along with most of his life savings—but not before he aided Jack in completing a magickal rite called the “Babalon Working,” intended to summon an ancient Thelemic goddess.

According to Jack, the rite was a success: Shortly after its completion, he met the striking Marjorie Cameron, an artist and fellow occult enthusiast who he would marry in 1946.  

Unfortunately, his unorthodox views led to the loss of his security clearance, rendering him unable to work as a rocket scientist despite his major contributions to the field.

By the end of his life, he worked mainly in the motion picture industry, engineering explosions for movies. 

While most of his colleagues were able to see their dreams of space travel realized in the coming decades, Jack Parsons wouldn’t even live to witness the first moon landing: In 1952, he died in a mysterious explosion in his home— known as the Parsonage—on Orange Grove. He was only 37 years old. 

Retrace Parsons’ footsteps in Los Angeles for a fascinating trip through a bygone era: 

Pasadena’s Millionaire’s Row

photo of a flowered tree and parts of a condo that now sit where Jack's home used to be
  • camera-icon
  • What now stands where Jack Parsons' home used to be.

    Photo Credit: Rachel James / Atlas Obscura

Start at Orange Grove Boulevard for a tour of Pasadena’s Millionaire’s Row, where Jack Parsons grew up, and where he hosted the majority of his magickal rituals from his home, which doubled as the headquarters for the Agape Lodge.

While the Parsonage itself, formerly at 1003 S. Orange Grove Blvd., is long gone—replaced by condos—many of the era’s stately mansions remain.

Take a city-sanctioned walking tour, and don’t forget to imagine ‘40s-era bohemians dancing nude in the moonlight on the sprawling, manicured lawns!

a photo of Devil's Gate Dam in Pasadena
  • camera-icon
  • Devil's Gate Dam: The test site for many of Parsons’ early pre-JPL rocket experiments, as well as the “portal to hell.”

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Devil’s Gate Dam

black and white photo of jack parsons standing at a test site at jpl in 1943
  • camera-icon
  • John Whiteside "Jack" Parsons standing above a Jet-Assisted Take Off canister at JPL's test site in the Arroyo Seco, Los Angeles County, 1943.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Devil’s Gate Dam straddles the border between Pasadena and nearby La Cañada Flintridge, and is notable as both the test site for many of Parsons’ early pre-JPL rocket experiments, and the site of an alleged “portal to hell.”

Did Jack really see the devil himself in the strange rock formations that flank the shadowy tunnel at this mysterious site?

Why not take the short hike into the brush near this evocatively-named reservoir and find out for yourself? 

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

If you need any more proof that rocket science is kinda spooky, consider this: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was officially founded on Halloween—October 31, 1936, to be exact.

Whether you’re a fan of Jack Parsons or simply into outer space, JPL offers occasional on-site tours that are open to the public, although they tend to fill up months in advance.

Be forewarned: While you can count on viewing planetary rovers and checking out Mission Control, don’t expect any official mention of Parsons on campus. 

If you’d like a little more “JP” in your JPL, consider supplementary reading material instead: 

Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons

Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons

By John Carter

This book is an interesting companion piece that further fleshes out Parsons’ more esoteric pursuits. If you’ve had your fill of science and want to lean into the magick, this is the biography for you. 

freedom is a two edged sword jack parsons book cover

Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword

By John Whiteside Parsons

If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a copy, you can read about Parsons’ beliefs in his own words in this collection of essays focusing on “magick and witchcraft,” as well as his general philosophical outlook. 

Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron

Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron

By Spencer Kansa

Cameron is certainly notable enough to warrant her own biography, and anyone curious about Parsons will find plenty to chew on in this detailed account of her fascinating life.