Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Sex, Solid Fuel Rockets, and L. Ron Hubbard.


Just read an interesting book:
Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons

It’s the true story of the high school dropout who helped launched the space program, John Parsons. But this is no fuck-up does good and become Lee Iacocca bullshit. Parsons was a WACKO, as well as an interesting footnote in the history of religious chicanery, serving as a bridge between the Victorian Old World flim- flam of Aleister Crowley and the Space Age Yankee flim-flam of L. Ron Hubbard (who makes a last act appearance as a dastardly villain, fleeing on yacht with Parson’s lady and a good chunk of his life savings.)

Parson blew up sheds in and around Cal Tech by day, and ran a Gnostic free love freakshow in an old Pasadena mansion by night. (LA was very, very weird in the forties. Full of racial strife, institutionalized corruption and flakely cults. The more things change...) Parson was Crowley’s man in LA, running the local temple of Crowley’s order, the OTO. He was also one of the underappreciated international network of amateurs that ushered in the rocket age.

Rockets were written off by the scientific establishment as goony kids stuff, not worthy of study, especially as propulsion for spacecraft. Some physicists, who should have known better, even argued rockets would not work in a vacuum.

It was only through the efforts of a bunch of obsessed misfits existing outside academia that the US eventually had any sort of rocket program. The Nazis, on the other hand, became very very interested in what their nerds were up to rocket-wise and as a result 3,000 V2s later rained on London and Rotterdam. Rockets worked.

The sadly ironic result for Parsons is that once rocketry became respectable, weirdos like him were pushed aside for degreed professionals. While his grab-ass little posse of pyros eventually became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Parson ended his life in an accidental explosion, blowing himself to smithereens mixing up demolition effects for a movie studio.

What’s interesting is watching Hubbard, at the time a fairly successful Sci-Fi writer, out-Crowley Crowley, creating a global religion with not a little cribbing from Crowley’s playbook. Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp (Conan’s co-creator) even make a brief appearance to comment on the audacity of their fellow pulp-spieler.

It’s the prose is a bit dry, but the subject matter more than makes up for it. As soon as you’re done rereading Princess Daisy, give it a spin.

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Blogger Nedhead said...

I'm still working on the book version of the new Dukes of Hazard movie, but I will keep your recommendation in mind.

5:41 AM  

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