Born the only child of a rich California family in 1914, John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons dreamed of making the rocket flight he read of in magazines like Astounding Science Fiction a reality. In the 1930's, the Depression cost his family most of their fortune, so Parsons was unable to attend college, but he and two friends learned enough chemistry to build rockets that attracted the attention of scientists such as Robert Goddard and Theodore von Kármán. By the time the United States had entered World War II, their rockets were promising enough to gain support and funding from the Army, which paid them to develop Jet-Assisted Takeoff (JATO) boosters to help bombers rise from their runways when heavily loaded with weapons. In 1945 the group developed the WAC Corporal rocket, the first American rocket to rise out of the Earth's atmosphere. Their organization, renamed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was a major contributor to the American space program.
Parsons, however, took off in a different direction. Fascinated by the writings of occultist Aleister Crowley, Parsons joined the Ordo Templi Orientis, Crowley's organization. There he encountered L. Ron Hubbard, who would go on to found the Church of Scientology. The complicated relationships among Parsons, Hubbard, and several women they were involved with, including an attempt to use sex magic to incarnate a goddess named Babalon, are thoroughly described in this book. This effort did not succeed, and Hubbard ran off with Parsons's magical partner and much of his money.
Parsons was unable to turn his scientific skills to profit. He was investigated by the FBI for possible subversive connections, though none were found. On June 17, 1952, explosives stored at Parsons's house blew up, killing him. There was no evidence of foul play, and it was impossible to tell whether Parsons had deliberately set them off.
Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons offers a look at a fascinatingly conflicted person, including a thorough background in both scientific and occult areas.