THE TEST RIG SETUP: The Suicide Squad’s
first liquid fuel rocket motor test.
COOLING Thrust chamber
High speed indicator
for chamber pressure
cylinder thrust recorder
TOP: Frank Malina’s test rig schematic redrawn. OPPOSITE PAGE: The iconic JPL “nativity” scene, taken before
the first motor tests on Halloween, 1936, an auspicious date, given Parsons’ after-hours interests. Parsons is
lying at far right, foreground. Others (L–R): Rudolph Schott, Apollo Smith, Frank Malina, Ed Forman.
I read everything about rocketry and space. I knew
all sorts of relevant facts, figures, and historical
personalities. And yet, I never bumped into one
of the men chiefly responsible for solid-motor
rockets. His name was John Whiteside Parsons,
but he went by Jack.
Apparently I’m not alone in my ignorance.
I took a straw poll of friends and colleagues,
and only a few had ever heard of Jack Parsons.
Fewer still knew more than “he had something
to do with the JPL.”
Anyone who knew anything seemed to get
it from a recent biography, George Pendle’s
Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket
Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (see MAKE,
Volume 04, page 177), which is how my ignorance
of this space pioneer was finally cured. Turns out
it’s the “strange” part of this man’s life equation
that has fouled his scientific legacy.
Marvel Whiteside Parsons, later mercifully
renamed John, was born Oct. 2, 1914, in Los
Angeles. His parents had recently moved to
California to pursue their dreams. When the
marriage went south, Jack and his mother moved
north, into his well-to-do grandparents’ Italian-style villa in Pasadena. Jack enjoyed a charmed
childhood, with all the trappings of wealth. Busch
Gardens was behind his house, and close by
was the Arroyo Seco, a natural playground of
rock canyons and chaparral-covered slopes, a
fantasyland right out of the Old West. As Pendle
points out in Strange Angel, growing up in these
sheltered environs, it’s no surprise that Jack’s
imagination developed unconstrained by reality.
This freedom to dream was only magnified when,
at 12, Parsons discovered Hugo Gernsback’s
Amazing Stories, and, through its pulp sci-fi
pages, an intense desire to reach the stars.
Gaga over Rockets
Parsons began trying to build his own rockets, first
deconstructing black powder fireworks to pack
his own motors. When he reached junior high and
found that others didn’t share his bookish or geeky
interests, things looked grim, until he met Edward
Forman, an older student who would become
Jack’s lifelong friend and fellow rocket pioneer.
Ed Forman was not of Jack’s social class. He
came from a Missouri farm family who had recently moved to California. The family ended up
homeless for a time, living in the Arroyo Seco, until
they found a place. The two boys discovered they
shared many things. Both suffered from dyslexia,
both read science fiction, and both were gaga
over rockets. Soon they embarked on a two-man
space race, egging each other on with bigger and
As the boys grew from teens into young men,
they continued to raise the stakes on their rock-
Illustration by Damien Scogin
96 Make: Volume 13