Take a tour of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena (you should; they’re free) and you won’t hear much about Jack Parsons. It’s odd since the guy literally co-founded JPL and is considered by some to be a father of rocketry. To begin to understand why he’s been mysteriously relegated to a footnote in aerospace history, you could do worse than to check out Strange Angel, the CBS All Access drama that premieres Thursday, June 14. It’s a show that paints Parsons as the archetypal L.A. dreamer, at once sustained and doomed by his unflinching belief in the possibility of the extraordinary.
Set in 1938, on the brink of World War II and a time when rocketry was limited to the adventures of Buck Rogers, the show follows the rise of Parsons (Jack Reynor) from USC dropout-turned-janitor to groundbreaking scientist. It’s a series that attempts, in the words of the show’s creator Mark Heyman, “to do justice to what Jack Parsons thought his life was, to try to make it as extraordinary and bombastic and vivid as he would have wanted it to be.” Because Jack Parsons was a man with an extraordinary, bombastic vision: that he could one day send a rocket to the moon.
He was a man who—like so many of L.A.’s great historic figures—found himself caught between grandiose fantasy and cold, hard, mathematically sound realty. According to his real-life working partner, he “was a self-trained chemist who, although he lacked the discipline of a formal higher education, had an uninhibited and fruitful imagination.” And in Strange Angel, as in life, his imagination propels him forward in the face of ever-worsening odds, caution be damned. A careless experiment fills his lab with noxious fumes. A risky rocket contraption explodes. An ill-conceived dinitrogen trioxide heist goes awry. In every episode, we’re left to wonder: How far can Parson’s unshakeable belief in his own whimsical dreams take him when disaster is constantly nipping at his heels?
That clash between imagination and reality is what ultimately lures Parsons into the occult.
See, in addition to conducting hazardous rocketry experimentation, actual Jack Parsons was in pretty deep with Thelema, the religious movement spearheaded by English occultist Aleister Crowley. His life involved a lot of sex magick and, reportedly, performing at least one ritual with his BFF L. Ron Hubbard.
So when Parsons’s sketchy neighbor leaves the house one night carrying two jars of lamb’s blood, the part of him that wants to believe in a fantastical world where anything is possible gets the better of him. He follows the neighbor to a Craftsman lodge and witnesses a ritual involving knives and chalices and creepy chanting. He’s freaked out at first, but his interest (and at this point, hopefully yours as well) is officially piqued.
It is, in large part, Parson’s fascination with the occult that leaves him at odds with his Caltech peers, resulting in his disappearance from the annals of rocketry. Never mind that his contributions to the field were exemplary. Inevitably, his penchant for the fantastical carried him further than was tenable, and he came crashing down to earth in a blaze of… well, not even glory.
Actual Jack Parsons spent the final years of his career handling pyrotechnics for Hollywood movies, and he met his end when a shipment of explosives blew up in his garage. You could view his downfall as lesson for the dreamers, I suppose: Shoot for the moon, but if you miss, you’ll crash and burn. More interesting, though, is a reading of his demise as part and parcel with the duality that characterized his entire life—a pattern of rise and fall encapsulated by his Strange Angel mantra, “ad astra, per aspera.” It means, “to the stars, through hardship.” You can’t have one without the other.
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