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Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons 1st Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0156031790
ISBN-10: 0156031795
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Pendle vividly tells the story of a mysterious and forgotten man who embodied the contradictions of his time. Throughout the 1930s, John Whiteside Parsons (1914–1952) was a pioneer of rocket science, a fixture at Caltech with an uncanny ability to understand and control the dynamics of explosions, though he'd never completed an undergraduate degree. At the same time, Parsons was a key figure in the Los Angeles occult scene, presiding over a world of incantations, black magic and orgiastic excess. Science journalist Pendle (Times of London, Financial Times) follows Parsons on his journey through both science and the occult as he explored the connections between the two at a time when science fiction crashed into science fact (and when the practitioners of one often dabbled in the other. The book tells the story of the research that formed the basis for both missile defense and space flight, but Parsons himself was a tragic figure, left behind by both the science he helped to found and the women he loved. Marshaling a cast of characters ranging from Robert Millikan to L. Ron Hubbard, Pendle offers a fascinating glimpse into a world long past, a story that would make a compelling work of fiction if it weren't so astonishingly true. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In a riveting tale of rocketry, the occult, and boom-and-bust 1920s and 1930s Los Angeles, science writer Pendle presents the first in-depth portrait of John Whiteside Parsons, a pioneer in rocket propulsion and an eccentric right out of an Ed Woods movie. Pendle shrewdly places handsome and charismatic Parsons--a man of dramatic contradictions and an insouciance that led to his horrific death at age 37 in 1952--on the cusp between the era in which rockets were dismissed as pulp science fiction fantasy (of which Parsons eagerly partook) and the milieu in which rockets and space travel became realities. A self-taught chemist with an affinity for explosives, Parsons teamed up with Frank Malina and the rest of the so-called Suicide Squad in the dangerous quest for dependable rocket technology. Parsons became cofounder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an aerospace company, but he was also a member of the licentious Church of Thelema, a ludicrous invention of the English mystic Aleister Crowley. Equally cogent in interpreting the scientific and personal facets of Parsons' alluringly scandalous and confounding life, Pendle greatly enlivens the story of rocketry. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harvest Books; 1 edition (February 6, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156031795
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156031790
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #400,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Thank you George Pendle for writing this book. As the daughter of Jack Parson's best friend, Ed Forman, I grew up with a garage-full of explosives that my mother prayed wouldn't go off, fragments of this story as my somewhat exotic but sad family history, and my father's heartbreak that he and Jack were excluded and scorned just as the dreams they delighted in and sweated over took flight in reality.

Until Strange Angel, everything written about Jack and JPL has either been mainstream such as Theodore von Karman's "The Wind and Beyond," or pulp occultist like "Sex and Rockets." Strange Angel tells the untold human stories and re-tells some of the known with the insight of a scholar and empathy of an artist. Pendle illuminates more than the life of a rocket scientist. He captures a vivid era of American thought and aspiration, the adolescence of L.A.---the city world-famous for conjuring dreams, a cast of wild-eyed dreamers who truly believed the sky's the limit, and the cynical forces opposing them.

Pendle is fair-handed with the occult elements of Jack's story. He doesn't sensationalize or condemn. Instead, he informs and gives insight into Jack's and the others' characters to shed light on their attraction to Crowleyism and a shadowy spirituality that was also a reach for the stars. He also covers the birth of science fiction and how the "scientifiction" that my dad and Jack feasted on as boys was actually predictive of the coming space age.

It's a treat when a book combines good research and good storytelling for an entertaining read. You don't need to be a science, sci-fi or occult buff--or a southern Californian--to enjoy Strange Angel! In fact, if you liked the movie The Aviator, the book will immerse you in the same thrilling time and spirit.
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Format: Paperback
In June 1952, John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Lab and of Aerojet Engineering Corporation, was killed in an explosion in his home laboratory. The first news reports described him as a Caltech scientist, and described his accomplishments at JPL and his work with other early great rocket scientists. Over the next few weeks, though, a rather different story emerged.

Jack Parsons, one of the pioneering rocket scientists of the pre-war and WWII years, had led a life that could fairly be described as "interesting." He was a "Caltech scientist" and a founder of the JPL, but he had no education past high school. He was a devotee of black magic and a follower of Aleister Crowley. And he was a science fiction fan, a semi-regular visitor to LASFS, friendly with Robert Heinlein, Jack Williamson, and other sf writers for years, and for a time had L. Ron Hubbard as a housemate. (This last proved to be a serious mistake.)

Pendle reconstructs Parsons' life, from his wealthy and privileged childhood in Pasadena, his discovery of both science fiction and rocketry, through his increasingly strange explorations of the occult, and how these three strands became ever more tangled. The loss of the family fortune in the crash of 1929, when Parsons was fifteen, complicated his pursuit of rocketry and put an end to transatlantic phone calls to talk to Werner von Braun (also a teenaged amateur racketeer), but didn't divert his efforts. In high school, he met Ed Forman, who became his partner for most of the rest of his career.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Review of: Strange Angel - The Otherwordly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons.

I have known about and read small biographical snippets concerning Jack Parson's life over the years and wanting a more detailed narrative I selected this book. I won't go into depth with the story line bio-background as many of the other reviewers have done a great job in doing so. As such I found that I loved Pendle's writing style and found it to be a fast moving, in-depth, and very comprehensive. More than that Pendle wrote in a fashion that flowed smoothly from one topic and character to another. Not an easy job considering the task at hand. At 350 pages and rife with end-notes I walked away feeling like I knew Parsons personally. I commend Pendle for that. Other reviewers do not care for that style of writing but I prefer it. Jack Parsons was a fascinating man whose seminal influence on early rocketry is still felt today. His association with Crowley and other OTO notables adds to the aura of the man trying to find his purpose and soul while actioning on his interests and passions through the course of his life. I devoured this bio quickly. If I could grant six stars I would without hesitation or reservation.
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Format: Paperback
If you ever read about John Dee, Leonardo DaVinci, Sir Issac Newton and many others, then you will recognize their 20th century counterpart in the genius, Jack Whiteside Parsons. The key factor in his life that drove him to the top of the scientific world for a brief period, from the late thirties to mid forties of the last century, was his Vision of space travel and the medium of the rocket as a means to get to space. In my mind, he was a supreme innovator using the trial and error process to attain more and more positive results. He was also not college educated which left his mind uncluttered with theorems and accepted truths of academia. He was above all a cultist. In the beginning of the story rocketry is a cult and a sub-genre of science fiction. In religion he was a Satanist, although the word in never mentioned in the book and a follower and devotee of the Great Beast, Alistair Crowley. In the nineteen thirties in Los Angeles, these various cult worlds overlapped with fellow science fiction writers (and religion founder)such as L. Ron Hubbard playing a role in Parson's life - he also stole the love of his life in the process. It is a very interesting read for anyone interested in the genesis of the USA space program. This book shows that it started in the teenage dreams of Jack Parsons. I finished the book realizing that the author had only touched upon briefly the many aspects of his life story. Given the excesses of the OTO cult, it can be still be read by adults and teenagers without any qualms. There is no detail given about the various sexual rituals and in that respect it is PG rated. There are many famous individuals who die young - Alexander the Great, Elvis, James Dean, Mozart and a host of rock stars.Read more ›
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