Strange angel: the otherworldly life of rocket scientist John Whiteside Parsons

Strange angel: the otherworldly life of rocket scientist John Whiteside Parsons 
George Pendle 
London, UK: Orion Books | 2005 | 350pp | ?18.99 (HB) | ISBN 0297848534 
Reviewed by Colin Batchelor   

Strange angel is the entertaining biography of John Whiteside Parsons. It has an unusual start, for a scientist’s biography, with a great deal of information on Aleister Crowley, the self-publicist and tabloid monster. 

For most of the book Pendle looks at the early development of rocket-assisted aircraft in the US through the fairground mirror of Parsons’ life. He was one of a small team of rocketry enthusiasts at Caltech, which became Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and we are introduced both to the scientific figures and to the basics of rocket technology. Parsons’ working practices were unorthodox and his chemical education was patchy to say the least, but he did produce, according to Pendle, a practical rocket fuel. 

Parsons’ spare-time activities soon come to dominate the story. His enthusiasm for science fiction, given his profession, scarcely seems unusual, but he started performing black masses, taking instructions from Crowley, and living in a commune which eventually included the notorious L Ron Hubbard. It won’t spoil the ending to tell you that he died in the mysterious home-made explosion which starts the book with a bang. 

This is not a comprehensive history of rockets and spaceflight, excluding as it does the developments in Germany at the same time. No knowledge of science is expected or even needed. As an intriguing sideshow, though, this could be a suitable book for the disorienting days between Christmas and New Year.