Friday, February 22, 2008

Who is Jack Parsons, and why haven't I heard of him?

The answer is in the latest issue of Make, Volume 13, which features an article entitled Darkside Rocketeer, Jack Parsons, the space pioneer history likes to forget, by Gareth Branwyn.

John Whiteside (Jack) Parsons was a self educated but brilliant chemist, solid rocket pioneer, member of the CalTech's GALCIT (Guggenheim Aeronautic Laboratory), and co-founder of Aerojet Corporation. He also ran a commune and practiced the occult. The article briefly chronicles his life from his childhood through his demise in 1952 from the mis-handling of fulminate of mercury. It spends an equal amount of time on his technical achievements and his 'colorful' private life. The latter is what apparently has, to some extent, kept Parsons 'out of the history books', presumably unlike his contemporaries at GALCIT - Frank Malina and Theodore von Kármán. This is unfortunate since he was instrumental in taking solid rockets from fantasy to reality. Among his many accomplishments were the first Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) units and the first castable, case bonded propellant. It seems that these successes are as central to the current state-of-the-art in sport rocketry as anything Robert Goddard did. Oh wait, solid rockets are also a major element of our military and space programs, from the Standard Arm, Shuttle, SRBs, and the 'the Stick'. It seems his work was hardly unimportant.

Saying Parsons is not in the history books is not entirely accurate. His biography, Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, by George Pendle was recently published and he was the author of several books. Still, he is not mentioned in Aerojet's history, despite being a co-founder. And, oddly, much of his original documentation at JPL was supposedly wadded up and used to plug holes in walls. The reader can decide whether Parsons' legacy was deliberately erased or just coincidence.

A few interesting factoids from the Make article:
  • JATOs, although technically rockets, were name 'jets' because rockets were viewed as the stuff of sci-fi and crackpots
  • This is also why CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory wasn't name the Rocket Propulsion Laboratory
  • Parson's first successful fuel, GALCIT 27 a.k.a. The Goop, was made up of a combination of amide black powder, cornstarch, ammonium nitrate, and stationary glue.
  • Parsons' group at GACIT was nicknamed The Suicide Squad (for good reason)
  • The first successful JATO tests occurred after Parsons repacked the units at the last minute. He discovered the propellant cracked after it cured too long. We all know what bubbles, fissures and debonding do to solid motors!