Worshipping on the Fringe

Los Angeles’ long and colorful history of alternative religions.


e was the original rocket man.

As a member of a group of daredevil Caltech scientists aptly known as the Suicide Squad in the 1930s and ’40s, John Whiteside Parsons helped usher in the Space Age with his combustible rocket fuel formulations.

Along the way, Parsons, who studied chemistry at USC Dornsife but never earned a degree, co-founded not only one of the first rocket companies but the prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Every space shuttle was thrust into orbit by fuel that was derived from his work.

Charming, brilliant and always nattily dressed, he was widely considered one of the most important figures of the U.S. space program.

He was also widely considered a colossal kook.