Posts Tagged ‘Jet Propulsion Laboratory’

CBS Series on Jack Parsons, Rocket Scientist and Occultist

May 29, 2018

I found this trailer the other day on YouTube for a forthcoming TV series on CBS about one of the weirder figures in the history of American rocketry, Jack Parsons. The series is called Strange Angel, which was the title of a biography of Parsons that came out way back in the 1990s or thereabouts.

Parsons was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1930s and ’40s, when it was little more than a piece of waste ground in the Californian desert. He was one of the pioneers at the very beginning of American rocket research, when it was still very much the province of the early rocket societies, like the American Rocket Society over the other side of the Atlantic, and the British Interplanetary Society here in Britain. As the trailer shows, this was the period when the early visionaries launched very small, experimental rockets, all the while dreaming of the day when larger machines would carry people to the Moon, the planets and beyond. Parsons also had a very practical approach to experimenting. Instead of worrying very much about complex theories of chemical reactions, he simply mixed various types of explosives together and then tested them to see which worked best.

And as the trailer also shows, Parsons was deeply into the occult. He was a follower of Aleister Crowley’s ritual magic. I think he also ran a boarding house, which only accepted guests, who were atheists or otherwise rebels against American religion and society. And one the people, who stayed there was the future head of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. According to the very definitely unauthorised biography of Hubbard, Barefaced Messiah, Hubbard took Parsons in completely. Parsons believed that Hubbard was a man of extreme occult talent, and the two started performing rituals together out in the desert. One of these was to bring about the birth of the Antichrist. Or something. And just as Hubbard was performing these weird rituals with Parsons, he was also sleeping with his girlfriend. In the end, he ran off with her and several thousands of dollars of Parsons’ money, which he’d promised Parsons he’d use to buy a fleet of three yachts. Parsons managed to get some of his money back, but told Hubbard he could his girlfriend. Hubbard himself produced his own version of the story, claiming that he had rescued the girl from a group of Nazi Communists. Or Communist Nazis. Hubbard died a few years later, when he dropped some of the explosives he was experimenting with on the floor of his garage and blew himself up.

I don’t condone the occult, but Parsons is very definitely one of the most fascinating figures of that period of rocket research, and it’s easy to see why he was chosen to be the subject of this drama series. Quite how faithful it’ll be to real life is going to be an interesting question. And it will be very interesting to see if it mentions anything about his relationship with Hubbard, as I’ve no doubt that the Church of Scientology would be very sensitive about that.

However, as it’s on CBS, there’s going to be little chance that those of us on this side of the Pond will be able to see it. Oh well, perhaps it’ll come out on DVD.

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Arthur C. Clarke Book on the Terraforming of Mars

March 18, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke – The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – The Illustrated History of Man’s Colonization of Mars (London: Victor Gollancz 1994).

A little while ago I put up a number of articles on the possible terraforming of various planets in our solar system. The prime candidate at the moment would be Mars, but people have also suggested ways to terraform Venus and the Moon. I’ve managed to dig out from my bookshelves a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s book, The Snows of Olympus, which I bought way back in the 1990s. Clarke’s been called ‘The Space Prophet’ because of his article published in a radio hobbyists’ magazine shortly after the War predicting geostationary communications satellites. He has jokingly said in an article ‘How I Lost a Million Dollars in My Spare Time’ that he should have patented the concept, and so made himself a billionaire because of its immense value to the telecommunications industry. This book is no less prophetic in that it uses computer simulations to depict the gradual greening of the Red Planet over a thousand year period from the next few centuries to c. 3000.

The book has a prologue, in which Clarke gives the text of a speech he gave to future Martian colonists as part of the Planetary Society’s ‘Visions of Mars Project’. Launched by the late and much-missed astronomer and space visionary, Carl Sagan, this was a project to send the future colonists the gift of a collection of SF short stories about Mars aboard two probes due to land there. There’s then a short introduction in which Clarke lays out the aims of the book. The first chapter, ‘Prelude to Mars’, discusses the history of the exploration of the Red Planet by terrestrial astronomers and writers, such as Giovanni Schiaparelli, Percival Lowell, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, and the controversy surrounding the supposed ‘face’ on Mars, made by Richard Hoagland and others.

Chapter 2 – ‘The Curtain Rises’ – is on the probes sent to explore Mars, such as the Mariner probes and discussion between himself, Sagan, Ray Bradbury and the JPL’s Bruce Murray at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the probes and their findings. He goes on to discuss Viking probes and the debate about American and Russian cooperative ventures in space research. This last ended for a time because of international tensions created by the Solidarity crisis in Poland.

Chapter 3 – ‘Going There’, describes the problems and suggested methods for reaching Mars, establishing crewed bases there, including various types of rocket from the conventional chemical to nuclear-thermal and atomic; solar sails and space elevators, George Bush seniors’ intention to launch a crewed mission to Mars by 2019, and the tasks that would immediately face the astronauts landing there.

Chapter 4- ‘Virtual Explorations’ is on the use of computers and VR to explore and map Mars, and particularly the Vistapro programme used in the generation of many of the images in the book.

Chapter 5 is on the artistic and computer depictions of Olympus Mons, the planet’s highest mountain and the gradual reclamation of its surface by vegetation, beginning with lichens, during the long centuries of terraforming. This culminates in the emergence of liquid water and creation of a sea surrounding the mountain.

Chapter 6 does the same for Eos Chasma, the ‘Chasm of the Dawn’, in the Valles Marineris.

Chapter 7 shows the same process as it would affect the Noctes Labyrinthes – the Labyrinth of Night. This forecasts the growth of forests in this part of Mars, beginning with pines but later including deciduous trees.

Chapter 8 – ‘The Longest Spring’ discusses the various methods that could be used to terraform Mars, such as coating the ice caps with carbon from Mars’ moon, Phobos, the use of orbiting mirrors to melt them, raising its temperature by turning Phobos into a miniature sun for about 40 days using ‘muon resonance’ – a form of nuclear reaction, and bombarding the planet with comets to cover it with water, and ‘Von Neumann’ machines that would gradually terraform the planet automatically.

‘Disneymars’ looks forward to a museum display and audiovisual presentation that would show the colonists what their planet would look like in the future as the terraforming progresses.

Chapter 9 – ‘Concerning Ends and Means’ discusses the moral dimension of terraforming, the immense historical importance of exploration and the need to continue this exploration to the Red Planet in order to preserve human civilisation and progress.

There are two appendices. The first is an extract from a speech, The Mars Project: Journeys beyond the Cold War, by US senator and WWII hero, Spark Matsunaga. The second, ‘So You’re Going to Mars’, is fictional advice given by the immigration authorities to people moving from Earth to Mars.

The quality of the computer graphics is mixed. Many of them, which were without doubt absolutely astonishing for the time, now look rather crude and dated as the technology has improved. Others, however, still stand up very well even today. The quality of the computer simulations of the terraforming process can be seen from this image below of what Eos Chasma might look like in 2500 AD.

There are also plenty of illustrations of Mars, rendered using more traditional artistic methods such as painting, including photos of Percival Lowell’s own drawings of what he believed was the planet’s network of canals.

Although the computer tools may have been superseded and improved in the decades since the book’s publication, I think the science, and the social issues Clarke discusses, are still solidly relevant and contemporary. Certainly there is now a popular movement to send humans to the Red Planet at some point in the coming decades, and prospective future colonists have even come forward to volunteer a few years ago. There is, however, a greater awareness of the medical dangers from radiation and microgravity that would affect – and possibly destroy – a mission to Mars. The dream, however, is still there, as shown by the success of the film The Martian a few years ago.