Science-fiction fans, and even some scientists, can have an odd attraction toward the nonscientific, the magical and the mystical. Sci-fi, that realm of the plausible...

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“Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons”

by George Pendle

Harcourt, 368 pp., $25

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Science-fiction fans, and even some scientists, can have an odd attraction toward the nonscientific, the magical and the mystical. Sci-fi, that realm of the plausible and the rational, shares bookstore shelves and convention costume parties with fantasy, that realm of the magical and the intuitive.

One striking example of this left brain/right brain duality is John Whiteside Parsons (1915-1952). One of the founding fathers of Los Angeles sci-fi fandom, he was friends with such authors as Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, and he even lost a girlfriend to pulp writer and future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. He was also a devotee of British occultist Alistair Crowley; Parsons’ Pasadena mansion regularly hosted black masses and “magickal” group sex rituals.

And Parsons joined his imagination with his boyish love for blowing stuff up. In the process, he helped create modern rocket science.

Rockets were as old as Chinese fireworks. But without an accurate way to aim them or a chemically stable fuel to power them, they had little practical use for the military or anyone else. Parsons was one of a loose-knit team of independent experimenters who worked to solve these problems, first on their own, later with support from the college that became Cal Tech.

As recounted in “Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons,” Parsons first supported his research and his eccentric lifestyle any way he could, including grunt jobs at explosives factories.

Then, as World War II got under way, Parsons co-founded the Aerojet company (still in business today) to pursue government-funded rocket testing. There, he invented a semisolid rocket fuel that would remain stable under extreme temperature changes — a key step in designing workable missiles and spacecraft. In one of his tests, he attached rockets to a propeller plane’s wings, staging what was essentially America’s first manned jet flight. Parsons was also on the team that first organized the federally funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

But by then, Parsons’ personal passion had become a key segment of the military-industrial complex. By the end of the war, rocketry was a button-down business with no more room for maverick oddballs. Parsons died in a massive explosion in his basement, where he’d been mixing chemicals for movie special effects — one of the few jobs he could still get.

George Pendle, a British-born journalist based in New York, depicts Parsons’ short, spectacular life as akin to one of his early rocket tests — a brilliant flash, a quick soar, and an inevitable, erratic fizzle back to Earth.

Pendle weaves a fascinating yarn, reaching from the earliest sci-fi dreams of manned spaceflight to the real-life trial-and-error process that would eventually make it possible. Along the way, Pendle touches upon such tangents as the history of Pasadena’s old-money families, tabloid crime scandals (Parsons once used his explosives knowledge to help the L.A. police solve a baffling murder case), and, in a few brief glimpses, the nearby Hollywood celebrity culture.

While Pendle plays up the more sensational aspects of his story, he deftly and seemingly effortlessly leads his readers through the technical aspects of Parsons’ work. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy it.