From Heaven to Hell: A Visit to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Devil's Gate - Atlas Obscura
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From Heaven to Hell: A Visit to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Devil’s Gate

On Halloween night of 1936, Jack Parson and his “Suicide Squad”completed the first successful rocket test in Arroyo Seco, California. That was the day the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena was officially founded. Now 78 years later, JPL is NASA’s largest space robotics facility, and has played host to some of NASA’s most famous missions, including Voyager 1 & 2 in 1977, and recently the Mars Rover Curiosity.

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“Rover Xing” at JPL (all photographs by the author)

While discovery and exploration have always been part of JPL’s mission, it is not a coincidence that Jack Parsons, one of JPL’s founding fathers, was also known for his own personal spiritual discovery. While he was shooting off rockets, Parsons was also engaging in religious rituals that, even by today’s standards, were rather odd.

Parsons eventually rose up the ranks of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO, for short) where he practiced his own form of “sexual magick” (different than the traditional “magic”). He befriended L. Ron Hubbard — the founder of Scientology — and together they are said to have performed ceremonies to summon the goddess Bablon, who would help them conceive the Anti-Christ. Many of these ceremonies took place at Devil’s Gate, an old flood control dam less than a mile from the current JPL campus. Its name “Devil’s Gate” comes from the supposed resemblance to the devil in its rock formations. Parsons and Hubbard believed it was a portal to hell. 

On February 4, 2014, the Los Angeles Obscura Society paid a visit to both of these historic and fascinating sites. We spent the first part of the day learning about the JPL-produced robotics that had been sent up to space over the years, plus the plans for the future. During the second part of the day, we paid a visit to the Devil’s Gate, chasing our exploration of the heavens with the gate to hell, 

Here are some photographs from our adventure:

article-imageMission Control Room at JPL, where every mission has been directed from Mariner 2’s flight to Venus in 1962 to Mars Curiosity in 2012

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A to-scale model of Curiosity. Looks a tad like Wall-E, no?   

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Viewing the JPL “clean room.” This is where most everything is built, from spacecrafts to computer systems. It’s called the “clean room” because in order to protect the machinery, the room is regulated by how many particles per cubic foot is allowed. It can be adjusted depending what is being worked on. This day, it was at 100 particles per cubic foot. 

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The JPL deer frolicking and munching.  According to our guides, they’re out here nearly every day.  

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Dr. Carl Sagan and his team assembled the contents of the Golden Record, to be affixed to the side of Voyager 1 & 2 in 1977. In case these spacecrafts every encountered extraterrestrial life, NASA wanted audio and images that would depict life here on Earth. The instructions, engraved into the gold, explain how to play the record.

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Behind that gate is where Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard are said to have performed religious rituals to summon the goddess Bablon.

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Our handsome group after a long day of space exploration and hiking to the depths of hell. 

Special Thanks to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, and Roy Butler! 


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The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!

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