Book Reviews - Winter 2005

Rocket Men

A daughter explores the male-dominated universe of her father

By Michael Upchurch | December 1, 2004


Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, By M. G. Lord, Walker & Company, $24

Put together the words “nineteen-fifties” and “engineer” and a vivid image springs to mind—to my mind, anyway—of a skinny, boyish man in a crew cut and tie who’s strait-laced, emotionally disciplined, materially reliable, but not exactly flexible . . . even if one of his specialties was the manufacture of butyl rubber.

I’m thinking of my father, who worked for Esso (as it was then called) from the 1950s to the 1970s and who did his best at home to impose an engineer’s regimen on the recalcitrant material he was forced to deal with: his family. Most of us were artistically inclined, as well as temperamentally operatic, so his militaristic notions of household organization didn’t always go down too well. Still, they had their effect. Respect for his discipline could be one reason I was able to get this book review in under deadline.

I bring this up because I suspect it’s why M. G. Lord’s absorbing new book about her father’s engineering work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and the way it affected her family life, touched me in ways that it perhaps wouldn’t touch someone who grew up among, say, Greenwich Village bohemians. Lord’s father was much older than mine, and her family’s story sadder than anything we experienced. But she doesn’t wallow in it. Instead she gives us its essentials, then uses them as her framing device for a history of JPL, the builder and operator of unmanned interplanetary spacecraft for NASA for the last half century. (Lord’s father was a Northrop employee doing contract work for JPL, his specific task being to “shear weight” off the spacecraft.)

More broadly, Lord addresses the changing nature of engineering culture over the decades, particularly in its entanglements with politics and attitudes toward women. While trying to fathom the character of her father and his professional milieu, she also examines the messages that American culture at large was sending its young men and women in the 1950s and 1960s (as she did in her earlier book, Forever Barbie: The Unauth rized Biography of a Real Doll ). And she captures, to marvelous effect, the way in which an organization can fall under spells—Red scares, gender sensitivities—almost as if it were a zombie being taken possession of by forces incalculably stronger than itself.

Astro Turf opens on an utterly disorienting note in March 1997, as Lord attends a “managing creativity” seminar conducted by Donna Shirley (director of the Mars Exploration program, whom many television viewers will remember as JPL’s public voice during the successful landings of the Mars Pathfinder and the Sojourner Rover the same year). To Lord, Shirley’s instructions to listen to her “inner child” sound more as though they belong on a 1970s commune than a 1990s engineering lab.

Still, the memories dredged up by the exercise are powerful. When Lord was in junior high school, her mother, at age fifty, was stricken with a lethal cancer. Lord’s father, then in his sixties, with his ego staked on the Mariner Mars 69 mission to send two spacecraft to Mars, was scarcely able to face the crisis at home. Proud though she was of his work, Lord didn’t take this well.

“What we needed was a full-time husband and father,” she writes. “What we had was a Cold War–era rocket engineer, who embraced the values of his profession: work over family, masculine over feminine, repression over emotion.”

After her mother died, young M. G. was expected by her father to run their household. Her relationship with him began to break down, and eventually became fully estranged. (They reconciled in 1993, not long before his death.)

Unhappy with this track record, the grownup Lord starts digging in all directions: family history, JPL history, cultural documents of the period. The latter include children’s picture books and educational films that never once suggest that a girl could venture into the sciences. Yet the teenage Lord took this male exclusiveness on her own terms: “Oddly, such propaganda hadn’t put me off the idea that I could become a scientist—or a politician or a doctor or a writer. There was one thing, however, that I never wanted to become: a woman.” That’s enough baggage to keep a psychiatrist busy for decades—or, better, a writer intensely focused for 250 pages.

Lord’s first step was coming to grips with the corporate culture of JPL, which, seen in long perspective, was not nearly as monolithic as she’d assumed. Founded in 1936 under the auspices of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was a U.S. Army agency until 1958, when it became part of the newly founded civilian agency NASA. In its earliest years, JPL was as far removed from the conformist spirit of the Cold War era as it could be. Its founders included John Parsons (“a self-taught chemist whose investigations into rocket propulsion were guided by ‘Magick’—the sex rituals of self-proclaimed ‘Anti-Christ’ Aleister Crowley—rather than mathematics”) and, more importantly, Frank J. Malina, “the focused visionary Caltech Ph.D. candidate in thermodynamics who served as a director of JPL.”

Lord reminds us of how disreputable rocketeering was at the time, and yet how crucial it became to the war effort just a few years later. By the mid-1950s, however, Malina had fallen under suspicion as a former Communist, Parsons had blown himself up in his home lab, and a concerted effort was under way to remake former Nazi scientists Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph into American space-race heroes, obscuring (Lord argues persuasively) JPL’s achievements in the field of rocket science.

Von Braun died in 1977 and Rudolph would not be found out for his role in shaping slave-labor policy in Mittelbau Dora concentration camp until 1984, when he “renounced his American citizenship rather than face a denaturalization hearing based on his war crimes.” Malina, by contrast, had to flee rocket science for a job with UNESCO in 1947, once the Red Scare was on. When FBI harassment followed him to UNESCO in 1953, he quit the humanitarian agency to build “kinetic sculptures,” completely baffling FBI agents sent to spy on him, who wondered if his artwork “might be a cover for espionage.”

Lord’s ironic account of Malina’s career almost steals the show in Astro Turf, but she’s just as astute in her later chapters on how JPL lagged behind the rest of the West Coast in giving job opportunities and equable treatment to women. A “Miss Guided Missile” contest, for instance, in which JPL’s male professionals judged the female support staff, “dramatized the impunity with which JPL men objectified women,” Lord observes. The contest was not discontinued until 1970. Later progressive moves, such as provision for work-site daycare in 1979, had to be introduced by a man, since female professionals feared that any such demand on their part might endanger their jobs. It seems telling that the number of female hires only started increasing when young graduates in software science began coming to their jobs armed with a computer expertise that eluded their older colleagues. The campaigns to weed out closeted gay employees, because of their supposed vulnerability to blackmail, are also subject to Lord’s scrutiny.

Still, Astro Turf isn’t all indictment. Lord powerfully conveys the awe that accompanied successful rocket launches and, more recently, the exploratory landings on Mars. And by sifting through the family archives, she is able to see her parents’ marriage before it was blighted by sickness, and she learns more about what made her father tick.

“The challenge,” Lord writes, “was to place my father in the context of a bigger story—the story of space exploration at mid-century.” She’s pulled it off, making Astro Turf an unusually effective hybrid of corporate history and personal memoir.

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