three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
By: 
M.G. Lord
user_rating: 
0

The Private Life of Rocket Science

A-AstroTurfThe space race of the 1960s played out at home as well as at NASA for Mary Grace Lord’s family. Her father worked as a contract rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, and his chauvinism—the mantra "work over family, masculine over feminine, repression over emotion"—reflected NASA’s culture. At home, as her mother died of cancer, Lord played with her favorite toy, a discarded space helmet. Now a reporter and cultural historian, she mixes memoir and cultural history, recounting her adolescence against the post-war politics and management of the American aerospace industry. Lord’s recent investigations of JPL uncovered a changed culture, long-hidden secrets, and painful childhood memories.
Walker. 259 pages. $24. ISBN: 0802714277

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Informed by a journalist’s vision and a daughter’s love, Lord’s exploration of the most elusive truth, a father’s emotional life, is compelling." Evelyn Sharenov

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"I was blown away by this book. Lord reminds us once again that good and evil really are inextricably combined, that the legacy of these sometimes bumbling founders includes the presence of a JPL float in this year’s Rose Parade and the ongoing discoveries of those aptly named JPL robots poking right now across the surface of Mars: Spirit and Opportunity." Carolyn See

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… a poignant backdrop to her account of America’s space program. … This is perhaps the best part of her book—combining the struggle over ‘gender parity’ with the exhilaration of JPL’s many successes, including last year’s landings on Mars of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity." Fred E.C. Culick

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Astro Turf is worlds apart from Lord’s splendid debut book, Forever Barbie, but the writing is as powerful and the intellectual scope as daring." Kate Callen

Dallas Morning News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Though Ms. Lord’s personal search for her father’s past and her compulsion to understand their complex relationship pervade this manuscript, they never overwhelm. In fact, readers never really get to know her." Fred Bortz

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The mixture bubbles, fumes and hisses, but never quite powers Astro Turf to liftoff." Chris Ulbrich

Critical Summary

Cultural historian Lord (Forever Barbie, 1994) examines her childhood relationship with her remote father as a way of understanding JPL’s ethos, its boom-and-bust cycle, and the political changes that took place between the Cold War and present. Rather than discuss the science or engineering of NASA, Lord focuses on JPL’s brilliant if flawed characters, from Frank Malina, the ousted cofounder of JPL, to the lionized former Nazi criminal Wernher von Braun. A few minor errors, some generalities, and a sense that Lord and her father’s true personalities lay just outside the reader’s immediate grasp mar the book’s fascinating subject and easy writing. Nonetheless, Astro Turf is at times a captivating look at human foibles, family forgiveness, wins, and losses.

Supplemental Reading

Mercury 13 The Untold Story of 13 American Women and the Dream of Space Flight | Martha Ackmann (2003): 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2003. The story of 13 female pilots who were trained as astronauts but never allowed to enter space.