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Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science [Hardcover]

by M. G. Lord
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 1, 2005 0802714277 978-0802714275 Original
A daughter's journey to rediscover her father and understand the culture of space engineers

During the late 1960s, while M. G. Lord was becoming a teenager in Southern California and her mother was dying of cancer, Lord's father-an archetypal, remote, rocket engineer- disappeared into his work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, building the space probes of the Mariner Mars 69 mission. Thirty years later, Lord found herself reporting on the JPL, triggering childhood memories and a desire to revisit her past as a way of understanding the ethos of rocket science. Astro Turf is the brilliant result of her journey of discovery.

Remembering her pain at her father's absence, yet intrigued by what he did, Lord captures him on the page as she recalls her own youthful, eccentric fascination with science and space exploration. Into her family's saga she weaves the story of the legendary JPL- examining the complexities of its cultural history, from its start in 1936 to the triumphant Mars landings in 2004. She illuminates its founder, Frank Malina, whose brilliance in rocketry was shadowed by a flirtation with communism, driving him from the country even as we welcomed Wernher von Braun and his Nazi colleagues. Lord's own love of science fiction becomes a lens through which she views a profound cultural shift in the male-dominated world of space. And in pursuing the cause of her father's absence she stumbles on a hidden guilt, understanding "the anguish his proud silence caused both him and me, and how rooted that silence was in the culture of engineering."

As in her acclaimed book Forever Barbie, which demystified an icon of feminine culture, Lord brings her penetrating insight to bear on a bastion of American masculinity, opening our eyes in unexpected and memorable ways.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The success of the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission—and the fact that its dynamic director, Donna Shirley, was a woman—reminded many of how far both space exploration and NASA's male-dominated culture had come. Lord (Forever Barbie) ought to know. Her dad, a rocket scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California during the '60s, had a personality as distant as the stars, and his anachronistic views about women left Lord "driven by terror" to flee to college. Upon her return to JPL 30 years later to learn what made engineers, and her dad, tick, Lord confirmed that he'd simply "embraced the values of his profession: work over family, masculine over feminine, repression over emotion." WWII and McCarthyism had helped create JPL's cowboy culture; for years, the few women who worked there were encouraged to compete for the title of Miss Guided Missile, a beauty and popularity contest. Homosexuals, meanwhile, were barred from employment, even while German engineers who'd committed Nazi war crimes were welcomed with open arms. It wasn't until Donna Shirley arrived in the 1970s that the center's top-down, male-oriented management approach gradually shifted to a "partnership" model. This is an often fascinating work, and cultural critic Lord's sharp turns from family affairs to JPL history result in wonderful discoveries for readers.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

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.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 259 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; Original edition (January 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802714277
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802714275
  • Product Dimensions: 7.3 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,122,675 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

M. G. Lord is a cultural critic and investigative journalist. She is the author of the widely praised books Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, a family memoir about Cold War aerospace culture, and "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll." Her latest book is "The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice."

"For MG Lord, it's curvaceous, charismatic icons of femininity that hold her imagination hostage...What Lord did for Barbie, she now does for La Liz in 'The Accidental Feminist'...Lord takes her readers on a chronological journey through the actress's signal performances, analyzing each film with a theory scholar's eye for telling detail, brightened with bloggerly brio, emotion, and use of the first person...When watching her significant films in succession, you see that, as Lord maintains, each serves as a cinematic Rorschach of social changes percolating through postwar society, in which Taylor stars as the protean blot...With 'The Accidental Feminist,' MG Lord makes the intriguing case that for Elizabeth Taylor, too much as never enough--not for the woman, not for the actress and not for the society that produced the theater of her life." The New York Times

With Shannon Halwes, Lord is also co-writing the libretto for composer Laura Karpman's "One-Ten," an opera commissioned by the L. A. Opera about the 110 Freeway on its 70th anniversary. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review and that paper's Arts & Leisure section, and her work has also appeared in such publications as Travel + Leisure, Discover, Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and The New Yorker. A graduate of Yale, Lord was for twelve years a syndicated political cartoonist and columnist based at Newsday. She teaches in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exploring the Development of Space Science April 6, 2005
In many respects this is a remarkable book. M.G. Lord seeks to unpack the history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a contract facility of NASA, from its origins in the 1930s as a rocket development installation under contract to the U.S. Army to its current status as planetary science center par excellence. In attempting this analysis Lord presents a scintillating narrative of JPL's evolution that is part memoir/part history and always challenging and thoughtful. She uses the experience of her father, who worked as an engineer on the Mars Mariner 69 mission, as an entree point into the engineering culture of JPL. From there she delves deeply into the origins and evolution of the center from its creation by Frank Malina and his self-styled "suicide squad" who fired rocket engines in the Arroyo Secco near the present-day Rose Bowl during the latter 1930s. Using the tools of post-modern analysis and deconstruction, but without reliance on the jargon that makes so much of that work inaccessible, Lord successfully furthers understanding of two major themes in the history of spaceflight that have been largely misunderstood to the present. This first is the place of JPL in the history of rocketry and why it is less well-known than the accomplishments of other actors, especially Wernher von Braun and his German rocket team, in the public consciousness. Second, Lord explores the gendered aspects of rocketry and spaceflight and observes the very gradual entrance of women into the profession.

The first theme that Lord illuminates is the systematic and selective writing of the history of spaceflight.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Growing up in Spaceville, USA May 11, 2005
"Never forget, Son, that your father sold office supplies to the company that made the box that carried the rocks back from the moon."

The New Yorker cartoon quoted in "Astro Turf" so aptly describes how it felt to have a father working in the Southern California-based space program in the Mercury-through-Apollo era. Our dads, whatever it was that they did at North American Aviation or Rockwell or Hughes or wherever, was probably akin to having a dad (or a mom) working behind the scenes in Hollywood. They were not stars or astronauts, but they were working on something famous. And it was much more fun having your dad working on a moon mission than on missiles. At least they could talk to you about the moon.

M.G. Lord's book is the first I've read dealing with the "mid-century" experience of the Space Age kid and our sometimes emotionally challenged, distant engineer dads. Her personal search for what her dad was all about, where did he go and what was he doing when he disappeared into consulting at JPL, is a very touching piece of detective work.

Her observations about JPL and rocket science history and culture are keen and funny. She presents an excellent history of the McCarthy era's impact on some of the luminaries of early space exploration. In particular, she delves into the experiences of women engineers and scientists then and now; these are both painful and heartening stories.

This is a beautifully personal view of the space engineering world, and the men and women who attempt, and sometimes succeed, at accomplishing great missions of exploration.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finding Heart in the Science of Machines April 23, 2005
For most people Rocket Science is a concept, a far removed study for the super intelligent, but for the daughter of a rocket scientist, it is both villian and reality. MG Lord effectively hides her rocket science in an intricate and complex relationship between a distant father, who always chooses work over family, and his daughter. Clearly, Lord has a solid grasp on rocket science; the effortlessness with which she includes an impossible equation in an ordinary sentence brings rocket science into every day life. Above all else, this is the memoir of a daughter whose father was first and foremost a scientist and her struggle between pride and neglect. You read this book how you want to, scientists reading the science, daughters reading the heart. I can think of plenty of subjects that would lose a lot of their sting if teacher's took a page out of this book and grounded complicated technique and theory in more basic human formulas.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, but puzzling June 6, 2005
I thoroughly enjoyed reading MG Lord's Astro Turf, but I left it rather puzzled as to what she was trying to accomplish. The book is not exactly a history of JPL, although in some spots it strives to be just that. I suppose one might describe it as a "cultural history of JPL," but even that wouldn't fit, as her focus goes well beyond JPL. Lord spends time looking at project Paperclip and the influence that Nazis had on rocketry. This is very interesting and well written, but it's not clear why we spend so much time on this. To some extent it seems only to explain the sad life of Molina, one of JPL's founders who was drummed out of the U.S by McCarthyism. But why do we spend so much time discussing the biography of Molina, when his latter life had so little effect on the cultural history of JPL?

To some extent it seems to be a history of Lord's own attempts to understand her father's work. I'm really puzzled why she still believes in the last chapter that her father's work on Mariner 69 was somehow "slight" or unimportant. As an engineer who has worked on scientific spacecraft for NASA, I can say with confidence that to have a contractor with the title of "cognizant engineer for mechanical devices" indicates that this contractor, her father, was very well respected and had a very important position. Lord does not seem to appreciate how incredibly difficult it is to get any mechanical apparatus to operate reliably in the cold vacuum of space. Her petulant insistance that her father's role was less important than he made it out to be indicates that she really hasn't understood the culture of JPL yet.

In several sections Lord seems to be attempting to write a history of gender descrimination within engineering. The "Men and Missiles" pamphlet is hilarious, and Ms.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars very interesting read
Lord presents a fascinating read about the early years at JPL. The back stories of the men in the early development of the space program as well as the period's Cold War paranoia... Read more
Published 5 months ago by C. Martinez
4.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly entertaining look at the culture of the space industry
Satan worshipers, left-over Nazis, kooky dreamers , communist sympathizers, war mongers and male chauvinist pigs - that's who the Founding Fathers of the U.S. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Ken Korczak
1.0 out of 5 stars Agenda laden mess
This is an example of an author attempting to force his/her agenda on others. The book is unfocused, un-disciplined, poorly researched, filled with personal opinions (many of which... Read more
Published on October 31, 2011 by Gilbert Huey
1.0 out of 5 stars Too much opinion, not enough facts
I was disappointed with this book. It seems like a missed opportunity for an overview of all that is JPL - the people and the missions regardless if they were successful or... Read more
Published on September 1, 2010 by Gary Milgrom
5.0 out of 5 stars Bravo
I just finished reading this and found it excellent. It is a rare combination of personal confidences and understanding of a professional culture. Read more
Published on April 18, 2009 by David Isenberg
5.0 out of 5 stars a hidden treasure
This slender book is beautifully written, offering both a portrait of a girl and her father as well as background history about the space movement. Read more
Published on June 21, 2008 by Margo Howard
2.0 out of 5 stars A fraud
Billed as a memoir of "The private life of rocket science", this book is nothing of the kind. It dwells on the experiences of women and homosexuals in the space engineering field,... Read more
Published on December 11, 2005 by Too many books, not enough time
5.0 out of 5 stars little girl dreams do come true
I have lived in Houston since 1978 and untill I read M.G. Lord's historical memoir, had forgoten the dreams I had in my childhood that I would someday go to outer space. Read more
Published on July 10, 2005 by Winifred S. Pfister
3.0 out of 5 stars Life In The Space Debaucle.
This is an eye-opener. It is packed full of pictures, not only of her family but parts and people of the Rocket & Space activities out in LaJolla and Pasadena. Read more
Published on June 27, 2005 by Betty Burks
4.0 out of 5 stars Private Life
I'm not an engineer and I enjoyed Astro Turf enormously. Please note the subtitle: The Private Life of Rocket Science. Read more
Published on May 10, 2005 by Eda K. Zahl
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