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Astro Turf: the private life of rocket science.




In the stories of science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, M. G. Lord discovered the woman she wanted to be. Stuck in the back of a station wagon on a long "educational" trip from San Diego to Boston, Lord, a precocious only child entering the fourth grade, passed the time reading Heinlein's Have Space Suit--Will Travel. The book featured an eighteen-year-old boy who wants to visit the moon, and does. But more important for Lord, he had a sidekick who was eleven, female, and smarter and braver than he. The tale also featured an extraterrestrial of indeterminate gender, "the Mother Thing," who offered kids the support they usually get from their moms. "This blew me away," Lord writes in Astro Turf. "Here was a place where girls could outthink grown men and mothering was a job, not a biological destiny." The women in the book all went by their initials, and so, Mary Grace Lord decided, would she.

Lord did not pick up similar messages from her childhood environment--from Wernher von Braun, for example, the erstwhile Nazi rocket scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where Lord's father, Charles, worked in the '50s and '60s. While von Braun appears throughout Astro Turf to express the most backward values of the cold war, Lord's real animus is reserved for her father, whom she reveres for his intriguing career as a rocket engineer but resents bitterly for his absence from family life. It's not surprising, then, that the book is a collection of stories with one overlapping theme: the masculinity of rocketry.

Astro Turf starts in 1997, when Lord, author of Forever Barbie, a history of the icon of feminine culture, returns to JPL. A regional NASA center since 1958, JPL has been involved in the design or flight of nearly every US interplanetary mission. After a few visits, Lord reconstructs the lab's history, and pieces together her father's absorption in his work, which in an odd sort of way she shares. Frank Malina was by far the most interesting of JPL's founders. He read Marx in the '30s and, two decades later, pursued by the FBI, he moved to Paris, where he entered literary society and took up art. This story is enriched by details from Malina's son, Roger, though Lord fails to probe Malina's transformation from rocket scientist to artist.

Lord returns more than once to the thesis that rocketry is a male profession. The few women she finds of superior achievement only enhance her argument. Marcia Neugebauer, who was JPL's first female project scientist, in the '60s, went on to help design the Ulysses mission to the Sun in the '90s, but she was the exception who proved the rule. It was Donna Shirley, manager of the Mars Exploration Program, who took on the "Christian clerical culture of Western science." Shirley's critique of NASA's management problems ruffled feathers when she referred to the agency as an "entitlement program," where the job of each center was to keep itself in business. When Lord travels to Cape Canaveral to watch the lift-off of the device that landed two golf-cart-size "rovers" on Mars in 2004, she sees "the sacramental build-up to the launch, the tumescent delta, throbbing against the indigo sky." At this point, the feminist critique grows a bit tiresome, ruling out as it does a deeper analysis of America's romance with the space program.

The last chapter of Astro Turf, "Bouncing Toward Meridiani, or Postcards from the New World," returns to JPL to tell the story of Opportunity, the successful rover that stands in the bed of an ancient Martian sea that may have once held the molecules of life. "My hard-won press badge announced that I belonged," Lord reflects, bringing it all back to the family circle. "And I understood the powerful grip that this world had upon my father--because it had an equally powerful grip on me."
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Title Annotation:NOTED
Author:Brightman, Carol
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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