Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science

by M. G. Lord

(Walker, 272 pages, 25 b/w photos, $24.00, January, 2005)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Readers who enjoy Astro Turf, may also be interested in the following books, also reviewed on this site:

In her acclaimed and recently re-released coverForever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, social critic and investigative journalist M. G. Lord examined the changing role of women against the backdrop of that uniquely American stereotype of femininity known as Barbie.

Now, in Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, Ms. Lord turns her attention to "an archetype of masculinity,... the midcentury so-called rocket scientist." The result is an insightful collection of stories that illuminate the evolution of gender roles and political ideologies from the mid-twentieth century until today.

Readers meet the idiosyncratic founders of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), including Frank Malina, whose liberal politics, according to Ms. Lord, cost him his rightful place in the annals of rocketry. Meanwhile the background of former Nazis, like Wernher von Braun, was not questioned in the interest of cold-war goals.

Another major figure in the book is Donna Shirley, the gifted and articulate engineering manager who led the successful Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997. Through her story, readers see the changing role of women in this once strictly macho field of technology. Parallel stories show how homosexuals also gained acceptance as members of the NASA team.

The book is set mainly at JPL, where Ms. Lord's father, fifty years her senior, worked as a contractor throughout her growing-up years, and her relationship with him is never far in the background. Charles Carroll Lord encouraged his daughter's interest in technology when she was young--even salvaging a real space helmet from the JPL trash for her to play with. But, as was typical of most men of his time, his attitude about her career changed with her puberty. Especially after her mother's death from breast cancer when the author was in seventh grade, she was expected to be the homemaker. Her engineer father was unable to master the simplest kitchen appliances or the various cycles of the washer and dryer, and she resented it. Resentment became estrangement, to be followed many years later by reconciliation.

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. Is she married? Is she gay? She never even hints at the answers to those questions, which surely affect her approach to the subject matter.

But those facts could also get in the way of the readers' appreciation of this insightful and well-researched collection stories that "explore... the disparity between the stereotype... and the [people] who have actually built spacecraft."

Children's science author and Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz's books include To the Young Scientist, a collection of profiles to give young adults insight into the way scientists blend their life and their work. He is also the author of the upcoming Beyond Jupiter, a middle-grade biography of planetary scientist Heidi Hammel.

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