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Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science

Review

Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science



What seems so familiar to me in this quirky memoir may baffle
another, younger reader. As M.G. Lord describes the very male,
pioneer, crew-cut mentality of the early years of the space race,
and compares it to the 21st-century version, worlds collide. And
she was right in the middle of both; her father was a rocket
engineer obsessed with work to the point of neglecting a daughter
and wife who needed him. But back then, men worked and women stayed
home in so many examples of the American dream, the middle class
ideal. Even when Lord's mother was dying of cancer, her father
worked and assumed his daughter would pick up the slack.


M.G. Lord has talked to scientists and family members in an attempt
to understand the somewhat peculiar times of her childhood. The
values that were important in the scientific '60s contributed to a
life where her father was never around, and Lord wants to know why.
She's unsentimental about the times and about her family. In
describing her father, she states that while he was a misogynist,
those were the times and that was his world. During those
conformist years of the '50s, Lord describes herself evocatively as
"a born hall monitor."


The book jumps around, but it's not a bad sort of confusing. The
author writes well; it's possible that in someone else's hands,
this story would be disjointed enough that the reader would get
lost and not understand the connections. Some of them aren't that
clear, but Lord brings the reader along; the history, the insights,
and the interpretations of events work (although I admit to a bit
of eye-rolling at the psychobabble when the author is describing a
modern-day management workshop.) She has a lively way with words
--- describing a badly written screenplay sketch by saying "[a]s
the plot thickens, or congeals, given the stiffness of the
prose."


Lord rather matter-of-factly describes the intense sexism of the
'50s and '60s, quoting, for example, Alfred Bester, the brilliant
science fiction writer who wrote that women were not allowed to
work on delicate rocket components during their menstrual periods
because of the "extra acidity of women's skin at those times of the
month" that would apparently damage the machinery. It might have
been the given, or accepted and unquestioned "knowledge" of the
times, but it's still horrendously unscientific. It was possibly
difficult to swallow then and is even more difficult to swallow 40
years later, even if as older women remind Lord and the reader that
that was the way things were, the accepted way --- patronizing,
elitist and unprovable.


Lord looks at the political climate of the times: the post-war,
Commie-hating era that created the Cold War, the arms race, Joe
McCarthy. There's a pointed discussion of how the U.S. allowed,
nay, encouraged German scientists to enter America, often under all
sorts of protections --- ensuring that none of these "important"
brains would return to Germany for war crimes trials. Despite
attempts by Wernher von Braun and others to appear neutral,
reluctant, minor players in the Nazi war machine, as Lord points
out, there is no way high-level scientists could have not known
about the slave factories and brings evidence into the book to show
how often the German scientists were given more credibility and
power than their American counterparts. Of course, one of these
Americans was thought a Communist, and in those ugly days, that was
enough. (That another was deeply involved in Aleister Crowley's
OTO, that bizarre mix of sex, self-indulgent "magick" ritual and
who-knows-what else, seems almost trivial in light of the power of
the anti-Communist forces.)


ASTRO TURF could have been an exercise in self-indulgent
self-discovery by a woman who grew up with a lot of major issues
with which to deal: a mother dying young and horribly, a distant
father who really didn't seem to care, or couldn't, wanting to
understand why she wasn't allowed to do things, and never
finding explanations. Instead, Lord takes us through the times
with her, showing us what it was like and how she found some
answers later on. Some involved big issues --- anti-Communism, the
cold war, the speed of some discovery and the expansion of
knowledge, the growth of scientific and technological advances.
Some of it was smaller stuff, not necessarily small but not quite
as universal --- a father who was more comfortable at work than at
home, and of growing up on the cusp of change and wondering about
her place in the world.


Lord barely mentions that she was among the first female
undergraduate students at Yale University at a time when much was
changing in American culture. It matters.


   














Reviewed by Andi Shechter (roscoe@drizzle.com) on December 22, 2010

Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science
by M.G. Lord

  • Publication Date: January 1, 2005
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 259 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0802714277
  • ISBN-13: 9780802714275