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M.G. Lord had just turned 14 when her mother died after a six-year battle with breast cancer. During that long, doomed struggle, “what [my mother and I] needed was a full-time husband and father,” Lord recalls in her new book, “Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science.” “What we had was a cold-war-era rocket engineer, who embraced the values of his profession: work over family, masculine over feminine, repression over emotion.” After his wife’s death in 1970, Charles Lord grew even more remote, relying on his only child to cook his meals, wash his clothes, and grapple with her loss alone. “Whatever grief he may have carried,” she writes, “he remained a silent, archetypal, mid-century male.”
Nonetheless, Lord was fascinated by her father’s occupation — designing components for Convair and Northrop and ultimately working as a contractor for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. JPL, of course, was NASA’s principal supplier of robotic probes, and to a brainy girl who chafed at her grim circumstances, its products represented “hope, expansion, the future.”
Lord slept each night cradling a pressure helmet that her father had retrieved from a trash bin at work. For a time she aimed to follow in his professional footsteps, though she eventually found that her real talents lay elsewhere. She went off to Yale and became a syndicated political cartoonist, then a cultural columnist for New York Newsday. After her father died in 1994, she decided to investigate the culture of the institution that had, during a crucial period of her childhood, defined both of their lives.
“Astro Turf,” which took seven years to complete, is not Lord’s first such exploration. Her book “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll,” published in 1994, remains a staple of women’s-studies courses and was recently reissued in a 10th-anniversary edition. In that book, Lord examined the genesis, evolution and social impact of the world’s most popular plastic avatar of femininity. She also established her signature approach to cultural history: a blend of original reporting, archival research and memoir, informed by feminist theory and leavened with sardonic humor.
The author (who used to cross-dress her own Barbie in an effort to shield its outsize breasts from evil) boldly defended the toy that has been blamed for launching the anorexia epidemic. Barbie, Lord argued, was the first doll to model female independence: She had no family obligations, lived on her own, and pursued a string of glamorous careers; her boyfriend, Ken, was just one more accessory. Though Barbie may have spurred some of her owners toward the desperate pursuit of physical perfection, to many she served as a messenger of liberation.
“Some reviews of the book accused me of having Stockholm syndrome, where hostages fall in love with their captors,” Lord recalls. “But I think if you don’t fall in love with your subject to some degree, you’re going to write a pretty dull book.”
Like “Forever Barbie,” Lord’s latest book is anything but dull. She sees it as a companion to her earlier opus: an inquiry into the stereotype of the rocket engineer, an icon of masculinity as artificial as that 11.5-inch blonde. “Astro Turf” profiles JPL’s surprisingly bohemian founders, including physicist Frank Malina, an alleged ex-communist who later became an avant-garde artist, and John Parsons, a self-taught chemist who moonlighted as a priest in Aleister Crowley’s pagan sex cult. Lord shows how JPL’s image as a crew-cut, slide-rule-slinging patriarchy emerged from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order banning reds and homosexuals from the space program. She charts the rise of women from secretaries and “computresses” (operators of mechanical calculators) to full partnership, spurred by such pioneers as Donna Shirley, the engineer who in the 1970s helped develop JPL’s in-house child-care center — and two decades later took over the Mars program. Most movingly, Lord tells her father’s story, sharing a deathbed revelation. What had come between him and his daughter was not simply macho stoicism; it was shame.
I first met Lord, 49, in October 2004, at the launch of the private rocket SpaceShip One in the Mojave Desert. We talked again last week, in a teahouse near the Los Angeles home that she shares with two Siamese-mix cats.
“Astro Turf” begins with the sentence, “This is not what I expected.” You go on to describe a scene in 1997: Donna Shirley, one of the highest-ranking technical administrators at JPL, leading an “inner-child” workshop designed to enhance the creativity of rocket engineers.
It was completely surreal. I tried to imagine my father in that setting, and it was impossible.
What did you expect when you went back to his old workplace?
I somehow didn’t realize that the culture of JPL would change as much as it had. I expected it to be almost preserved in amber. But there’s an analogy I use in the book, about the Mars probe Mariner 9, which was launched in 1971. The Soviets had launched a couple of probes at the same time, but they were more rigidly programmed. There was a dust storm when all the probes arrived, and because the Soviet spacecraft followed orders, they plunged to the surface and perished. But Mariner 9 kept orbiting and waited for fresh commands. When the storm settled down, it was able to accomplish its mission. So you’ve got to be able to make changes en route.
Was there a particular event that set you off on this probe of your father’s universe?
At the end of my father’s life, he suddenly wanted to be buried next to his father, in Hingham, Mass. And he had deposited my mother in this theme-park cemetery in San Diego. I felt like he was abandoning her — and us. Of course, you don’t want to thwart the wishes of the dying, so I arranged to have his desires implemented. But it wasn’t until just before he died, when he was babbling on morphine, that I understood his motivation. It turned out that when he was 13, he had been summoned to Boston from his boarding school outside of Baltimore and not told why. He had had to change trains in New York, and he missed his connection. When he finally got to Boston, he found out that his father had been killed in a freak accident when a train hit his car. Because of the delay, he had missed the funeral, and he felt hugely guilty about it for more than 70 years.
After he died, I realized that there were so many other things that I didn’t know about him. But it seemed narcissistic to base a book on my small experience. The challenge for me was to locate my father’s place in the larger, very important experience of space exploration at mid-century. In the process, I interviewed a lot of people and read a lot of historical documents. I also read a lot of letters my parents exchanged before they were married. What I remember of their marriage was so blighted by her fatal illness that I never got a sense of who they really were. And now I feel I know them.
What did you find out about your parents?
I learned what they were like before my mother got sick. I saw them happy and hopeful and caring deeply about each other. I had never heard my father as upbeat and optimistic as he was in these early letters. One of them begins, “Hi, Snooks.” He had an uncontained ebullience that I had never witnessed. My mother was always very funny, but in her letters there was also a serious side and a planning-for-the-future side that I hadn’t seen. I found their correspondence extremely poignant.
How were you received at JPL when you first showed up to do this project?
The hardest thing was getting one of those badges with my picture on it that allowed me to get into the lab at any time of the day or night. This was before 9/11 — it wasn’t about security, it was about the fact that my principal credential was a cultural history of the Barbie doll. But I just wore them down.
“Astro Turf” tells your life story in much greater detail than “Forever Barbie,” which is heavier on abstract issues of gender theory. That strikes me as paradoxical — I would have expected a book about a doll, which is an intimate personal possession, to be the more autobiographical work.
It was easier for me to think in an abstract way about femininity than masculinity. When I wrote “Forever Barbie,” I had been thinking for at least 30 years about what it means to be a woman. But I didn’t have that much personal interest in my Barbie dolls, except to have cross-dressed them in response to childhood trauma — trying to protect Barbie and Midge from cancer by putting them in Ken’s clothes. I figured it was safe for Ken to wear their things, since he didn’t have breasts.
On the other hand, as “Astro Turf” makes clear, I’ve always had a personal interest in space exploration. I’ve followed space missions since I was 9 years old the way other people follow sports. I knew what launched when, and how long it took to get there, and what, in a general way, the science results were.
I take it that Barbie represented what you were supposed to be.
I had no intention of ending up that way!
Whereas the space helmet that your dad brought home…
Was a thing that I actually liked.
In the book, you say your father initially supported your ambition to become a scientist. What happened?
When I hit puberty, everything shifted. It was fascinating. And I think I’m not the only girl who had that experience. When I was a little girl, he encouraged his androgynous little daughter to achieve intellectually. But the moment I showed signs of becoming a woman, he realized that I was born to the servant gender and I was expected to serve.
What, exactly, did he expect you to do?
Remember Cinderella? That about covers it. This rocket scientist couldn’t cope with the most elementary forms of domestic science.
So you escaped into reading science fiction.
I was very big on escaping, one way or another. Fantasy worlds have always been really important to me. I read Robert Heinlein’s “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” when I was 8 or 9. In that book, the 11-year-old girl is smarter than the 18-year-old boy. Another character is the Mother Thing, a creature that provides all the nurturing and comforts of mothering, but is not one gender or another. That helped open my eyes to the fact that biology isn’t destiny. Heinlein was kind of great in that way. He’s stigmatized because of some of his later, more militaristic politics, but I think he was a real feminist. There were women engineers in his short stories — “Delilah and the Space-Rigger,” “Let There Be Light” — and they were really smart, and they used only their initials. I was so inspired by them that at 9 I changed my name from Mary Grace to M.G.
Does everyone call you M.G.?
My mother’s relatives, this big Southern Gothic family, still call me Mary Grace. But then I’m in a room with Gladys Mae and Violet Ann.
Growing up, you were clearly ambivalent about JPL. Although your father’s work intrigued you, you resented it for taking him away from you. How has writing this book affected your attitude?
By the end, I came to understand precisely what so captivated my father. It’s the thrill of discovery, of seeing new worlds for the first time. It was extraordinary at the landing of Opportunity in January 2004, when you saw a Martian landscape that didn’t look like those “red rocks and more red rocks” that Jay Leno was making fun of on “The Tonight Show.”
But there were still some terrible wrongs. I mean, what happened during the Cold War to [JPL cofounder] Frank Malina was in my view a really bad thing. Malina, along with Robert Goddard, should be hailed as the father of rocketry. And the reason most people don’t know about him is that during the Depression, Malina flirted — as many intellectuals did — with communism. It was just a very casual flirtation. But in the ’50s, that didn’t stop U.S. authorities from launching an investigation into his purported un-American activities. He was secretly indicted for allegedly lying on a personnel security questionnaire. He fled to Paris and worked for UNESCO, but he left UNESCO when the organization started catching heat for harboring supposed ex-communists.
So here he is, this genius, this pioneer; he’s living in Paris, he has two babies and a wife, he has no means of supporting himself. He can’t return to this country without being arrested. The French want to deport him because they think he’s going to wind up on the dole. And then, all of a sudden, a company he’d founded years earlier — Aerojet, which built JATOs [jet-assisted take-off rockets] for aircraft — is bought by General Tire, and he becomes a multimillionaire. And the French, realizing they can tax him, do not deport him. He becomes a kinetic artist; he founds a magazine, Leonardo, that’s devoted to the interface between art and technology; he has this lovely life. It’s wonderfully poetic that someone who’s accused of wanting to overthrow capitalism is by capitalism made extraordinarily rich.
In the book you contrast the government’s treatment of Malina to its long embrace of ex-Nazi rocket scientists.
I had been taught what every child in the Cold War was taught, which was that the Germans in the space program were not really political, they hadn’t really done anything bad, they just had to go along with this bad man, Hitler, in order to realize their dreams of space. But in fact, a number of key players in the space program had very problematic war records — most notably Arthur Rudolph, the head of the Saturn 5 program. He honed his management skills as chief of slave labor at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, where the V-2 missiles were built, and where the Smithsonian Institution historian Michael Neufeld reports that 1,000 people died every month. I mean, Neufeld writes that more people died producing the V-2 than died being hit by it. In 1984 Rudolph fled back to Germany, rather than face a denaturalization hearing based on his war crimes.
Why were these guys admitted to the U.S. in the first place, let alone being awarded high positions at NASA?
I guess the thinking was that they would otherwise go to the Soviet Union. Actually, I think it’s more likely that what we prevented was a space-faring nuclear superpower in Paraguay. I just think it’s unfortunate that the homegrown talent was disparaged while we were embracing these people.
“Astro Turf” could be subtitled “Sexing the Space Program.” You go beyond the obvious “missile equals phallus” equation to analyze the gender symbolism of just about everything involved in a rocket launch.
The vocabulary of engineering has always had sexual overtones. Since time immemorial, a tool that goes into a socket has been called a male tool, and a tool that receives another object has been called a female tool. In that tradition, engineers refer to the “umbilical” connection between rocket components. During preparations for a launch, the spacecraft is “mated” to the launch vehicle. And in my view, a launch is also kind of a birth experience. It’s more than just a knock-your-socks-off explosion. It’s like labor, the struggle to escape one world and move into another. There’s a merging of the masculine and feminine.
That’s an apt description of the way JPL has changed since your father’s day as well. Do you think the new dynamic will last?
Well, to a degree it’s a reflection of the larger culture. I think from certain things there’s no turning back.
Kenneth Miller is a former senior editor at People, now working as a freelance writer in Los Angeles.More Kenneth Miller.