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. For some fifty years Wernher von Braun and his German rocketeers who built the V-2 and then came to America at the end of World War II have been popularly interpreted as far-sighted visionaries with an integrated space exploration plan that would foster a future of great discovery in the "final frontier." The historiography of spaceflight has lionized these individuals and maximized the team's role in the development of American rocketry and space exploration even as it minimized the wartime cooperation of von Braun and his "rocket team" with the Nazi regime in Germany. Both were conscious distortions of the historical record. Even today, few Americans realize that von Braun had been a member of the Nazi party and an officer in the SS and that the V-2 was constructed using forced labor from concentration camps. The result has been both a whitewashing of the less savory aspects of the careers of the German rocketeers and an overemphasis on their influence in American rocketry. Lord juxtaposes that master narrative of spaceflight history with a more accurate portrayal that shows that the United States developed a very capable rocket technology in such places as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and elsewhere. Led by Frank Malina, JPL developed jet-assisted take-off (JATO) rockets during the war and the WAC Corporal immediately thereafter. They even spun off a major corporation, Aerojet, that remains an important rocket engine company to the present.
Lord asks, appropriately, why have Malina and the JPL rocketeers been largely forgotten while von Braun and the Germans received overwhelmingly positive publicity? "With accomplishments like these," she writes, "you'd expect to find him [Malina] enshrined in history, alongside Goddard, the quirky collector of rocketry patents who did not work well with others, or von Braun, the oily ex-Nazi who very much did" (p. 66). The reason, Lord finds, is because Malina had ties to leftist organizations in the 1930s, although he always denied being a communist. Accordingly, his pedigree was not one of unabashed anti-communism and in the Red Scare era during the 1940s and 1950s it would not do for the keepers of this new and remarkably powerful technology of rocketry to have any propensity in favor of Marxism. Always conscious of the horror of rockets in war, Malina believed that his work in World War II was appropriate only to rid the world of a great evil. After World War II it did not take much hounding for him to leave JPL and accept employment with the United Nations. The U.S. government then ran Malina out of the U.N. as well, and he eventually became an artist in Paris where he died in 1981.
For the first time, Lord draws starkly the systematic process whereby for political reasons the U.S. publicized a foreign rocket team, that of Wernher von Braun, while deemphasizing an American one under Malina's direction. As Lord concludes: "To a country that viewed international politics as a clash between teams--us and them, right and wrong, good and evil--Communists were them, wrong and evil. What is more, people who had expressed curiosity about communism in the 1930s were not allowed to reconsider. Regardless of the way their sympathies may have evolved, they were inexorably tainted" (p. 95). Because of this Malina and the accomplishments of his "suicide squad" were largely omitted from the history of spaceflight until the 1980s when they began to reemerge.
The second theme that Lord investigates is the fascinating subject of gender in rocketry and spaceflight. Of course, aerospace engineering in the United States has been the province of a largely white male population. She describes how she found a pamphlet published at JPL in 1959 entitled "About Missiles and Men." The title says much about the perspective of the NASA center in the era, but "The book's cover says a lot about sex and rocketry...It shows two missiles darting across the page--one placed so that it appears to rise from a ground technician's groin" (pp. 37-38). Lord explores gender throughout this book, using the career of Donna Shirley, who gained fame during the Mars Pathfinder mission of 1997, and who had been battling for greater acceptance of women at JPL since the early 1970s. It has been a slow process and Lord believes that there is much yet to accomplish on that score at both JPL and NASA.
Throughout the book are several sustained analyses of gender in spaceflight. One of my favorites is Lord's deconstruction of a rocket launch: "One can easily interpret a launch as a symbol of masculine power. It involves a potent object penetrating the heavens. But what, I suspect, gives the experience its psychic resonance is that the imagery is also feminine. During preparations for a launch, the spacecraft is `mated' to the launch vehicle. The harsh, male abstractions of physics are described in the vocabulary of pregnancy and birth, the ultimate female acts of creation. A launch is more than just a knock-your-socks-off explosion. It is a kind of labor, a wrenching struggle to escape one world and move into another. On a deep, archetypal level it is profound--a uniting of the masculine and feminine in the sort of balance that Jungian psychologists believe the psyche seeks" (pp. 159, 161). Such insights are gems scattered throughout the book.
There is much to recommend in this book, and I commend it to all. This is not a work of scholarship, per se. It is written for a broad market and refrains from references to Michel Foucault and the school of analysis he embodied. It does have, however, page sources at the conclusion to lead those interested to more extensive discussions. While Lord refrains from offering an overarching thesis, as would a work of deep scholarship, "Astro Turf" is an important discussion of the history of spaceflight from the standpoint of one NASA facility, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As such it is an enormously valuable addition to the literature.