The Private Life of Rocket Science
By M.G. Lord
Walker. 259 pp. $24
Since I've been reading "Astro Turf," I've been finding out some wonderful things, such as that Jack Parsons, co-founder of California's prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was a college dropout and a priest in "a sex-based (and some say Satanic) cult"; that Parsons used his lovely home on Pasadena's South Orange Grove Avenue for "Satanic sex rituals"; that when not working on rocket science, he spent his time trying to physically manifest "Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth," also known as "the Scarlet Woman in the Book of Revelation . . . through a regimen of ritualized sex, known to occultists as the 'Babylon Working.' "
When I talk about this to a right-wing friend, she flat-out doesn't believe me. "That's fiction you're reading," she says. "That can't be fact -- that's a novel." Another, more menacing friend snarls, "I have a friend who was the head of PR at JPL. I'll call her and find out the real truth! That writer of yours must be a communist!"
But others just look at me, bored to death, and say, "Yeah? Everybody knows that stuff. Anything new in there, or is it just the same old thing?"
Actually, "Astro Turf" is a little of both. It's the old story of a sad little girl who grew up with a largely absent father whom she adored and who, when she became a young woman, set out to find that mysterious man -- to finally understand who he was and what he really did, to find out why, perhaps, he loved what he did so much more than he loved his family. (One thinks of Mary Gordon, who set out to research her missing father and became so irritated by his recalcitrance, even in death, that she disinterred his bones and had them reburied in her own cemetery.) M.G. Lord's aerospace engineer father was seemingly more normal: "He was not abducted by aliens or relocated to the other side of the world. What kept him away was Mariner Mars 69, a mission to send two robotic spacecraft to Mars, on which he had been hired as a contractor. My father worked for Northrop Corporation, and JPL, which managed the mission, had subcontracted with this firm to modify the 'bus,' or body, of the spacecraft." After that, Lord's dad was, to all intents and purposes, lost in space. M.G. was a kid in junior high school, and her mother was dying of cancer. "What we needed was a full-time husband and father," she recalls. "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."
How could this have come about? The author uses the logic of a journalist and the intuitions of a memoirist as she tells separate stories -- the account of her desolate life at home, especially after the death of her mother, the discovery of shameful secrets kept by her father until his death, and -- in what could be called a parallel universe -- the jaunty, crazy, sometimes downright evil history of the American aerospace industry in the second half of the 20th century.
Jack Parsons's co-founder (among others) of JPL was Frank Malina, a graduate student at Cal Tech who was obsessed with jet technology. He served brilliantly in his field during World War II, but after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he put two and two together. "He broke out in 'cold sweats,' he told an interviewer, when he thought of the slaughter that a guided missile, delivering a nuclear warhead, could cause." Malina quit the rocket-science business and went to France to work for UNESCO to promote peace. The FBI came to the obvious conclusion: What was the one thing worse than a Satanist in those heady Cold War days? A communist, of course!
In a maelstrom of treachery and scheming, good vs. evil, smart vs. idiotic, Malina was harried and persecuted by the FBI and the French secret service, and the oily Nazi Wernher von Braun became the public spokesman for American aerospace. "He wasn't a Nazi, he was a great scientist and a great man!" my right-wing friend hotly attests. "I'm calling PR at JPL to verify that right now!" But two things seem pretty sure: Von Braun became great friends with Walt Disney, and von Braun didn't break out in cold sweats at the thought of killing large amounts of people. (As Tom Lehrer once warbled, " 'Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun.")
Meanwhile, the private life in "Astro Turf" continues. The author finds out that her father was fairly low down on the aero-totem-pole as a freelance contractor. But everything, an important scientist reminds Lord, is important in space. The smallest mistake may be the most disastrous. Lord also learns weird masculine folklore and more of the conventional wisdom of the time: "Women are not permitted to work on delicate components during their menstrual periods," one Cold War-era sage wrote in 1966. "Engineers dare not run the risk of subjecting the components to the extra acidity of women's skin at those times of the month."
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I've met M.G. Lord, but only glancingly. I had absolutely no idea of her arduous childhood, her adult life, her interest in space, her ultimate affection for -- and forgiveness of -- her father, no knowledge of her prose style, which combines the madcap with the abstruse. I was blown away by this book. Lord reminds us once again that good and evil really are inextricably combined, that the legacy of these sometimes bumbling founders includes the presence of a JPL float in this year's Rose Parade and the ongoing discoveries of those aptly named JPL robots poking right now across the surface of Mars: Spirit and Opportunity.