Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science

Astro Turf works well as a brief, clear history of a field and the lab that embodied it. It works even better as a piece of cultural criticism. [It] works best of all, though, as a moving memoir of the difficult love between a daughter and father.”—New York Times

During the late 1960s, while M. G. Lord was becoming a teenager in Southern California and her mother was dying of cancer, Lord’s father disappeared into his work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, building the space probes of the Mariner Mars 69 mission. Remembering her pain at her father’s absence, Lord revisits her past, remembering her own youthful, eccentric fascination with science and space exploration, as a way of understanding the ethos of rocket science. Astro Turf is the brilliant result of her journey of discovery.

Into her family’s saga Lord weaves the story of the JPL—the famed source of so many space vehicles—from its start in 1936 to the triumphant landings on Mars in 2004. She illuminates its founder, Frank Malina, whose brilliance in rocketry was shadowed by a flirtation with Communism, driving him from the country even as we welcomed Wernher von Braun and his Nazi colleagues. Lord’s own love of science fiction becomes a lens through which she views a profound cultural shift in the male-dominated world of space. And in pursuing the cause of her father’s absence she stumbles on a hidden guilt, understanding “the anguish his proud silence caused both him and me, and how rooted that silence was in the culture of engineering.”