Review by KEN KORCZAK
Satan worshipers, left-over Nazis, kooky dreamers , communist sympathizers, war mongers and male chauvinist pigs – that’s who the Founding Fathers of the U.S. space program were — or at least that’s the impression you might come away with from a read of ASTRO TURF by daughter-of-a-rocket-engineer M.G. LORD.
But is it true? Sure it is – or at least the case can be made, and I can find little to fault Lord’s take on the brilliant-but-motley crew who were the first key players in early rocketry (although she gives painfully short shrift to father of American rocketry, Robert H. Goddard).
I also can’t disagree that after World War II the U.S. Military gave a free pass to German rocket scientists who almost certainly had committed – or at least knowingly aided and abetted – horrendous war crimes in Nazi Germany.
Add to all of the above: An exclusive, male-dominated, female-scorning, uber-sexist aerospace industry culture. Whether it was a contractor, such as McDonnell Douglas, or government agency, such as NASA or Jet Propulsion Laboratory, men were from Mars and women were from Venus – and the planetary gulf was not to be crossed. If you were a man, you were in a position of power – if you were a woman, you were a secretary, a sex object or a subservient computer-data entry worker.
Through the relentlessly feminist eye of M.G. Lord the penis-shaped rockets which thrust the human race into space were the ultimate phallic symbol of a world ruled by men, hell-bent on conquering new worlds – but mostly the Communist enemy.
Lord comes at her subject not as an objective journalist and social observer but as an insider for whom the development of the aerospace industry was personal – her father was a cog in that testosterone-drenched machine that ground away at conquering cold outer space while turning a frigid, cold shoulder to their wives and children at home.
In a sense, Lord’s nuclear family was a fractal iteration of that culture which would build nuclear bombs and load them onto rockets. The development of missile technology was actually more about the macho posturing of war than advancement of knowledge for the good of all mankind.
So this book is as much personal memoir as it is sociological study. For me, this is where Lord opens herself up to some constructive criticism. Lord has clearly never gotten over the pain of what she perceives as her father’s emotional abandonment of her and her mother. Her pain is exacerbated by the fact that her mother suffered greatly from a cruel case of cancer which killed her too early.
Lord eventually became deeply estranged from her father, only bridging the gap when he grew old, finally retired and approached his own death. Part of the rift had to do with her father’s extreme social and political conservatism. Lord matured into an ardent liberal feminist.
All this is well and good, but it necessarily detracts from her status as an objective analyst of what truly shaped the culture of space exploration in America. Lord makes a good case, but it’s highly anecdotal and deeply emotional. Certainly, that the first two-thirds of the twentieth century – across all culture and industries – was a male dominated society is not under dispute. Thus, it’s hardly blowing the lid off the nose cone to reveal that the aerospace industry culture was more of the same.
(Special Note: Feminists have long pointed out, rightfully so, that accusing women of being “emotional” or “hysterically emotional” is a favorite “go-to smear” to denigrate women and dismiss them as unreliable. So my comments might seem like a “here we go again moment” — because here I am — you know, a male — describing part of Lord’s thesis as “emotional.” But no one should give me any of that crapola today – anyone reading Astro Turf will be confronted with its often highly emotional tone; the still moldering resentment Lord holds for her father is more than obvious – she wrote it, she owns it – so don’t kick it back on me).
I am also tempted to say, “Hey M.G. — I’ll trade you your dad for mine any day! My dad drank a quart of Windsor Canadian whiskey every single day (and never missed a drinking day), smoked two packs a day, worked in his grocery store from sun up to sun down, never said a single word to me that I can remember, never played with me, never took me fishing, never took us on a vacation; he lived in the same home with me as a total stranger, and croaked when I was 16. My mother also suffered a slow, cruel death from breast cancer to boot.”
Your dad was a rocket scientist!
Ken Korczak is the author of: THE MAN IN THE NOTHING CHAMBER