The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 18 July 2006

Astro Turf

The Private Life of Rocket Science

by M. G. Lord

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by CalTech, sits in the foothills on the outskirts of Pasadena. The lab has been responsible for many of NASA's most spectacular successes in robotic planetary exploration. It has had a few notable failures along the way, but these are the occasional price of exploration. Along with the Kennedy Space Center and the Johnson Space Center, which are known for manned spaceflight, JPL has probably the highest profile of any of NASA's several centers scattered around the country. Most recently, JPL has brought back pictures of the surface of Mars from the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, from the rings of Saturn via the Cassini spacecraft, and even bits of comets and the solar wind with Genesis and Stardust. The lab's contribution to planetary sciences can hardly be overestimated.

JPL was founded in the mid 1940s, when rocket science was in its infancy. M. G. Lord is the daughter of an engineer who worked at JPL in the 1960s, during the early years of unmanned space exploration. His work took him away from home, his young daughter, and his dying wife. His story and, by extension, the author's, is the story of a culture of science and engineering. It is a culture often almost monastic. It is certainly male-dominated. Lord turns a personal eye to her father's life and the cultural relationship between a place like JPL and the wider culture that surrounds and supports it. She looks at the legacy of sexism in the history of the Cold War era space race. And she looks at the political compromises made in the name of success in that race. Frank Malina, the bright young co-founder of JPL, an engineer and rocket scientist, was vilified during the Red Scare days of the McCarthy hearings and basically forced to leave JPL and the USA. Meanwhile, ex-Nazi scientists like Werner von Braun were courted by the same government that persecuted supposed Communist sympathizers, many of whom were talented artists and engineers. Lord gives us a sketch of JPL's history in its early years, and the political context in which it, and her father, operated. The 1960s were the years of her father's absence from the home. It was also a time in which women were not at all encouraged to pursue engineering careers. Lord profiles a couple of women who helped to change that at JPL in the 70s and later, women like Donna Shirley and Marcia Neugebauer. And she talks about how the culture at large finally forced changes within the cloistered environment of JPL, bringing it and its people more culturally up-to-date. Despite all these topics, Lord's book is quite compact. It is a fast-moving narrative, without tremendous depth, but with a broad and refreshing "outsider's" view of rocket science and what drives rocket scientists.

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