Graced with a clever title, terrific cover art and a compelling topic—space missions by legendary scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.—M.G. Lord's Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science (Walker, Jan.) lifts off easily into multiple orbits, blending social history, personal memoir and science in a hard-to-define mix. Along with exploring seldom discussed aspects of space culture—the government's embrace of Nazi scientists after WWII, the McCarthy era harassment of JPL founder Frank Malina, the slow acceptance of women in the field—Lord recounts a painful family history that was intimately bound up with NASA's development of the space program.
In the late 1960s, while Lord was in junior high and her mother was dying of cancer, her father, an aerospace engineer for Northrop, was under subcontract to JPL to work on one of the Mars mission's spacecraft. He became lost to his family. "JPL took him away when I needed him," Lord says. George Gibson, Lord's editor at Walker, encouraged her to add personal layers to the main thrust of the story. He also suggested she include a chapter on the portrayal of women in science fiction.
Lord refers to Astro Turf as "a bookend" to her ForeverBarbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll (Morrow, 1994, just reissued in paperback by Walker). "That was the girl side of mid-century America, and this is the boy side," she says. "My father embraced the values of his profession. He chose work over family, masculine over feminine and repression over emotion. He was a stoic mid-century man who didn't get therapy."
Lord, a native Angeleno, lives in a small house in Park LaBrea, a housing complex in the center of Los Angeles. La Brea means "the tar" in Spanish, and indeed, a tar bed had recently bubbled up in the common backyard area of her complex, which she points out with wry amusement. Two white Siamese-mix kittens perch themselves on various surfaces in the living room, including a glass enclosed bookcase that houses first editions by some of Lord's favorite writers—Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Susan Sontag. These books and others are a legacy of her former marriage to Glenn Horowitz, a rare book and manuscript dealer, to whom she also owes one of her most prized possessions, a fine copy of Samuel Johnson's calfskin-clad Dictionary of the English Language. "It should be under lock and key somewhere, but I use it," Lord says. She shows off a copy of Forever Barbie in Japanese and a plush covered case containing copies of an earlier book, Mean Sheets (Little, Brown, 1982), a collection of political cartoons she did at Newsday early in her career. On the wall is a framed prescription written by the doctor-poet William Carlos Williams and art by George Grosz, Chas. Addams and Patti Smith. The housing complex outside melts away in the distraction of such haute literary surroundings.
As an undergraduate at Yale ("to which I escaped," Lord says), she learned you could do what you love to do. Bill Mauldin, one of her teachers, helped her get a job at the ChicagoTribune after graduation and later put his imprimatur on her career by writing the introduction to Mean Sheets. "I was a good cartoonist, but I always wanted to be a writer," Lord says. "I reached a point at Newsday where I was shoving novels into the talk balloons of my cartoons."
In 1990 her editors at the paper added a humor column to her workload. In one piece, she wrote about finding the dolls of her childhood and discovering they were cross-dressed. This column caught the attention of Paul Bresnick, then a Morrow editor, who was interested in publishing a book about the Barbie phenomenon. It was a perfect fit, allowing Lord free rein as a cultural critic in feminist fields. In the course of her research, she moved back to L.A. to interview Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler, and found herself spending time with her father again. "I was happy we reconciled at the end of his life. It made me feel I had missed something." During the writing of Astro Turf, she kept a quote from J.R. Ackerley's My Father & Myself above her desk: "If I had known and thought about him then as much as I have learnt and thought about him since his death, what an interesting conversation we might have had."
"After Barbie, all I could think about was my father," Lord says. "I wanted to know more about him, and I wanted to understand the world he disappeared into."
Lord says it's not that she never had an interest in her father's space career. To the contrary: "In many ways," she says, "I've been working on Astro Turf since I was nine years old," says Lord. "Space is so thrilling," she says. "And now there are so many fascinating science stories to tell with the opening of space to tourists. It's not really a NASA story anymore."
The book took longer than she imagined it would, but now that it's out, she is pleased with the timing because of the symmetry: publication coincided with the culmination of JPL's Cassini mission to Saturn, the release of the Cassini-Huygens probe into the atmosphere of Titan, just as the early stages of her research on the book coincided with the launch of the spacecraft in 1997.
What she'll tackle next Lord won't say. "I want to write a reconsideration of Heinlein as a feminist. I love science fiction. And there's a novella for children sitting here since Barbie." She recently wrote a piece about space tourism for Travel magazine, so that's a possibility, too. "The private stuff is very exciting," she says, sounding prepared for departure.