Astro Turf

The Private Life Of Rocket Science

by M. G. Lord

Hardcover, 259 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $24 | purchase

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Title
Astro Turf
Subtitle
The Private Life Of Rocket Science
Author
M. G. Lord

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Book Summary

The author combines a history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with an exploration of the effects of her father's career in rocket engineering on her family.

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Excerpt: Astro Turf

ASTRO TURF

The Private Life of Rocket Science


Walker & Company

Copyright © 2005 M. G. Lord
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8027-1427-7

Contents

Introduction  or The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky..................................................................1Mariner Mars 69  or A Foot Soldier's Story......................................................................21The Rockets' Red Glare, Part 1  or The Unlikely Beginnings of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.....................60The Rockets' Red Glare, Part 2  or Portrait of the Artist.......................................................104Gender Parity, Part 1  From Science Fiction to Science Fact.....................................................124No Lost Opportunity  or The Launch of MER-B.....................................................................159Gender Parity, Part 2  From Science Fact to Science Fiction.....................................................185Bouncing Toward Meridiani  or Postcards from the New World......................................................204Acknowledgments.................................................................................................221Notes...........................................................................................................225Bibliography....................................................................................................241Index...........................................................................................................251

Chapter One

Mariner Mars 69

or

A FOOT SOLDIER'S STORY

Shortly before my father died, he became obsessed with being buried next to his father. This, at first, irritated me. He had deposited my mother in a gruesome theme-park cemetery in San Diego, California. And now he wanted to spend eternity in his family's tasteful plot in Hingham, Massachusetts. Particularly because he did not remarry after my mother's death, I was shocked by this apparent abandonment of her. And what felt like an abandonment of me. But believing it unwise to thwart the wishes of the dying, I made the arrangements. Only later would I learn what drove this strange request.

Charles Carroll Lord was a foot soldier, not a general, in the battle for what cold-war strategists called the "high frontier." He was fifty-nine years old when he began work on Mariner Mars 69, an older man in a young man's field. His earlier experiences, however, provide a context for the mission; he had witnessed the way technology was viewed at the dawn of the twentieth century and how it came to be viewed near its end. He also fought in the war of public relations. One of four hundred thousand dads responsible for small components of the space program, he ensured that his near-and-dear had a stake in that program. Or, as Donald Reilly put it in a cold-war-era New Yorker cartoon:

"Never forget, Son, that your father sold office supplies to the company that made the box that carried the rocks back from the moon."

Although he worked in a can-do field, my father was not a can-do guy. He never told me, "Don't try" or "Don't dream." He said, "Prepare for disappointment." And when disappointment didn't come, he said, "Wait." This is why he needed to be part of a can-do team. He drew strength from the optimism of the engineers around him.

Oddly, he never wanted to lead the team, just to belong. His reasons were both personal and cultural; and his story, like all stories, is both specific and universal. It begins with his father, Charles Edward Lord, an engineer who received his bachelor of science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1898.

Unlike my father, my grandfather was a leader. In 1912, after graduating from Georgetown University Law School and serving as a patent attorney at General Electric, he was appointed to head the patent department at International Harvester, a firm whose tractors symbolize the nineteenth century as much as rockets symbolize the twentieth. He was also an instructor at MIT, an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Engineering, and a lecturer in patent law at Marquette University. To hear my father tell it, his father never made a false move. Except one. He was killed in 1919 when a train struck his car. He was forty-three; my father, thirteen.

My father never spoke about my grandfather's death. You'd think it would have surfaced after my mother died, since both of us had been robbed of a parent. But only while babbling on morphine near the end of his life did he reveal his anguish.

I learned details of the accident from the October 19, 1919, issue of the Harvester World, an International Harvester in-house newsletter. I found it wedged in one of his overstuffed file cabinets, along with sixteen years of completed crossword puzzles, a cookie tin of rocklike erasers, matchbooks from nightspots that had folded years before I was born, and ten identical clippings of news stories on the suicide by drowning of Monsignor John Storm, a former president of the University of San Diego, who had resigned from the Roman Catholic Church while assigned to our La Jolla parish. (A liberal, Storm and my father had argued often over Vatican II-squabbles that, the clippings suggested, had etched themselves in my father's mind.)

The Harvester World evoked a lost age, an age of innocent trust in technology. It fell open to this headline: "Tractors and Buffaloes Assist in Balkan Reconstruction." On the heels of World War I, the American Red Cross had shipped a half-million dollars of plows, reapers, and tractors to what it called "the little Balkan state" of Serbia. Technology would unmake the mess of war, feeding the hungry and hastening the creation of a better life. In the tender photos of farm equipment, I saw the stirrings of America's love affair with the machine, its belief that know-how was the ticket up from ignorance and oppression. "Better farming is the foundation-stone of national progress," asserted a letter to the editor. "Every burden that your machinery lifts from the backs of individual farmers is in precisely the same measure a godsend to humanity and a step forward in national progress."

This was a far cry from the way technology would be regarded in the 1970s, when its most potent legacy was devastation. The atomic bomb had erased two Japanese cities and fused together acres of New Mexico sand. The hydrogen bomb could do much more damage in a single blast. In popular culture, the archetypal physicist of the 1970s was Edward Teller, an architect of the hydrogen bomb, a real-life Dr. Strangelove whose heavy, menacing brows terrified children. Not until 1988 did the popularity of A Brief History of Time transform the boyish countenance of Stephen Hawking into the public face of physics.

My father learned well before the 1970s that technology could turn on you-that a machine designed to make your life easier could rip that life apart. According to the magazine, my grandfather had motored to a Harvester plant outside Chicago with an inventor and a machinist. At a railroad crossing, the men noticed a switch engine backing toward them. The inventor hit the brakes, which froze, stranding the car on the tracks. Panicked, the inventor and machinist jumped to safety. My grandfather, however, was trapped. He pushed and clawed his door. When the locomotive hit, he was flung onto the rails, where the engine dragged his body until it stopped. He died, the article said, "after a night of intense suffering, through which he was acutely conscious of his condition, yet courageous and hopeful to the last.

"He leaves a sense of personal loss that is deep and will be lasting," the article continued. But this grief pales next to that of his "widow and his three children, whose loss is even sharper."

Time did not blunt the grief. In ten years, his widow went through all his money, no thanks to her negligent financial advisers and fondness for alcohol. The year was 1928. My father was in college, studying mechanical engineering and studio art, but he had to quit to support the family. When I was a teenager, I remember how, after a few beers, he'd tell strangers that he had been "a pulling guard" for football legend Red Grange at the University of Illinois. He never talked about how he'd left.

"We had our family crash before the crash," explained Uncle Jim, my father's younger brother. We were driving around Wilmette, a Chicago suburb, in his battered plumbing contractor's van, two years after my father died. He was relaxed about the family's fall from solvency, having never known it. He was three when my grandfather was killed, and, unlike my father, didn't try to follow him into engineering. In front of a vast Georgian revival house-a house that telegraphed second-tier robber baron-he stopped the van. This, he said, was where my father had grown up. I felt queasy. The immensity hit me. I understood my father's defeatism. He had never regained what he had lost.

Although the Lord family went bust in 1928, by the 1930s, the rest of the country had caught up. Jobs were scarce. My father was lucky to have one at Harvester, making mechanical drawings and designing tools. But he felt trapped. It wasn't that he disliked engineering; farm equipment left him cold. As the thunderheads of war darkened over Europe, however, his horizons brightened. The demand for fighter aircraft, and, with it, for mechanical engineers, took off. In 1941, he accepted a job at Consolidated Vultee in San Diego, California. By 1943, he was promoted to supervisor in its New Orleans plant. There, on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain, the firm, whose name would be shortened to Convair, built its proud, propeller-driven flying boat, the PBY.

At midcentury, the archetypal engineer married young and had a bustling family to neglect in favor of his all-consuming work. My father ignored this aspect of the paradigm. He lived with his mother in New Orleans. I never knew her, but I learned more about her than I wanted from the humid letters she sent him when she visited her other children in Chicago. Addressed to her son, a man in his forties, they begin: "My Dear Boy."

Something changed in 1950 when he met my mother, Mary Pfister. He told me she made him laugh. When painful things happened, she turned them into funny stories. Of course he asked her to marry him. Of course she accepted, separating from her lifelong friends and her New Orleans home to follow him to San Diego, where he had been reassigned by Convair. She also relinquished her career, though I suspect, in terms of passion, that she had surrendered this years earlier. In college, she had majored in chemistry, taught the subject to high school students, and gained admission to graduate school. But for reasons I never learned, she left her studies to work in the personnel department of a public utility.

When they married, my mother was thirty-five years old. My father had white hair. They had gotten a late start. But before Ike left office, they had begun a family, just like those of other, younger engineers. My birth announcement left no doubt as to my father's profession: "Handicraft Limited reveals a few specifications on its new animated design model X2: Mary Grace," it began. "Wingspan: 16.8 inches. Length: 18 inches. Color: natural pink." It mentioned my gender coyly, as a "design feature."

"We regret that at the present time speed, range and altitude are confidential," it concluded. "However, we can assure you that she broke the sonic barrier on her first flight."

* * *

To understand JPL, you need to know not only what it was but also what it wasn't-just another aerospace contractor. In the 1950s and 1960s, the life of a rank-and-file engineer was itinerant. Aerospace companies had a binge-and-purge hiring policy. They would compete ferociously, for big contracts, then, after winning them, take on droves of engineers, whom they would lay off when the project was done. The pattern at JPL-of hiring the best and having them stay-was atypical. In 1996, however, in response to the post-cold-war downturn in the aerospace industry, even JPL had to downsize, planning to cut twelve hundred of its six thousand jobs by the year 2000. I learned a lot about JPL from the engineers who discussed this in Donna Shirley's 1997 seminar. They weren't worried. They were insulted.

My father, by contrast, was used to instability. During my first three years in elementary school, Convair sent him for six-month stints to its Fort Worth, Texas, plant, as well as to a Lockheed plant in Georgia. I tracked down Ernie Kling, an engineer who had worked with him from 1950 to 1962, to discuss those years.

Kling reminded me of my dad. It wasn't just the whistles, chanting, and thuds emitted from his six-foot television, on which the Notre Dame football team was trouncing Navy. (Kling had graduated from Notre Dame in 1938.) Or the blue haze from the pipe he chuffed continuously. It was his slang. He referred to Convair headquarters as "the Rock." Designing ailerons and control surfaces was "working flap and slat." He cursed a patch of "wing-wong" sidewalk that had caused him to take a recent spill. Wing-wong means "awry," as in: "When you go supersonic, everything gets all wing-wong. You push the stick down, and you go up."

I asked Kling, who had been president of the engineers' union at Convair, a question that puzzled me. If engineers hated being laid off, why didn't they use collective bargaining to gain job security?

He rolled his eyes. "They think they're too smart," he said. They see themselves-and this harks back to the cold-war stereotype-as "'independent guys.' They'd join up when we were negotiating a contract, then quit."

My father, ever the "independent guy," had railed against unions.

Machinists, Kling continued, tended to support their union and to keep their jobs.

Kling had worked with my father on the PBY, as well as the CV-240 and CV-340 transport planes. My father was a liaison between the "floor," or shop, and the engineering division. When newly forged parts didn't fit together, he designed adjustments and conveyed them to the engineering division, where they were inked onto master drawings. The two men had also been involved with the biggest thing that Convair incubated during those years: the Atlas missile, or, more specifically, the airframe for the Atlas missile.

The Atlas was big not just in physical size but in its implications. Seventy-five feet long, ten feet in diameter, it was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), whose purpose was to transport a nuclear warhead to the Soviet Union. Its earliest version, containing three rocket engines beneath a thin metal skin, was static tested in 1956. Until 1954, the U.S. Air Force had favored traditional pilot-flown bombers as a means of delivering nuclear weapons. But in 1952, after "Mike," a thermonuclear device and the brainchild of physicist Edward Teller, was successfully exploded at Eniwetok, a Pacific atoll, the air force changed its thinking. Because thermonuclear weapons were more destructive than atomic ones, they didn't need as precise a delivery system to eradicate their target. And they weighed less-enough less to be transported by a missile.

So while Kling's four children scampered through his avocado grove in the eastern tip of San Diego county, and my first-grade class read books by my neighbor, the author Dr. Seuss, near the northern tip of San Diego County, and countless other Convair families went their happy ways in other parts of the county, a vast delivery system for an object that could expunge an area the size of that county took shape, nurtured by our engineer dads.

The Atlas, however, was not intrinsically lethal. Blasting off as an Atlas-Centaur, with a second rocket, or stage, attached to it, it had an alternative identity. It was a launch vehicle, enabling many robotic probes, including Mariner Mars 69, to escape the Earth's gravity.

* * *

In the early 1960s, "nuclear," too, was a positive word. Far from an incipient Chernobyl, San Onofre, the atomic power plant near San Diego, was a happy destination for fourth-grade field trips. Nor did "nuclear family" imply dysfunction. It was the ideal to which my parents aspired.

Continues...