Polly Shulman reviews Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle, and Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science by M. G. Lord, in the New York Times Book Review:
For half a century and more, rocket science evoked everything that’s rational, accurate and, above all, masculine. It was the realm of the engineer with his crew cut, his slide rule and his long, sleepless nights at the computer or drafting table, culminating in a heart-stopping blastoff into the precisely calculated unknown. Two new books about the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech — George Pendle’s ”Strange Angel” and M. G. Lord’s ”Astro Turf” — explore the wild early days of rocket science; ”Astro Turf” goes on to follow the discipline’s trajectory through changing ideas of masculine and feminine. Both books offer new glimpses not only of the history of a lab, a science and a group of extraordinary people but also of America’s rapidly changing political and cultural assumptions. In each case the launching point is a man: in ”Strange Angel” it is John Whiteside Parsons, the self-taught rocket fuel expert who helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and in ”Astro Turf” it is Lord’s father, an engineer who worked on the lab’s Mariner Mars 69 mission.