Nathalia Holt

Rise of the Rocket Girls

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Rise of the Rocket Girls Summary

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Biologist and science writer Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars (2016) about the women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, uses Holt’s archival research to craft the stories of women who were integral to the success of NASA in its early days. Until Holt’s inquiries, their stories had been so overlooked that NASA itself was often unable to identify female staff in its own archival photographs. Through thorough investigation and in-depth interviews with the women themselves, Holt synthesized this lost piece of history.

Although many critics praise the book for highlighting the work of women often overlooked in histories about the way the U.S. got to space, some criticize Holt for dwelling too much on the appearances of the women and praising them for remaining pretty and thin. Holt is also disparaged for brushing away workplace sexual harassment as something to be laughed off, and never fully grappling with the implications of what she describes.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was started in the 1940s, as former Nazi scientists were allowed to avoid punishment for what they did in WWII by helping the U.S. to eventually get into space. This group of scientists laid the foundation for the first American satellites and our exploration of the solar system. Before these achievements, the main goal of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was to perfect missile technology for warfare, using the foundations laid earlier by amateur scientists and university departments.

In the days before computers, the complex mathematics necessary to calculate velocities and plot trajectories required the quick-thinking and detail-oriented work of human mathematicians. Without exact calculations, it would have been impossible to figure out how much fuel was required to launch a missile, for example. Surprisingly, NASA recruited a cadre of young women to do this work – women whose mathematical prowess was put to the test with only pencils, graph paper, slide rules, and a set of complex numerical relationships detailed in a set of books called the Mathematical Tables Project series (which itself was an amazingly ambitious project that had been funded by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression).

The work the women at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were doing was unusual in a variety of ways. To begin with, this team of women – called “rocket girls” or “human computers” by their male colleagues – held full-time jobs when only 20 percent of adult women were working outside the home. Moreover, many of the women were married with children, thus, going against the cultural standard that women who had jobs would normally leave those jobs in order to take care of their kids.

At the same time, often the women mathematicians did not have the same academic backgrounds as the men around them. They had come to math from innate interest or from realizing they had a head for numbers after being exposed through fathers, male friends, or boyfriends, but were unable to really develop their interests within an academic setting because the universities of that time often didn’t allow women to enroll in math classes. This meant none of them could get engineering degrees, so they had to demonstrate their capabilities in other ways.

Nevertheless, not only did the women successfully become the backbones of the teams working on missile development, several of them rose to leadership roles within the math department of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Later, when electronic computers were introduced as tools available for complex calculations – machines that were given the name that had been used for humans doing “computing,” or calculations – the women were among the first computer programmers. At that point, the work of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory changed from figuring out missile trajectories to doing the calculations for rocket missions to Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Uranus – and eventually, for how to land a human being on the moon.

Of course, the story of the women is hardly a completely optimistic one. Often disrespected or dismissed by their male peers, they were almost never promoted to upper management and earned at most a third of what their male counterparts did. They also had to figure out how to manage their careers and home lives in ways that their married male colleagues never did, especially in the face of the expectation that pregnant women or ones with children at home would necessarily be forced to resign. Overall, their lesser status as ornamental members of the agency whose looks were as important as their brain can be seen in events such as a yearly beauty pageant called Miss Guided Missile and later, the Queen of Outer Space organized by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Holt spends time on individual biographies of the women. We learn about the first woman recruited to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Barbara Canwright (known as Barbie), who was unusual in that she had a degree in mathematics. We also meet Macie Roberts, another early recruit, who eventually became the manager of the department – a fateful promotion, because Roberts hired only women and then, retained them even after they married or became pregnant, creating an environment at NASA at the forefront of the burgeoning women’s rights movement of the 1960s.