Book Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls

EarthzineIn-Depth, Reviews, Themed Articles, Women in STEM 2016

‰ÛÏRise of the Rocket Girls‰Û is a fascinating history of the women computers and engineers at NASA and their contributions to the agency despite historic gender discrimination.

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Rise of the Rocket Girls, a history by Natalia Holt, gives readers an inside account of what it meant to be a woman at NASA during the agencies early years. Image Credit: Little, Brown and Co.

Before there was NASA, there was the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a rocketry center in Pasadena, California, that grew out of Caltech in the late 1930s. Before rockets launch and jets fly, their operators need to carry out rigorous mathematic calculations of trajectory and thrust. Before there were mechanical computers to do this work, there were the Rocket Girls.

Nathalia Holt‰Ûªs history ‰ÛÏRise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars‰Û shines a light on the women at JPL who had otherwise not been part of our common narrative about the beginnings of the space race. Despite the recent push to help young women find careers in science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) fields, even at NASA the impacts early female employees had on science and engineering have been largely lost to history.

Holt‰Ûªs book resurrects not only these women‰Ûªs contributions to science, but also their personal stories. This book comes not a moment too soon as many of these courageous women have or are retiring from NASA. As noted in the book, agency archivists at NASA had little idea of the extent to which women were important and valued in the early days of their employer‰Ûªs history ‰ÛÒ when asked about specific early female employees, the archivists struggled to find information about the women.

How, then, was a lay audience to know anything about the women in question?

Holt‰Ûªs book follows several women ‰ÛÒ Barby Canright, Macie Roberts, Barbara Paulson, Janez Lawson, Helen Ling, Susan Finley, and Sylvia Miller ‰ÛÒ through the development of JPL, and touches on their roles as leaders and contributors to NASA‰Ûªs mission. ‰ÛÏRocket Girls‰Û provides glimpses into their personal and professional lives and creates a cohesive narrative of womanhood in the extraterrestrial sciences from the 1940s until now.

Holt set out to unearth the past, following the trail of a woman she had learned about while researching names for her own then-unborn daughter Eleanor, named for Eleanor Francis Helin. Helin was an astronomer at JPL in Pasadena and part of a group of female employees whose stories were lost, until now. Holt, who holds a Ph.D. and trained at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and Tulane University, is a science writer who lives with her husband and their two daughters in Boston.

The women who worked at JPL were more than just employees who arrived to work in a framework that had already been set up for them. They shaped the computer directorate to work for them ‰ÛÒ a place where they were treated as professionals rather than women merely biding their time until marriage and pregnancy ‰ÛÒ rather than around them, and in doing so created a uniquely female space. Woman who worked at JPL did not have a monolithic approach to work and computing, of course, but they still encountered a space more suited to their own needs than the male-dominated engineering wing of JPL.

Without anti-discrimination laws and other feminist measures to protect them, women working at JPL were subject to harassment and pushed away from the engineering directorate, the book said. In the days before there was such thing as maternity leave, these women, if they became pregnant, were expected to quit their jobs and transition into homemakers. Though the early female employees at JPL were resigned to such a fate, later employees found ways to take back their careers despite societal pressures.

Holt writes about Barbara Paulson, ‰ÛÏThere was freedom in her work, as her success was measured in her calculations instead of in the number of marriage proposals accrued.‰Û Unfortunately, the book‰Ûªs narrative arch does not follow most of the women who were forced out of JPL due to societal or familial expectations once they began having children. Their stories are cut off at this point, despite the fact that these bright women who led the mathematical side of early NASA missions did not lose their intelligence or their drive once becoming homemakers.

Before the advent of mechanical computers, people were responsible for the complex computational math required to launch rockets or missiles. Holt details the ways that the women in the computer department pushed to keep their department a place for women in science.

It‰Ûªs important to note that unlike today, when humans have a tendency to trust mechanical computers‰Ûª calculations without question, for many years their introduction to JPL it was the mechanical computers‰Ûª calculations that were viewed as suspect. The engineers always relied on the women in the computing department to double- and triple-check calculations.

The women in the computing department were prized employees. A senior scientist summed this sentiment up this way: ‰ÛÏComputers are just like wearing shoes. You need them when you are walking on gravel, but they don‰Ûªt get you across gravel‰Û.

However, the lack of anti-discrimination laws served as a double-edged sword: At one point, the head of the computing department refused to hire any men at all. Hiring notices advertised positions in the department directly to women, using the phrase ‰ÛÏNo degree required‰Û as a code that indicated that the positions were open to female applicants.

Holt wrote that Macie Roberts, an early manager of the computing department, ‰ÛÏsaw men as a potential disruption to her group. She couldn‰Ûªt imagine a man would listen to her. Men, she believed, were likely to see themselves as bosses and women as employees ‰ÛÒ not the other way around‰Û.

And though there may have been an unspoken ban on hiring men, the computing department was remarkably progressive for its day in other hiring practices. Numerous employees of the department, such as Helen Ling, were of Asian ethnic backgrounds. When Janez Lawson was hired in 1952, she was the first African American of either gender hired for a professional position at JPL. Holt touches on these experiences, but does not go into much depth about the experiences of women of color from their own perspectives.

The book as a whole is also written from a seemingly singular perspective. However, Holt conducted in-person interviews with many of the women profiled in ‰ÛÏRise of the Rocket Girls‰Û before writing the book. Without in-text attributions, it is at times difficult to tell whose perspective the reader is actually reading, giving the book a broader historical focus than its title suggests and creating a history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In writing a history of JPL rather than just of its employees, Holt provides a look at the ways in which those women controlled their environments but also did have to operate within predominantly male spaces. Despite having an all-female computer department and several important women within the engineering and chemistry groups, JPL still engaged in activities that could be considered demeaning today.

For example, the ‰ÛÏMiss Guided Missile‰Û pageant, a beauty contest that the women actively participated in, ran from 1952 until 1970; although it was renamed ‰ÛÏQueen of Outer Space‰Û in 1959. The women who participated in the contest did not see it as odd, but rather, as Holt writes, a way of ‰ÛÏunintentionally highlighting the presence of educated young women working at JPL‰Û.

When it comes down to it, ‰ÛÏRise of the Rocket Girls‰Û is a story about women helping women ‰ÛÒ and it‰Ûªs a good story, at that. It chronicles the trajectory of women‰Ûªs careers at NASA from computers to full-fledged engineers.

Holt notes that in 1960, ‰ÛÏonly 25 percent of married American mothers with children under age eighteen were in the workforce.‰Û That number has increased exponentially, but American women still face a huge pay gap and no federally mandated paid maternity leave. The ‰ÛÏRocket Girls‰Û plotted the trajectory for American women in the workforce, but it‰Ûªs up to today‰Ûªs women to complete that course.