Looking back, the technology that put man on the moon seems incredibly basic. In the early days of space exploration, when electronic computers weren’t reliable and cutting-edge calculators could barely do basic functions, nearly all of the math was done by hand. Women — underpaid, overworked, and ultimately forgotten by even the institution they served — did most of it.
Nathalia Holt, a science writer and microbiologist, stumbled upon their stories almost by fate.
Five years ago, like any good 21st century parent, she googled a prospective baby name — Eleanor Frances — and stumbled upon a picture of a woman named Eleanor Frances Helin accepting an award at NASA in the 1960s.
“I just remember just staring at this picture completely stunned. I have a PhD in Microbiology, and I consider myself very well-versed in the contributions of women scientists, but I had never heard of women working in NASA at this era, much less as scientists, and I really wanted to learn more,” Holt told ThinkProgress over the phone.
Holt’s research led her to an entire group of women who worked as human computers throughout the history of space exploration. Although her first inkling came through a fortuitous internet search, finding the whole story took painstaking digging. Even NASA’s archives had forgotten them. Using old photo captions that identified just one or two names in big groups of women, Holt cold called scores of women until she connected with the right ones.
I had never heard of women working in NASA at this era, much less as scientists, and I really wanted to learn more.
The stories these women told her formed the basis of her new book, Rise of the Rocket Girls.
In it, Holt chronicles women’s central role in what we now think of as the key accomplishments in space exploration, and their lives as computers in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
These women took math classes for fun though it was considered impractical for a woman. They competed against each other in speed-calculation contests. They hid their pregnancies and hoarded their vacation time so they could come back to work after having children. They worked alongside famous figures like Carl Sagan, Wernher von Braun, and Richard Feynman, and they were ultimately essential to the discoveries that made those men household names.
Yet when NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first American satellite, the agency forgot to invite the women — living mere miles away — who were in the room when it happened.
Rise of the Rocket Girls unveils this forgotten history with nuance and insight, weaving in personal details about friendships, marriage, and motherhood with the technical problems these women solved, such as exactly how much fuel a rocket needed and how much would make it explode. And as the share of women graduating with technical degrees continues to plateau — and, in some cases, plummet — Holt’s book is an important reminder of how women’s work has been essential to advances in science and technology all along.
ThinkProgress spoke to Holt about the stories in her book, how JPL built and maintained such a strong group of female scientists, and the role of women in science and tech.
One thing that struck me is that in between all the details about JPL and all the science details, you really weave in a lot of detail about their personal lives. Is there a particular reason you felt like that was important?
In the beginning, I didn’t want to talk about their personal lives at all. I felt it would take away from what they did professionally, and from the contributions scientifically, and I worried if I talked too much about their personal lives it would undermine the contributions they had made.
Ultimately, I decided I wouldn’t be honoring their legacy if I didn’t tell the full story. Luckily, because this is a book, I had the space to tell both their scientific contributions and their personal lives. The reason I felt it was really important is because they were able to accomplish these incredibly long careers at a time when women with children did not typically work outside the home — so what they accomplished was really unique. They were able to do it because of very specific institutional dynamics and very specific ways that they were able to manage their personal lives as well, and I do think it’s a very powerful message for women today to hear.
And you know, even the title is something that I gave a lot of thought about as well. I worried about putting “girls” in the title. Ultimately, I decided that it was a fitting title because this is what they called themselves. They actually called themselves the girls, Helen’s girls. The name that they didn’t like was computresses. That was the name that was really despised among the group.
That’s so funny, because isn’t that what they were? They were computers?
Yes they were, they were officially computers. And that name was fine. Computresses was the name they didn’t like. But yes, talking about their personal lives was not something that I did lightly, it’s something that I gave a lot of thought to.
Some parts of your book to me seemed like a very strong articulation for the importance of paid family leave, or just family leave at all. I was really struck by when — I believe it was Barbara Paulson — applied for a closer parking lot because she was pregnant and the administrators said, “Oh, you’re pregnant, you can’t work here anymore!” At that point she was an important manager, and they lost an important part of their team.
Yes, that was very upsetting. I mean this would happen quite often, that the women would hide their pregnancies as long as they could because, well, while the men and women they worked with didn’t care that they were pregnant, it was the administrators that would say no, this is an insurance liability and would immediately fire you that day, you had to leave the lab.
And when you were fired there was no maternity leave, so your job wasn’t waiting for you when you came back. That scene with Barbara, it was just so heartbreaking to hear her describe what that was like, and how hurtful that was for her. Luckily she was able to come back after having kids and had a very long career at the lab.
Why did you choose to focus specifically on the women at JPL, and how did JPL end up with such a strong female cohort, when other teams — NASA for example — doesn’t seem to have retained that diversity?
I chose the women at JPL because it was such a unique group. It started out with a married couple who were the first computers who worked at JPL, and then eventually — at that point there were still men and women who were working as computers — a woman was promoted to supervisor of the computers in 1942.
Her name was Macie Roberts, and she decided that she wanted to make the team all female. Her reasons for this were that she wanted it to be a cohesive group, she wanted it to feel like a family, and she worried that if she hired a man he simply wouldn’t listen to her. So she hired all women, and even her successor hired women as well. The strength they had in that group is really quite remarkable. They were really able to create their own culture at JPL.
They were really able to create their own culture at JPL.
This wasn’t the same at other NASA centers. Of course, there were other computers that worked at other NASA centers and many of them were women, especially the ones that were hired during WWII when there was a shortage of men. But what I found that was quite sad at the other NASA centers was that once IBMs (electronic computers) came in, the women who worked as computers lost their jobs.
And so, I really loved the stories of the women at JPL because that didn’t happen to them. Instead they are the ones who became the first computer programmers. They became the engineers in the lab and just had these remarkable careers because of it.
At one point, you said it became the official rule that everybody who was hired had to have an engineering degree. At that time, they had all these women working there that — some of them didn’t even have bachelor’s degrees. As this was in the 70s and engineering programs weren’t yet letting in women, in a way it just set the diversity back.
Yes, this was a really critical time. I feel like that was happening not just at JPL but in labs all over the world, because you had this critical moment where degrees were becoming vital to have a job. But, so many of these engineering programs didn’t admit women yet. But at JPL, the women — even though many of them didn’t even have bachelor’s degrees, some of them did, some of them even had master’s degrees — but they were grandfathered in as engineers.
One story I really love is Helen Ling, who was a very long-time supervisor of the computing section. She took over after Macie Roberts retired. She specifically sought out women who had bachelor’s degrees in math and computer science, and then she would hire them and encourage them to go to night school in engineering. Because of her you have all these women who came in and were able to rise up the ranks, and you have these great stories of women, — such as Sylvia Miller — who went on to have this long career and become the director of the Mars program office. And it’s really just because of Helen Ling that they were able to do this.
I should probably note here, the sad case of Susan Finley — she is Nasa’s longest serving female employee, and she’s been in the lab since 1958, so she’s had this incredible long career. She was hired by Macie Roberts and was there since the beginning of NASA.
Then in 2004, NASA decided to change the rules and decided that you can’t be an engineer if you don’t have a bachelors’ degree. They essentially took away that grandfathering that happened in the 1970s. This didn’t affect most of the women because many of them retired in the mid to late 1990’s, but it affected Sue.
They took away her engineering position and they put her on an hourly salary. It’s just really a terrible tragedy that I’m hoping that my book can change. That is one thing that i would most like to change with my book.
Is there anything else you’re hoping that the book will change?
In general I felt like we deserved to have recognition of these women, and not just because they deserve it, but because of the situation of women in technology today.
There has been such a drop in the number of women who are receiving bachelor’s degrees in computer science. I talk about it in the book a little bit, and I mention that really disheartening statistic — that 37 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science were awarded to women in 1984, that’s dropped down to 18 percent today. My hope is that the book will inspire women to go into technology today as well.
One of the main theories is that a lot of women don’t think of themselves as engineers because they don’t see representative examples. And yet, here we have this really strong example of all these really amazing women, who helped put rockets into space, and yet they’ve been completely forgotten.
I think it’s sad that so many of our female scientists have stories that were forgotten. It’s important that we go back and we find their stories and we recognize their contributions.
Could you talk a little bit about Janez Lawson?
She just has an amazing story. She was the first African American hired in a technical position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She had a degree in chemical engineering from UCLA — so today she would have been hired as an engineer — but back then she was hired as a computer. There was a lot of discussion about hiring her — they wondered if this was going to create turmoil at the lab. It was really Macie Roberts who stood up for her and said no, we need to hire her, and helped promote Janez Lawson’s career.
She was one of the first people sent to the IBM training school, and she did incredibly well there. She had an amazing career and she did eventually become a chemical engineer. So i just think her story is so inspiring. I wish i could have interviewed her directly (she had passed away), but luckily i was able to speak with her friends and her family and get her story that way.
Your book also serves as a pretty good primer in the early history — or rather the complete history — of the space program. Is there a particular milestone that was your favorite when you were researching this?
Oh that’s such a hard question! There’s really quite a few; there are so many stories that I found surprising. One of my favorite things about researching this book was that I spoke with so many primary sources, and I did a lot of archival research as well. I was able to come across stories about these missions that really hadn’t been published before. Especially some of the early moon missions, I was just really fascinated with how many failures there were.
I was shocked to learn that we could have put a satellite up a year before Sputnik
Hard decision, but I think maybe my favorite one is Jupiter C. This was the forerunner to Explorer One, the first American satellite. I was shocked to learn that we could have put a satellite up a year before Sputnik.
So, on September 20th, 1956, Jupiter C was launched — and this rocket was just incredible. It had a new altitude record — it went up to 3335 miles into the air — and it was just amazing for everyone watching it. But at its apex, it was loaded down with sandbags. Whereas if it had just had a satellite at the top we could have launched a satellite a year before Sputnik.
It’s just an amazing story. It’s really incredible how sneaky the group at JPL and their army collaborators, including Wernher von Braun, were at going around the Eisenhower Administration to make the first American satellite happen. I loved hearing about how they had this sort of design satellite that they had to keep locked away in cabinets, so that they had to make sure NASA administrators — or those who would become NASA administrators — wouldn’t see it.
It’s kind of funny too because I feel like that spirit really kept on. With the Voyagers, there’s sort of a similar story of sneakiness. Even in missions today, i think it’s kind of a mischievous lab. They like to push the limits.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.