REVIEW: Rise of the Rocket Girls

Nathalia Holt tells the story of female “computers”

REVIEW: Rise of the Rocket Girls
Thanks to the work of the dozens of female “computers” at the JPL, we have landed rovers like this one on Mars. [Image credit: Pixabay user WikiImages | CC0]

Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars, is a refreshing and delightful read, telling the previously untold story of the many women who contributed significantly to America’s participation in the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s. I love reading about women in science, and this really hit the spot. Without these women and their efforts, we never would have landed a man on the moon or known what the surface of Mars looks like.

In the earliest days of the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), before it partnered with NASA, they worked on missile projectiles. These efforts led to JPL’s partnership with NASA, which resulted in the Apollo missions. You might know them as the missions to the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were part of Apollo 11, which landed on the moon in 1969. But the beauty of Holt’s narrative is that yes, we landed on the moon and we made great strides for mankind, but those strides were not all made by men — they were made by women too.

Dozens of women have worked at JPL since the 1950s, since even before it played a major role in the achievements of the American space program. These women, fondly called “computers,” were just that. In the days before IBM and Microsoft and Apple, when computing power was limited in its number-crunching abilities, if a (male) engineer at JPL didn’t feel like doing the calculations for Project Vanguard’s rocket launches, he had a woman do it.

These female “computers” didn’t just double-check all the math — they did all the math. Today, powerful machines at NASA do the complicated calculations. Sixty years ago, they were done by a selective group of women. And when the machines did start to become available in the late 60s and early 70s, the women still did the majority of the most tricky math by hand, because the (male) engineers who relied on those numbers didn’t trust the machines to get it right.

Holt hones in on a dozen of these women, offering a brief biographical interlude for each: where they grew up, what their dreams were, how they ended up at JPL and how long they stayed. When you think of women in mid-twentieth century America, most people envision the dutiful housewife. Though some women moved away and others left to have children, many stayed their entire careers (even through motherhood) and some of the women who left JPL to have children eventually found their way back.

What these women were able to achieve, given the time in which they achieved it, was simply remarkable.

As the subtitle suggests, these women did propel us. Holt gives a voice to an incredibly important group of women, not only in the context of space exploration and scientific discovery, but also in feminism and culture. When most people think of women and space, figures like Sally K Ride and Mae Jemison come to mind — female astronauts who got to go out of this world. But they were able to do so (along with their male counterparts) thanks to the contributions of these “Rocket Girls” on the ground.

Posted in: Social Science

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