Book review: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars

Rise of the Rocket Girls was an inspiring read but ultimately a little bittersweet. The history of the female “computers” at the Jet Propulsion Lab, which was later folded into NASA, focuses on the positives of women being in a male-dominated milieu. But discrimination breaks into the story from time to time.

The fact that there was a cadre of women doing mathematical work starting in the 1930s is astounding. The people who did the advanced calculations were all women— initially because it was assumed that engineers, who made up the problems, were men and computers, who solved the problems, were women and later because female managers of the computers intentionally sought out women to recruit and train.

“‘Engineers make up the problems and we [computers] solve them.’ Solving the problems means finding trends in the data sets and reporting on these findings. The computers’ calculations would help determine the maximum possible weight of a spacecraft and its various possible trajectories.” (page 166)

Despite working among other women talented in mathematics, these human computers faced discrimination. Their work and skills were vital for the success of missile development and space missions. But they were still women, looked down at by some men as being temporary (they will leave to have children) and forced out (i.e., fired) when they were pregnant.

In 1970, JPL finally acknowledged the skills that the women had and their importance. Their titles were changed from computer to engineer. (Of course, they weren’t paid the same as the male engineers.)

The result of this title change raised the bar for hiring requirements. New hires were expected to have degrees in engineering. (Never mind that institutions of higher learning had just begun to admit women to engineering programs.) Women currently in their employ—without engineering degrees—were grandfathered in.

In essence, JPL was preventing the hiring of more female computers. Helen, the manager of the computers, cleverly got around this requirement. For years, the human computers had electronic computers in their midst. The electronic computers weren’t reliable or trusted but slowly the human computers started to learn how to program them. Helen encouraged the human computers to take classes to learn this new thing called programming.

So when JPL required new human computers to have engineering degrees, Helen got around this by hiring programmers rather than computers—and then encouraged the new employees to take classes to get an engineering degree. (Gotta like her ingenuity.)

In 2008, JPL went further, mandating that all employees (even employees that were previously grandfathered in) must have engineering degrees. Sue Finley, a long time employee, got caught in this dragnet. She was demoted from her salaried position to hourly. But after she racked up overtime hours, JPL rethought the requirement for her. She was reinstated as a salaried employee.

Other societal norms that discriminated against women are sprinkled through the story of the rocket girls. Again and again female computers felt familial pressure to marry and have children, starting right after high school graduation. One woman, who put off marriage until much later (late 20s? early 30s?) was forced to go to therapy by her boyfriend (and later husband). Something was wrong with her because she didn’t want to be married young!

The women who did have children (all but one as far as I could tell) left to have the child and then came back to work, but faced a lot of problems with a society that had no place for working mothers. Their lives sounded nightmarish but the love of the job that they did kept them going. In a few cases, their husbands were partners, helping take care of the children and the household. In too many cases, the husbands did not buck societal norms but let their wives take the brunt of raising the children. In many cases, this lack of support led to marriages devolving into divorce.

Rise of the Rocket Girls is not only a detailed look at the female computers at JPL from the 1930s until today. The book also documents the history of weapons development and space exploration—both of which JPL was involved in. Initially assigned projects to help the Army develop missiles for their warheads, JPL was able to shift its focus back to its initial love—space exploration. JPL was in the middle of the space race starting in the 1950s, sending out probes, orbiters, and landers. Thus, Rise of the Rocket Girls is a history of the space race against the Soviets and the space program after the demise of the USSR.

Many tidbits surprised me—not just those involving space exploration. I didn’t realize how many former Nazis entered the ranks of space exploration or how an early rocket system benefited from a rocket developed by the Nazis.

I learned that the Red Scare brought down important people in the early space industry. Hsui-Shen Tsien was accused of being a Communist, placed under house arrest for five years (!), and then deported to China. In China, he continued contributing to space exploration, eventually becoming known as the Father of Chinese Rocketry. Frank Malina, one of the original Suicide Squad who later formed JPL, was accused of being a Communist, run out of JPL, and driven out of the country.

I marveled at the human computers using gravitational pull and orbits around planets to slingshot probes on their way in space, reducing the time of the journey and the fuel needed. I learned about the techniques used to get powerful enough rockets to send an object beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull and also far into the solar system.

I heard about things I hadn’t realized: Jupiter has one moon with active volcanoes and another covered in ice, an asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter has its own moon, and saltwater exists on Jupiter’s moons.

I cheered when Apollo 12 encountered the wreckage of Surveyor 3 on the moon and brought the wreckage back to Earth. And I winced each time a mission failed—I was surprised by how common it was for missions to fail. I bemoaned the loss of life, such as the crew of Apollo 1 dying on the launch pad in 1967 and the explosion of the shuttle in 1986.

Rise of the Rocket Girls is a history of many worlds: female computers, JPL, women in STEM careers, the rise of computers and programming, the space race, space exploration, and societal norms for women.

The few women at JPL had an incredible opportunity that was out of reach for most women in the US. They were the fortunate ones that were able to use their talents and skills in mathematics and later programming in roles that they enjoyed and where they made a difference. The majority of women during this same time period languished in roles that didn’t make use of their talents and skills—all because they were female.

The recognition of the rocket girls comes far too late. But perhaps their long overdue story can remind us that women can do anything if they are given educational and work opportunities. Perhaps their tale can inspire girls to aim high, even while the numbers of women in computer science programs have plummeted.

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