The race to space is often depicted as the last frontier—a rugged landscape that demands smarts as a compass and sheer gumption as the driving force. Usually men are the main characters in the historical narratives about the advance of rocket technology. Nathalia Holt’s book, The Rise of the Rocket Girls, upends such a perception. As the tagline says, the book chronicles “the women who propelled us, from missiles to the moon to Mars.” Instead of describing women on the periphery of science, in supporting roles as astronaut wives or inspiring teachers, the women or “rocket girls” prove central to the fundamental equations that launched rockets into space and beyond.
The rocket girls worked as “computers,” literally—someone who computes—plugging numbers into complicated equations with a team of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) during WWII. The laboratory began as a rogue group at CalTech named “the suicide squad,” with a band of daredevils launching homemade rockets into a California canyon. Their work proved tremendously formative for war efforts and the space race, but their impact in forming a more progressive work culture has been overlooked until now. Many of the women who found a vocation there were thrilled to find an outlet for their quantitative skills. One of JPL’s stars, Helen Chow, minored in mathematics at Notre Dame for fun, despite the fact that she couldn’t imagine a place that would employ her. As the launch of each missile and rocket depended on thousands of calculations, the all-women team of computers was absolutely critical to the success of JPL, and later NASA.
Precision in these calculations were vital, as a missing square root could cause an explosion during a test of a missile, endangering the lives of coworkers. They endured long work hours and high pressure situations:
“project could have beaten Sputnik possibly, certainly the women feel like that could have happened, but much of it was held back for political reasons. The women had these positions where they were incredibly skilled mathematicians, and yet they weren’t being given full credit and the full ability to show what they could do.
Still, the women in the book are deeply grateful for the chance to work in such a stimulating environment. As the 40s give way to later decades, they continued the fight against gender norms. Holt captures the magnitude of further shifts in the 60s, “Known as computers since the lab’s inception, they were now officially engineers. It was a breakthrough as big as landing on the moon.”
Holt’s narrative challenged my presuppositions about the role of women in science as a fairly recent development. In the prevailing historical narrative, women who contributed to scientific advancements, the Marie Curies and Ada Lovelaces, can seem like a one-off phenomenon. Instead, Holt presents an entire department of women integral to the success of physics problems of tremendous import. Without Holt’s dedication to uncovering these womens’ stories, their contributions might have dissolved into anonymity.
Rocket Girls paints a robust portrait of the women who worked at JPL, describing their relationships and their families alongside their work. As readers follow the failures and successes of the space race, they also enter into the lives and deliberations of the women as they fall in and out of love, have children and lose family members, leave and return to work. “For most American women, marriage meant being a housewife, but many of the computers had found a way to reconcile the two, managing their home and work lives with the poise of surfer riding a cresting wave.” The portraits of the women are authentic and relatable for any woman balancing relationships and a career. We see their deliberation over marrying when that may mean leaving a job they love. Barbara Paulson, a dedicated employee who manages the lab, is abruptly fired due to the insurance liability of having a pregnant woman on staff. While JPL was progressive in their hiring practices, the women certainly experienced the inequality acutely.
Once, when a group of men took to calling the women “computreses,” they countered the condescending label by referring to themselves as “the sisterhood.” In this progressive and sexist context, Holt paints a vibrant portrait of the camaraderie of the women who worked at JPL. The demands of their job were often isolating, so the women supported each other. They celebrated life milestones together and made phone calls to those who left after having children. For many years, the group was headed by Macie Roberts, a matriarchal figure who had the highest standards for accurate work and also fostered a convivial atmosphere. It’s telling that minority women felt at home with the group; Janez Lawson, the first African American female hire for NASA, compared her coworkers to her sorority at UCLA.
Rise of the Rocket Girls should top the list of summer reads for anyone looking to reflect on balancing life and career as a woman. I loved the wild celebration after a successful launch at Cape Canaveral and the ballroom dancing scenes at the Del Coronado in San Diego. I wanted to high five Barby, one of the earliest computers, when she attended a heart-stopping missile launch in a canyon while wearing a scarf to keep the dust out of her curls. Turn the clock back a few decades and read Rocket Girls to appreciate the women who were pioneers in every sense of the word—from the moon launch to our own work culture.