Rise of the Rocket Girls, The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars, by Nathalia Holt, was a crossover read for me as I do not often combine business and technical reading with relaxation reading. But Rocket Girls should be on the reading list of every scientist, mathematician, and engineer because the blurred lines between those three job titles in the 40s and 50s is explored and revealed inside this non-fiction book. The designation “engineer” was a special job title, not necessarily a B.S. degree, at the JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) of the 1950s.
“I had no idea.” That was the constant phrase in the thought bubble above my head as I settled into my (non-working) reading chair last week.
As a child of the 60s, who received an engineering degree in the early 80s, I lived the global space race but had never delved deep enough into the timeline of who did what, when. I was too young to mentally organize the Explorer, Sputnik, and early Apollo excitement.
I loved living inside these pages with the widely varied group of female scientists who worked at the famous Jet Propulsion Lab, in Pasadena, California. (JPL eventually becomes part of a new group called NASA.)
I gobbled up this story of a group of super smart, dedicated women who were some of the original “computers,” a word used since the 1600s to describe a person whose day was spent doing math calculations. Every calculation the Rocket Girls performed was critical to the speed, velocity, energy (fuel) expenditure and safety of each of the rockets being tested at JPL. It amazed me to see how much space exploration was driven by the calculations and slide rules of these human “computers.” When one page mentions that “the computers weren’t content to work only on satellites,” I had to remind myself that this referred to a group of people – female mathematicians, not the wires, screens, and touchpads we think of when we picture computers today.
Another line made me cringe – and realize how far we’ve come since the 1950s: “Her (Helen Chow Ling’s) knowledge of mathematics was exceptional, and if she had been a man applying for the job, she would likely have been hired as an engineer.”
One of the women, Barbara Paulsen, began as a mathematician at age 19.
“Barbara knew little about the danger. With her plump cheeks and soft skin, she looked even younger than her nineteen years. Underneath her schoolgirl facade was a woman determined to fit into the rocket culture of JPL. It wasn’t easy; the shock of explosions caused by experimental mixtures of liquid hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen were jolting.”
These women literally made history, and the photos of one of the women being crowned “Miss Guided Missile” in a ball gown is a stark reminder for me, of how recently the workplace has become more of an equal playing ground for all.
Rocket Girls does excellent work in exploring how working women worked hard to fit into the workplace during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s – with some matter-of-fact descriptions of scenarios that evoked for me, similar uncomfortable personal situations as a lone female engineer at Roche in the 1980s.
Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls, The Women Who Propelled Us: From Missiles to the Moon to Mars, is a great read for any engineer or scientist, female or otherwise. This book traces, with engaging personal mini-biographies and memory- shocking background historical facts, a fascinating timeline of science, math, computer science and engineering from 1940 through today.