“Rocket Girls”

New book profiles women who worked on early U.S. space missions

Women at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1953, who helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations. (NASA)

In the 1940s, NASA assembled a team of mathematicians and scientists to create the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The so-called “human computers” who worked at JPL played an integral role in launching the first American satellites, along with lunar and planetary missions. Remarkably, many employees of the lab were female. A new book by Nathalia Holt — Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars — explores the stories of the women who helped chart the first U.S. paths into space. “In a time before the digital devices that we’re used to today, it was humans that were doing the calculations,” Holt told NPR. “And so you needed these teams of people — many of whom were women, especially during World War II — and they were responsible for the math.”

Holt first learned about the women of JPL when, on a whim, she decided to Google the name that she gave to her unborn daughter: Eleanor Frances. “[T]he first Eleanor Frances that popped up was a woman named Eleanor Francis Helin,” Holt explained. “And there was this beautiful picture of her at NASA in the 1960s accepting an award. And I was stunned by this picture because I hadn’t realized that women even worked at NASA at this time, much less as scientists.”

Holt then embarked on a mission to track down the women of JPL — women like Barbara Paulson, who excelled in math at high school and went on to graph the results coming back from the Explorer 1 satellite. Holt hopes that the stories of these pioneering mathematicians and scientists will serve as inspiration to women who are interested in science and technology. “It’s a difficult time for women in technology right now,” she told NPR. “In 1984, 37 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in computer science were awarded to women, and today that number has dropped to 18 percent … So I think these stories are important for inspiring and being role models that are so much needed for women today.”

Read the full story at NPR.

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