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

by Nathalia Holt

Little, Brown & Company, 2016

352 pages

The space industry was a dominating presence in my early childhood. My father was a technical writer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), and my grandfather was retired from Aerojet, where he had helped to develop the fuel for the Saturn V moon rockets.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of visiting JPL on Family Day, peeking into clean rooms at satellites under construction and taking photos in front of scale models of spacecraft. I also loved dinner at my grandparents’ house, where Grandpa would often entertain us with stories of his Aerojet days.

Those stories were utterly fascinating, full of massive explosions and mad scientists – to the point that I sometimes wondered whether he might be embellishing things. Then about five years ago, I watched a documentary on the early Soviet space program. I sat mesmerized as an old Russian chemist told stories that could have come straight from my grandfather’s mouth. And the documentary makers had archival footage to back it up. It really had been as crazy as Grandpa described.

I was content as a kid just to listen to my father and grandfather’s stories, but ever since watching that documentary, I’ve wanted to learn more on my own. Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls caught my attention for that reason, and because it dovetailed with both my father and grandfather’s histories.

Rocket Girls tells the story of JPL and Aerojet’s women “computers” – mathematicians who manually performed the complex calculations that underpinned the early space program – and the evolution of their work into computer programming and space engineering. The two labs were founded by the same people and, in their early days, sometimes shared resources. Holt tells their joint history to the point of their divergence, then focuses exclusively on JPL.

According to Holt, it was not uncommon for companies to employ women computers in the 1940s and ’50s. Calculating was seen as a kind of secretarial function, despite the higher-level math skills required for it. Computers typically had some college training, though not necessarily a degree, and worked for a few years until they married or began having children.

JPL, however, was different. Its entire computer department – including the manager – was female, and the lab actively encouraged long-term career development for the women.The environment was certainly not perfect, especially in the lab’s earliest days, but overall, both JPL and the women computers continually broke new ground for professional equality. When computer programming entered the picture, the lab provided training so the women’s skills could evolve with the industry – other businesses simply laid off their women computers and gave the programming jobs to men. And at a time when it was common practice to fire a woman because of marriage or pregnancy, JPL offered flexible schedules and other unheard-of accommodations so the computers could combine motherhood with full-time employment.

It was this last thread of the story that most inspired me. I knew plenty of wonderful women growing up, but 80 percent of them (including my own mother) were full-time homemakers. Even after I graduated from college and had my own career, most of my female coworkers were either childless or had grown children. So when I went back to full-time employment a few years ago, I had almost no personal examples for juggling my joint roles of marketing director and mother to a young child.

Holt covers this juggling act at length, outlining the women’s struggles, coping mechanisms, and successes. She also delves into their reasons for persevering – how unsuited they felt to homemaking and the deep sense of fulfillment they gained from their work. This latter material was so important to me. I recognized myself in the women who needed the intellectual stimulation of challenging projects and the satisfaction of seeing them through to completion. It reminded me of something I said to my husband soon after returning to full-time employment: “I didn’t realize how desperately I needed to do something I feel good at, and be appreciated for it.”

Overall, it was quite an uplift to read the story of these smart, pioneering women who took the plunge into a new industry and paved the way for future generations of women engineers. Some of them stayed with NASA for decades – in fact, Susan Finley, who started her career in 1958, is still there. I came away from Rocket Girls with an “If they could do it, what’s my excuse?” mindset. It bolstered my determination to be the best version of myself, both as a mother and an employee, and my belief that it’s possible to do so.

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