Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt ****

Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt Nathalia Holt intertwines two historical narratives: NASA space exploration and the women at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Both these stories started with missile development for World War II, but with the end of that war, the efforts transitioned to scientific missions.

In the beginning women could not be engineers, but they could be computers – women who manually performed the complex calculations required by male engineers. As bad as this discrimination might sound today, it was a great opportunity for women in the 40s and 50s when many engineering schools didn't even accept women. 

These were rigorous technical jobs were given to women with limited education, who showed promise and interest, sometimes right out of high school. Their success was what we might expect today, but shocked the people of their generation who didn't expect women to work, and if they did, the career choices were nurse, teacher, and secretary, not planning interplanetary missions.

Aside from the commonality of working on space exploration, the women were from different races, and some married, some divorced, some had children, some didn't. As today, this history shows that gender tells little about a person. 

This is a wonderful history of technical women and NASA.

In the beginning, and for decades, this group at JPL was exclusively female.
“It was a respected position, one that men eagerly applied for. It just so happened that their applications were all turned down.”
The job ads stated “no degree required,” which in those days was code for women to apply. However the ideal candidate was someone with a math minor. Women rarely majored in math as there were no female jobs using math. The minor simultaneously indicated aptitude and interest.

The women were responsible for calculating trajectories among other things. In the 70s this meant planning the path for the Voyagers to explore the solar system and beyond. Voyager planning was done in secret as Congress had only authorized as far as Jupiter.

On a personal note, I enjoyed the story of early computing machines, as I also worked with Friden calculators, and IBM 70x and 1620 machines.

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