3 Oct 2016

Rise of the Rocket Girls

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 3 October 2016

The contributions to space exploration by an incredible group of women might have been forgotten if it weren’t for one writer Googling names for her first child.

Natalia Holt is a science writer who liked the name Eleanor Francis. A Google search came up with a photo of Eleanor Francis Helin accepting an award at NASA in the 1960s, she was one of the many women used as human computers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Starting in the 1940s, the women did the maths for rocket trajectories and designs, and their story is now being told in Natalia Holt’s new book. It’s called Rise of the Rocket Girls: the women who propelled us, from missiles, to the Moon, to Mars.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

How did these women get into the lab at NASA?

Probably what mostly encouraged the women of this laboratory was the first supervisor of the group and her name was Macy Roberts and she was the supervisor of the computers in 1942. This is kind of a weird term, because when you talk about a computer, you always think of the digital devices that we have today, but for most of history a computer actually referred to a person and laboratories would hire large numbers of computers in order to do all of the math for their experiments. So this group ended up being all women at JPL in this lab in California, because Macy Roberts was the supervisor and she just didn’t feel comfortable hiring men. She would get applications from men, but she felt like they wouldn’t listen to her because she was a female boss.

What was their job in the early days as computers?

In the early days they were doing all of the math for figuring out the early rocket propellants, so they were looking at what types of fuel would be best to make rockets fly and they were looking at military projects for this. They were looking at something called JATO, which is jet-assisted take-off, which is basically just strapping on rockets to the sides of aeroplanes and firing them. These were very dangerous experiments. They also worked on early missiles. The women would calculate the expected trajectory of these missiles.

It was amazing to think that they were just doing the calculations with their pencils and paper and it was presumably quite complicated sums they were doing.

It was. These women were not just casual about math. They were very well trained and all of them loved math and were exceptional at it. Many of them had advanced degrees. One woman named Janez Lawson was the first African American hired in a professional capacity at the laboratory and she had a degree in chemical engineering from UCLA. Today she would just be hired as an engineer, but back then if you were a woman, you would be hired as a computer, so these were very smart women.

Much of the work at JPL was done under the direction of a New Zealander, who we are quite proud of, William Pickering. Did you get a sense of how he related to the women?

I really did. He is beloved. Not just by the women, but by the lab as a whole. People have such fond memories of him and he was quite a progressive thinker. He really wanted to promote women in the laboratory and of course he wasn’t just progressive about his staff, he was also very progressive in the science he pursued. It’s interesting that he became the director of JPL in the beginning because he had his PhD from Caltech in electrical engineering. So he was a little bit different than the rowdy group of rocket boys who had started the laboratory. But he is the one that had a very early vision for a satellite and for a space program, but he is never given that credit he is due. He saw this early on and brought the lab and of course for all of us to have this space exploration, it’s quite a gift.

How was pregnancy and new motherhood dealt with in the lab?

It’s kind of a mixed thing because basically they were able to make this happen because really they relied on each other and so I have some very unfortunate stories in the book where women get pregnant and were immediately fired. That was the policy of the time, it didn’t matter if you had worked there for a decade, it didn’t matter what your skill set was. It was considered an insurance liability and were immediately fired. So many of the women had to hide their pregnancies and of course there was no maternity leave at the time, so what one of the woman supervisors did – and there were always woman supervisors after Macy Roberts – what one of the long-time supervisors named Helen Lang did was that she balanced their schedules as these women are all getting to the age of having children, so when one of them would leave, she would then call them back and have them come back to work. This was a very big deal, to know that you could come back and they really created their own culture of motherhood in the lab that just didn’t exist before them.

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