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Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt

August 27, 2016

Microbiologist and author Nathalia Holt discovered a remarkable group of women by happenstance while researching names for the daughter she was expecting. One name, Eleanor Frances, led her to Eleanor Frances Helin, who was a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in charge of a program that tracked asteroids nearing Earth. Intrigued, Holt delved further, discovering a group of women known as “the human computers” at JPL during the 1940’s and 1950s. These women, with their amazing math skills, were responsible for the critical calculations at JPL that helped develop rocket fuels, launch America’s first satellite, guide lunar missions and navigate Mars rovers. At first all their computing was done with pencil, graph paper and slide rules. Even after the introduction of early IBM computers, JPL’s engineers preferred to rely on the “human computers” as their work was more fast and accurate. Holt’s book, Rise of the Rocket Girls, provides a fascinating history of JPL, starting with its early days at CalTech with four young men who were experimenting with rockets from the roofs of campus buildings (until CalTech administrators decided this might be too dangerous), all the way up to current projects that are running, including Project Juno, overseen by Sue Finley, one of the original team, which is on its way to Jupiter. But Holt’s book also shows the challenges a group of extremely intelligent women faced while contributing their formidable talents to the development of America’s space program. Fired for pregnancies, denied the title of “engineer” because JPL’s policy stated that only someone with an engineering degree could hold that title (and colleges of engineering were, at that time, male-only), they persevered because they loved mathematics and believed in the goals of the program

 

 

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