Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Author Event with Special Guest

Next Monday, April 11, at 7:00 p.m. at the Buena Vista Branch, author Nathalia Holt will present an illustrated talk on her new book, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars.

Holt will be accompanied by Sylvia Miller, one of the “Rocket Girls” she interviewed for her book. In 1968, Sylvia was one of the last women hired as a computer at JPL. Sylvia became project manager of the Mars Exploration program at JPL before her retirement in 1997.

Books will be available for purchase, and the author will sign. Students who attend this program for extra credit will receive a "proof of attendance" slip at the end of the program.

Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the story of how, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a group of local women who were talented in math and the sciences were recruited by the newly created Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to be “computers.” A “computer” was a term that (before the advent of the digital computer) was applied to individuals who not only did the vital manual calculations that were necessary for measuring and designing new missile and space technologies, but also the complex math involved in planning rocket trajectories and space missions. They also helped turn mounds of experimental data into usable numbers.

There are two stories woven together in Rise of the Rocket Girls: the personal stories of these remarkable women, followed from the early days of JPL through the 1970s and beyond; and the parallel history of JPL as it developed over this same period of time from an organization that focused on early missile research on behalf of the U.S. Military to its role as a central player in NASA and U.S. space missions. Holt’s narrative seamlessly blends these histories. She explores the tensions that existed within these women’s personal lives as well as the challenges and trials of JPL. Much like hitting upon the right chemical mixture for the most effective rocket fuel--a task that the JPL “computers” worked on solving--Holt has brought the internal and external tensions in these two stories together in a measured formulation that effectively animates her book. She gives us an affecting story of these women’s personal and working lives as well as an account of the scientific challenges they played so vital a role in solving.

Macie Roberts' computing group circa 1955. Roberts is standing on the
far right of the image, conferring with one of the other women.
Barbara Paulson is on the telephone (standing, back left).
Helen Ling is at the second desk in the left row.
The remaining women are unidentified. Image credit: JPL

The Rocket Girls found themselves in an unusual role for women in the workplace: At a time when most occupational opportunities for women were secretarial, nursing, or teaching, they were instead tasked to use their math and science skills. They did not see themselves as revolutionaries; they simply wanted to exercise their particular skills and interests in a field that was not welcoming to women. And they did not necessarily seek professional careers or eschew the traditional roles of wife and mother. These were roles they still wanted. There was in fact no model for balancing these common domestic and innovative work roles (as the author notes), there was only the will to see things through. The hours at JPL could be flexible, but they were also demanding. Many paid the costs for pursuing the kind of work they found fulfilling.

Over the course of a generation, these women made valuable contributions to the early satellite missions, the Apollo missions, and to projects like Surveyor, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, and the numerous Mars missions. But in addition to the scientific work, certainly one of their greatest accomplishments has to be the enclave, the sisterhood they created at JPL for women like themselves. They protected their territory at JPL by their hard work and expertise. As computing technology improved, they took command of formerly untrustworthy computer systems and became programmers and engineers. They started receiving the professional recognition they deserved.

Women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at JPL today.

The story we are told here of JPL is, in many respects, one that challenges our received notions of America’s success in space. We know about some of the major incidents of failure, of disasters and near disasters, but we tend to think of those as exceptions, as tragic turns in a story that for the most part we have been led to think of as a confident and extraordinary march to near-impossible accomplishments. As Holt shows us, it was not quite so “easy.” There was nothing inevitable about the success, nothing preordained. The history of JPL as revealed by Holt is one in which we are told of the many failures and challenges that stood in the road, scientific challenges that mirrored the many personal challenges and failures that were faced by the Rocket Girls. Holt lets us understand the true scope of these challenges, which makes us appreciate how truly remarkable were the achievements of both JPL and of these gifted women. A rocket lifts flawlessly off the pad and follows its trajectory to its target in the far reaches of our solar system. We learn here that behind its rise lies the tireless work of countless seekers and dreamers who never gave up. Nathalia Holt tells us the story of one group of them, a group of pioneering women at JPL. It’s an inspirational story of social change and scientific achievement.

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