30Apr2016

How ‘Rocket Girls’ Propelled NASA Into Space

The computers at work, 1955. Helen Ling is sitting at the second desk, left side. Barbara Lewis is on the phone at back, and Macie Roberts is standing on the right side near the window. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The women who worked at NASA’s JPL Laboratory in the 1960s weren’t only trailblazers for the solar system, they were pioneers for the more accepting climate of women in sciences today.

About halfway through Nathalia Holt’s book “Rise of the Rocket Girls” comes riveting stories about 1960s-era women fighting between the need to take time off to care for their new babies, and the desire to keep working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help NASA begin its exploration of space.

One was told that pregnant women can’t be around for “insurance reasons” and was fired on the spot (she was later rehired). Another made the decision to come back to work only seven weeks after giving birth; luckily, her mother lived close by and was able to take care of the young boy.

Rise

Holt’s accessible and heartfelt narrative celebrates the women whose crucial roles in American space science often go unrecognized

In an era with little maternity leave and where a small minority (only 25 percent) of women with young children were working, the women profiled in “Rocket Girls” turned out not only to be trailblazers for the solar system. They also were pioneers for the more accepting climate of women in sciences today, although many still say there is progress to be made.

“The institutional policies of JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) are very key,” Holt told Discovery News. Women working at JPL in the 1960s were mostly in the field of “computers”, which referred to the staff that planned spacecraft trajectories and other complicated maneuvers.

“It was not about working 9 to 5 at a desk; it was about getting the work done. They were able to come in early when they need to. Leave early and pick up their children. They made their hours work with their lives.”

Holt, who is new to writing about space exploration, first came across her topic when she was pregnant herself in 2010. She and her husband decided on the name “Eleanor Francis” and Googled the name to “make sure she wasn’t a serial killer or something.”

Holt instead found the profile of Eleanor Francis Helin, an American astronomer who discovered or co-discovered nearly 900 asteroids, and several comets besides. Helin worked at JPL and the California Institute of Technology for more than 30 years.

Holt said it was “very surprising to find this group of women, and so little is known about them.” Archival photographs from JPL would show these women sitting at desks, with no captions showing who was who, Holt said.

Holt began tracking down all the computers she could, and said she was lucky that many were still alive, and that the group was close-knit. Helin, sadly, had died a year before Holt initiated her search. Source: Discovery News

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