Saturday, July 2, 2016

Rise of the Rocket Girls

Title:  Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
Author:  Nathalia Holt
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0316338923 / 978-0316338929

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "The young woman's heart was pounding."

Favorite Quote:  "The women watched the first steps on the moon with the same mixture of awe and wonder as millions of other Americans. Yet modestly, they didn't think about their own handiwork in making it happen. Instead, they were last in the magic of the moment, glued to the grainy images on their televisions, scarcely believing their own eyes."

The rocket girls is the name given to an elite group of women - scientists and mathematicians who have been and are part of the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) from the 1940s to today. The JPL began from the vision of students at CalTech in the 1930s. It is a research facility centered robotic space and earth science. This laboratory pioneering America's earth-orbiting satellites, interplanetary spacecraft, and robotic spacecraft to planets, asteroids, comets, and the moon.

Women joined the JPL team early in its history. They were the "computers" of the lab, as in they literally did the mathematical computations working with the engineers, who at that time were mostly male. Their role was unusual because this was a time and place in which the role of women was still primarily in the home, as wives, mothers, and homemakers. Their role in a serious scientific endeavor was even more unusual because these fields were strictly the realm of men. These women broke through the cultural norms of the times and became an indispensable part of America's space program.

The author has brought together a remarkable compilation of their untold stories. In several interviews, the author cites the difficulty of the research. The story of these women is largely undocumented. Pictures from the JPL archives includes these women, but names and contact point prove difficult to find because the record of their role was not kept. At the same time, finding one woman leads to many others as friendships and bonds formed that lasted through the years. Detailed research and countless interviews lead to this book.

What is delightful about this book is the role model this book identifies. These women excelled in STEM fields, broke through a male-dominated profession, and balanced home and work. All laudable goals for women even today. Through this book, this group collectively sets forth an example to be followed.

The book takes a survey approach, covering a lot of time, a lot of science, a lot of history, and a large number of women through its trajectory from the 1940s to today. What this approach does not to do is delve deeply into the story of one or a few of these women. After a while, it becomes difficult for me to distinguish between them. Rather, I take each as becoming, for that point in the story, the face of this group. The focus remains the process and the group, not the individual. Perhaps, that is the goal. Perhaps, that is because of the limited research material available. At times, this approach makes the book a challenge to get through.

The positive aspect of this approach is that it leaves the readers with a broad understanding of many aspects of this history - progress of space program, changing role of computational technology from a table size calculator to keypunch cards to supercomputers, changing cultural paradigms, and particularly the changing role of women. The book is an intriguing introduction to a fascinating history of "computers" for the computers are humans and not machines.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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