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Rise of the Rocket Girls

The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

By Nathalia Holt
15-minute read
Audio available
Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

Rise of the Rocket Girls (2016) reveals the intriguing and enlightening stories of the women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It traces the laboratory from its earliest days through to modern times, from its quirky beginnings to its role as one of NASA’s most important component parts. These women were responsible for crunching numbers and the important calculations that kept the United States in the space race and helped launch rockets, satellites and probes into the farthest corners of the solar system. Their influence cannot be denied. And, more than that, it must be acknowledged.

  • Readers who seek strong female role models
  • Science geeks
  • Space enthusiasts

Nathalia Holt’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Popular Science and the Atlantic. She spent years speaking to the women of JPL and compiling their stories. She is also the author of Cured: The People who Defeated HIV.

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Rise of the Rocket Girls

The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

By Nathalia Holt
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt
Synopsis

Rise of the Rocket Girls (2016) reveals the intriguing and enlightening stories of the women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It traces the laboratory from its earliest days through to modern times, from its quirky beginnings to its role as one of NASA’s most important component parts. These women were responsible for crunching numbers and the important calculations that kept the United States in the space race and helped launch rockets, satellites and probes into the farthest corners of the solar system. Their influence cannot be denied. And, more than that, it must be acknowledged.

Key idea 1 of 9

Barbara Canright was the first of the female computers to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In 1939, after winning a grant from the National Academy of Sciences, a rambunctious trio of friends – Ed Forman, Frank Malina and Jack Parsons – founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, at the California Technical Institute. Among the first people they hired were Barbara and Richard Canright.

Barbara and Richard had met at Caltech, where Richard was a graduate student and Barbara was a typist. This is also where Richard first met the founders of JPL.

As the name suggests, JPL was a laboratory that created jet engines. One of the early plans was to build a jet engine that could quickly propel an airplane off the ground, the hope being to speed up launching procedures and shorten runways.

JPL pursued this goal in a pretty straightforward manner, essentially just strapping powerful rockets onto small planes. Rockets were something that fascinated the team at JPL. Yet the word “rocket” was strongly associated with science fiction at the time, so, to sound professional and scientific, they claimed that their experiments dealt strictly with jet engines.

These experiments required a lot of calculations, which is where Barbara Canright came in. She was a math whiz and could expertly crunch numbers to measure force and propulsion. Since there were no automated computers in the 1940s, it all had to be done by hand. A single experiment might take a week of calculations and fill up to eight notebooks.

And so it wasn’t long before JPL started recruiting a new computing team to help Mrs. Canright with calculations. Two more female computers came on board: Virginia Prettyman and Macie Roberts. Interestingly, in those days the term “computer” was still used for people rather than machines as they were the ones who did the computing!

Roberts was soon promoted to supervisor and charged with hiring new employees, and she set about establishing a female computer team. This was not a typical move in the early 1940s. Most places wouldn’t put a woman in charge of hiring and managing her own all-female division within an engineering department. But JPL wasn’t a typical place.

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