It’s become quite apparent to me in the last year or so that I am really into reading about the early space program. I’ve never had much of an aptitude or interest in math or science, but movies like Apollo 13 and Rocket Boys most likely had an impact on me. You may remember I reviewed The Astronaut Wives Club a ways back – this book looks at the space program from an entirely different angle.
I had only been made vaguely aware (through Tumblr) of the women who were part of the early space program. I really had no idea to what extent until I read this book. The narrative focuses on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, that began to crystallize with some grad students at CalTech tinkering with rockets in the 1940s and eventually went under the umbrella of NASA. Barbara Canright was a skilled mathematician when she and her husband were approached by the rocket research group to join them, and began a long-standing tradition that continued for decades of JPL’s computer department being made up entirely of women.
Computers, as used in this sense, was the name for people who compute. Crunching numbers, figuring out missile trajectory and the like. Computers as we know them know were still not entirely trusted, took up whole rooms, and weren’t used as much. As JPL grew, the head of their computing department, an older woman named Macie Roberts, made the decision to only hire women. It was a “man’s job” to be sure, but the company had stumbled upon a rare opportunity for talented women to contribute their skills, and it was recognized that the all-women staff worked so well together it was practically a sorority. These women knew their math, loved math, and some could have qualified to be engineers at JPL except that they were women.
I particularly loved the personal stories of these women woven into the history of JPL and it’s work with NASA. Back in the 1950s, it was rare for a woman to continue working once her pregnancy became obvious, and especially once the baby was born. But some of the women of JPL loved their work so much, and were so needed, they found ways to balance work and motherhood (the ones who were successful at it had supportive husbands). One woman, Janez Lawson, was the first black woman hired as a computer at JPL, and was certainly overqualified for the position. She excelled so well at her that the company sent her to IBM to get more training. In fact, the women at JPL were the ones to jump on the emerging technology before the men, enabling many of them to eventually gain the job title of engineer.
These bright women started out plotting out data on graph paper and filling up notebooks and notebooks of equations, and eventually became the computer programmers who wrote the code that produced it digitally. These women participated in the company beauty contest “Miss Guided Missile” (mostly a tongue-in-cheek affair), and later on fretted with the decision to wear pant suits. These women worked long, hard hours with numbers and equations and problems I certainly cannot comprehend, having husbands and family members watch the kids while they completely projects, and because of them we have photos of the other planets in our solar system, and took twelve men to walk on the moon, and have the International Space Station. One woman who stayed at JPL for decades was actually a college dropout, and was touched one day when some correspondence arrived addressing her as “Dr.” She was so knowledgeable, and so well-regarded, she had mistakenly been given a few extra degrees.
With the on-going worry that there aren’t enough women in the sciences, this is a fabulous book to be inspired by. The author goes into some details about the projects the women worked on, but not too much for those of us whose eyes glaze over when things get too technical. We’re introduced to a variety of women from over the years at JPL, each with another story of the skills she brought and the sacrifices she made to further space exploration.
The movie Hidden Figures is currently filming, about the women of color who worked at NASA at about this same time period. SO STOKED FOR THIS. And the book it’s based off of hasn’t even been published yet – you better believe it’s getting added to my TBR pile!