Rise of the Rocket Girls | Nathalia Holt

Summary of: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
By: Nathalia Holt


Step into the fascinating world of the Rocket Girls, a group of talented women who paved the way for the United States’ advancements in rocket science and space exploration. ‘Rise of the Rocket Girls’, by Nathalia Holt, takes us on a journey with the female computers – as they were known at the time – of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), from their early beginnings involved in jet engines’ experiments, to their crucial roles in pioneering missions to explore the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies. Discover how these women, who were so integral to the development of American space exploration, defied gender norms and societal expectations in the mid-20th century to become essential players in the world of aerospace engineering and technology.

The Computing Women of JPL

In 1939, JPL was founded to create jet engines. During the early stages of the project, a computing team was formed comprising three women – Barbara Canright, Virginia Prettyman, and Macie Roberts. These women were known as “computers,” and their task was to do all the calculations required for the experiments in hand. They began with handwritten calculations, which would take up to a week to complete, and could fill up to eight notebooks. With the help of her team, Macie Roberts was later promoted to supervisor and in charge of hiring and managing her own all-female division within an engineering department. All of this happened in the early 1940s, an era where it was unusual to find women in such roles. However, JPL was different and significantly ahead of its time. It was a place where women were encouraged to pursue sciences, and this helped revolutionize the field.

JPL’s Journey to Space

In 1941, JPL reduced an airplane’s takeoff by 50%, earning a contract with the US Army which expanded their facilities. JPL hired women computers for their math skills and chemist Jack Parsons invented a rocket-propellant mixture of liquefied asphalt, lubricating oil, and crushed potassium perchlorate. With an output of 200 pounds of thrust, the propellant was a hit with military officials. JPL knew their future lay in outer space.

The Rocket Dreamers

JPL’s journey from developing guided missiles to sending rockets into space is an inspiring story of determination and dream chasing. Their research on a two-stage launch and liquid propellants helped Corporal carry a heavy warhead 200 miles away, and paved the way for rockets to escape Earth’s gravitational pull. The cancellation of Project Orbiter broke their hearts, but they continued their satellite research secretly. Their efforts finally paid off when they successfully sent a rocket 3,335 miles up into the air, marking a historic achievement in space exploration.

JPL’s Hidden Figures

JPL’s female computers contributed to launching America’s first satellite after the Russians beat them to space. Their efforts and mathematical skills were crucial in sending the Explorer satellite into orbit, using Microlock, a tracking system that picked up the satellite’s signal. Despite encountering difficulties during the satellite’s trajectory, JPL’s engineers remained calm and collected, and their calculations proved correct when they detected the signal once again. Not only were these women crucial to launching the Explorer, but they also played a vital role in JPL’s Jupiter-C rocket that was designed to break free from Earth’s gravitational pull. Although their efforts were overshadowed by the Russians’ Sputnik launch, the women at JPL deserve praise for their hard work and dedication.

JPL Computers Revolutionizing Space Exploration

JPL became a leading space exploration lab after the success of the Explorer program. Despite the introduction of electronic computers, the human computers remained vital for space exploration. Women computers like Susan Finley and Helen Chow were critical in calculating the trajectories and velocities needed for the lunar probes and Mariner probes sent to Venus and Mars. The computers worked diligently, discovering brief windows of time suitable for ideal voyages by aligning the Sun, Earth, and the planets accordingly. By the early 1960s, JPL’s human computers were given electronic equivalents, but they were still slow and unreliable compared to the talents of people like Helen Chow. In fact, the machines were no match for the humans when it came to calculating the fastest. This revolutionized space exploration forever, paving the way for modern spacecraft to explore further into deep space.

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