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

by Nathalia Holt

Hardcover, 2016




Little, Brown and Company (2016), Edition: First Edition, 352 pages


Biography & Autobiography. History. Nonfiction. HTML:The riveting true story of the women who launched America into space. In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they didn't turn to male graduates. Rather, they recruited an elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible. For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women ?? known as "human computers" ?? who broke the boundaries of both gender and science. Based on extensive research and interviews with all the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science: both where we've been, and the far reaches of space to which we're heading. "If Hidden Figures has you itching to learn more about the women who worked in the space program, pick up Nathalia Holt's lively, immensely readable history, Rise of the Rocket Girls." ?? Entertainment Weekly… (more)

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½ (94 ratings; 3.8)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Christina_E_Mitchell
I have a saying I often include as a prelude to a forwarded social media posting boasting of the historical accomplishments of a woman: "Women never did anything but support their history-making husbands." The prelude is sarcastic and a biting response to a history professor (male) who replied to
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my question, 'Where were the women?' with the statement, 'They were busy taking care of their husbands and families and didn't have time to contribute to the advances chronicled in history.' Since that response by an obviously ignorant and uncreative individual who nevertheless held a PhD, I made it a point to discover women's contributions. Today, many wonderful authors share my fever for an answer to my question, 'Where were the women?', with a dogged determination that impresses me beyond words. I consider the mother of my women's history movement to be historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Ulrich gave us the immensely reproduced quote, "Well-behaved women seldom make history." Ulrich is also the author of A Midwife's Tale taking diaries of a c1800 New England midwife...diaries no historian before Ulrich had thought of as important...to piece together an intricately detailed and much celebrated history of a small New England town. Now we know the answer to my question. Women were making history. Their accomplishments simply were not chronicled beyond their own hands. Add Rise of the Rocket Girls as a tribute to the history-making women whose contributions to our space exploration history are only recorded among the stars and not the history books. Literally, among the stars, as their lines of intricate mathematical programming continue to work within the technology of such advances as the Hubble Telescope and Voyager craft of the Juno mission that orbited Jupiter in June 2016.

Why have we never heard of these women? Because they were hired to serve as mathematical work horses. These women were hired to do the difficult, intricate, painstakingly precise equations, by hand, of rocket designs, rocket thrust, module trajectories, control systems, landing systems, and numerous other details that allowed men to walk on the moon and a rover to explore Mars. Eventually, these women became the engineers who wrote the copious amounts of computer code that were used to engineer the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle. These women worked alongside the men who were recognized for their efforts, though the women rarely received any public acclaim. So much were these tremendous women obscured from history, JPL, the company they helped start, demoted one of its long-time, long-admired, brilliant women engineers to an hourly wage (because she didn't hold an advanced degree) and none of the women were even invited to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Explorer I honoring esteemed male guests. These women...these fantastic, phenomenal, genius women...were simply left off the invitation list to celebrate the satellite they helped successfully create. When will we learn? Women are not part of history because they are deliberately written out of it.

I am grateful Holt brought these women out of obscurity. This is a book that MUST be read. The stories of these women must be recognized and remembered. It is proof that women made history, though to find their contributions one may have to let go of biases in order to look in different and unique spaces.
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LibraryThing member riofriotex
This book is stories of the female human computers working at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California from the 1940s to 2016, mostly on unmanned space missions (so it was a history of those too). The personal stories of the women felt forced into the narrative. The print book has 30+ pages of
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endnotes, a 13-page index, and numerous photos and diagrams in black-and-white and color.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
For the younger generations who have grown up with personal computers and tiny calculators that perform complex mathematical calculations this book will come as an eye-opener. Even for myself (I can remember programming a main frame computer by punch card), it was inspiring to think that before
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electronic calculators there was only paper and pencil and slide rules to do the math that calculated trajectories for rockets. This year's movie "Hidden Figures" told the story of one group of females involved in the space race but on the other side of the US there were more women "computers" doing their bit. This is their story.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was a small and crazy workshop in the 1940s that wanted to develop rockets to propel airplanes and they needed someone good with numbers to do all the calculations. They hired one woman and then another and then more. These women had to work in an unheated building in the hills above Pasadena right beside the testing grounds. They became a tight-knit group who could be relied upon to take the raw data and produce the calculations for thrust and velocity for all manner of rockets. Unlike the women in Hidden Figures they didn't work on the manned missions but their work led the way for the Apollo missions. They also worked on the missions that sent spacecraft to the other planets of the solar system and further. They put in long hours when required and also had homes and children and churches and husbands that required their attention. They were eventually given the job title of engineer but male engineers made more intially. Just a few years ago NASA decided that engineers had to have an advanced degree and they demoted a woman who had been an employee for 50 years to an hourly wage because she didn't have a degree. They had to reverse the decision when they learned that because of the hours she worked she was making even more money than before.

The writing of this book was not at all dry because the human stories were mixed in with the technological explanations. There are also lots of great pictures that show the women and the equipment. I would recommend this to anyone interested in women's history or the space race or changing technology or fans of Hidden Figures.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
This book tells the story of several women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasedena, California in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Their work was instrumental in creating missiles for military use and rockets that lifted their payloads into space. They were particularly key in working on
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Ranger and Surveyor missions to the Moon that prepared the way for Apollo, the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury, and the Voyager program missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Holt interviewed several women who worked at the JPL to get their perspectives on this age of discovery.

Many of the women got their start as "computers," who were JPL employees who performed mathematical computations (a usage of the term that's been made familiar by the book and movie Hidden Figures). Working as a computer provided an opportunity for women who studied mathematics to use their skills. While it was a support position to the (predominantly male) engineers, the position was highly-regarded within JPL and well paid. The group of women working together, with women supervisors, also felt that they had a close-knit family at JPL. Not everything was positive as the group of women felt that they had to look out for one another at office parties when men were on the prowl. Woman employees were also fired when they got pregnant.

Holt does a great job of telling these women's stories from their roles in furthering interplanetary exploration to their everyday lives of marriages, raising children, and even oddities like a JPL beauty contest. As Holt notes, it was the progressive hiring practices at JPL that made it possible to have enough women to even to something as seemingly outdated as a beauty contest.
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LibraryThing member rakerman
The author's style is to recount events from people's lives as if she is witnessing them in person ("god view"). While I appreciate that this brings drama and realism to the account, the amount of specific detail in the reconstruction of events went beyond what works for me in non-fiction.

The book
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also has a similar challenge to that in Dava Sobel's Glass Universe, which is a very large cast of characters making the thread of the story difficult to follow.
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LibraryThing member barbharris1
I've always had an interest in space exploration. I have developed an interest in hearing the stories of the people that are not in the direct spotlight like the astronauts, especially women and minorities. This is an excellent biography of the women called "computers" at the Jet Propulsion
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Laboratory (JPL). They were responsible for calculating the trajectories of the rockets and space craft that were managed from JPL. This books tells their story from the beginning of the space age when they were literally the computers and had to calculate trajectories by hand instead of by having it done by a mechanical computer. One of those women, Sue Finley, still works for JPL and is the longest serving woman at NASA. She will not retire until her latest mission, Juno orbits Jupiter July 2016.
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LibraryThing member dukedom_enough
One stereotype of the early years of space exploration is that those years belonged to men. Nathalia Holt's book explores one sense in which that stereotype is false, as she traces the careers of a number of remarkable women who worked at NASA's famed Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) from its founding in
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the late 1930s.

Today, the word "computer" means a machine of some sort but, prior to the late 1940s, computers were humans, employed to carry out complex numerical computations for scientific and military purposes. For Holt's subjects, the computer job served as a rare opportunity to enter a technical field where they could not have been hired as engineers, because only men could get those jobs. This restriction applied even though these women often had science and engineering degees fully the equal of the men's - and always had mathematical skills that met or exceeded anything the men offered. The women supported engineering design, analyzed flight and experimental data, and navigated spacecraft through the solar system. Over the years, they took on increasing responsibilities. As machines that we would call "computers" made their appearance at JPL, the women became their first programmers. The women's work was integral to the great reconnaissance of the solar system carried out in large part by JPL spacecraft in the 1960s and after; for one example, the software that planned the Voyager probes' Grand Tour of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune was written by Sylvia Lundy (later Miller).

Ms. Lundy's name change reminds us that these women lived through, not just JPL's first years, but the changing American society of the era. Work/life issues arose repeatedly, with long work hours bringing more than one marriage to an end. The JPL history is guideposted by references to larger historical events, such as the Kennedy assassination.

Some of the expected problems faced by women in a male-dominated workplace are only obliquely touched on. In the late 1940s, Barbara Lewis Paulson was reluctant to travel to the launch range at White Sands, because there, the "men roamed unfettered." At the 1958 JPL Christmas party: "As the drinks flowed, Barbara reminded the single girls to be on the alert...JPL's parties could be loose and a little wild. Even in the midst of their revelry, the girls liked to look out for one another." The word "harassment" does not appear in the index, and the relevant law was far in the future. I think Holt says little more than her interviewees would, and they belong to a generation reticent about personal stories.

In describing these women's work, the book also provides a pocket history of early US rocketry and space exploration. Holt is much briefer than I would prefer about details. I would have liked at least one 10-20 page chapter going into technical detail on a particular project. If that's inappropriate for this sort of group profile, couldn't there have been a website? My complaint is partly answered by Holt's end notes, which provide plenty of references for further reading.

What technical details Holt does supply are written in figurative prose that often is misleading or even wrong. At one point, "...she needed to plot a path close enough to Jupiter's moons and Saturn's rings to use their gravity while still staying in the proper alignment to fling the spacecraft out to Uranus and Neptune." The planets' gravity is what matters, not that of the moons and rings. Just a proofreading error? Elsewhere, a re-entering spacecraft is said to encounter the "flammable gases of the atmosphere." The heat of re-entry stems from the kinetic energy of the spacecraft; the air isn't flammable. Cape Kennedy's nearness to the equator is good because"...rockets got a boost from the rotational speed of Earth, which is more powerful at the equator than anywhere else." The right phrase would be "faster" not "more powerful." It seems that grace could have been combined with accuracy, while still keeping the book readable.

I like to read about the impact of science fiction on science and engineering, so I was pleased to find a shout-out to 1951's [Moon Ahead] by [[Leslie Greener]], which one of the women enjoyed.

This isn't a reader's best, first book to learn about JPL or the early days of rocketry and space exploration, but it's a valuable glimpse of the experiences of women in the field.
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LibraryThing member amillion
I was really interested in reading this book, and it was worthwhile and interesting to learn about how women were actually the "computers" doing all of the trajectory/power math and planning for the Jet Propulsion Lab's space projects, but I wanted it to go deeper into their work. How did they work
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with the male "engineers" and what was the division of labor? It was hard to tell whether the women just solved problems asked by the engineers or whether they were an integral part of the design process.

The book mentions the challenges with work/life balance and, superficially, several of the women's home relationships. But, at a time when most women didn't have "careers", I would like to know more of how their families and peers regarded them and even how rival groups regarded JPL in this respect. Perhaps the problem of the book was in trying to cover too much time (the 1930s to present) with too many women (I honestly got them confused). Great topic, but left me wanting more on many levels.
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LibraryThing member marysneedle
This was beautifully written. I felt every moment of these women's lives. It is so incredible that their story is just now being told.
LibraryThing member encephalical
History of women's involvement at JPL as computers and then later programmers and engineers. One of whom, Sue Finley, is still there, 59 years and counting. Strongest in evoking what the experience was like for them working in that era, which is in some ways completely alien, e..g., the annual
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beauty pageant until 1970, imagine if there was a "Miss Google" today. Could have used more technical editing, e.g., the author seems to think Grace Hopper's compilers were hardware.
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LibraryThing member Bodagirl
I want to really like this book, but it was just ok. The author's vacillation between the factual-biography and intimate-portrait tones was jarring and were never completely reconciled. Also, only two or three of the women were complete characters and kept my interest.

What I did like about the
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book was the information about what the women actually did: plotting orbits and trajectories and high-level programming on computers from the earliest models up through almost the present day.
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LibraryThing member linda.marsheells
I've worked at a flight school, grabbed one of the first copies of Astronaut's Wives and watched the series, and even married a corporate pilot....to there IS something about flight and the heavens that i find intriguing. That's why when i saw THIS book and knew i had to have it....so i thank the
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author for the chance to read it!

Simply put, it's amazing.
Extremely well -researched, Holt takes the topic of rocket science and breaks it down while involving the lives of the initial 'computers'. The who's who of the real brains behind the whole JPL. ( jet propulsion lab ) She takes a piece of history involving the female scientists at NASA and makes them 3-D. Such intricate miles of multiple calculations and equations solved using only slide rules and their own brains.
Human 'calculators 'that worked with male engineers to create what we all now take for granted. Thing i appreciated most was that the reader doesn't need to have a scientifically geared mind to thoroughly enjoy this book.
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LibraryThing member Jammies
This book should be required reading in junior high and middle school classes and for anyone who feels that women aren't suited for STEM classes or careers. Not only is it packed with history on the American Space program, it also shows the integral parts played in said history by women.

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women should to read this book, to see all the amazing first steps taken by the Rocket Girls--working moms, pioneering computer science majors, first users of electronic calculating machines and computers, the first women to wear pantsuits to work.

Boychild geeks who want women out of science fiction need to read this book and learn that there wouldn't be jet engines or spaceflight without women.

And frankly, anyone who loves a good story should read this, because it's not at all dry. The book is factual and supported with all kinds of documentation, but it's also a thrilling adventure tale that sweeps you right along.

I also learned that the first flyby of Mars happened on the evening of the day I was born.
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LibraryThing member nyiper
Absolutely terrific. Although I lived through a lot of this, Nathalia Holt did a wonderful job of putting history together in such a personal way---presenting the emotional and highly work-driven lives of these women who have been such a vital but nearly hidden part of the entire military and space
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LibraryThing member ajlewis2
This book covers the professional lives of women who were good at math and crunched numbers for calculating all aspects of the early unmanned rockets. It covers over 50 years of work with details of successes and failures. In the early days they worked with pencil and paper. Later there were early
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computers that weren't really trusted. Eventually PCs were available. As mechanical computers (these women were human computers) came out, these women took courses on programming them. They calculated trajectories for shots to the moon as well as for the Voyagers, Mars shots including rovers, and Juno. The last of the bunch was due to retire after Juno reached Jupiter. The book was completed prior to that event.

The book also covers quite a lot of their personal lives including marriages and children. I felt that the writing was not up to a 5 star, but the information and story were definitely 5 star. For those who do not know the history of rockets in the U.S. this would be a good way to learn it. The emphasis is on the part the women played with a little coverage of the work of the men involved. We do get a peek at the sorts of people who did some dangerous, creative work to make these things go--sometimes just boom.
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LibraryThing member LisCarey
In the first half of the 20th century, the word "computer" meant a person who did heavy-duty computation. During the Second World War and the years following, this included doing the computation for missile development. When the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was created, computers were in great demand
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And at JPL, something special happened.

Many of the early computers hired there were women.They were working closely with the engineers, who were all men; women were simply not hired as engineers, no matter what their qualifications. The woman who became head of the computer department decided she would only hire women.

This was not an era of gender equality. Women expected, and were expected, to marry and become mothers. There was no maternity leave, so a married working woman who became pregnant had no alternative but to quit.

But the women working at JPL became a bonded group, as much a family as a group of coworkers. And over the years, they worked to professionalize themselves, and to professionalize their image in the minds of their male coworkers. As the first machine computers were developed and brought in, it was the women computers who learned to use and program them. Both before and after the arrival of the machines, it was the women writing the programs that made both missiles and rockets fly.

This book follows the lives, professional and personal, of the women who first were JPL's computers, and later became the programmers of computers, and finally were recognized as engineers in their own right. They were a major component of the growth of NASA, and the development of the space program. We get to see the tensions between their personal lives and their professional lives, as well as the role they played in pushing the robot-based exploration of the solar system--missions to Venus, Mars, and beyond. It's a complex and stirring tale, and an important piece of both social and scientific history. The early parts especially, for younger readers (and by that I mean readers in their thirties, not kids) is likely to read like an account of an alien, or at the very least foreign, society.

So much progress has happened in my lifetime. I'd hate to see us go backward.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book.
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LibraryThing member LibraryCin
This book follows some of the human calculators who worked for NASA (and the precursor to NASA), starting in the 1940s up to and including the 21st century. It follows both their work and their home lives. Of course, at their work early on, it was mostly women who were the calculators, while men
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were the engineers. As women of the time, they were expected to leave when/if they got married, then pregnant.

I listened to the audio and my interest came and went. What I paid attention to was interesting. As we got closer to current times, with my (for a while) interest in astronomy, it was fun to read about some of those space missions that I remember. Well, the first one I really remember wasn’t a “fun” one, Challenger in 1986, but some of the later ones were: Hubble Space Telescope, Spirit and Opportunity (sent to Mars to take photos and explore; intended on only lasting 1 year on the planet, but lasted 5 and 10 years instead!), and more. Oh, I also enjoyed the one little tidbit of info about Jupiter’s moon Io (which I named my current oldest cat after) – apparently it is filled with volcanoes.
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LibraryThing member SandraBrower
I give this a 4.5
You know when you find a book that takes you into your past and helps you to want to learn more? That for me is this book. I enjoyed meeting, learning and being encouraged by the female "computers" of the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.

My father was a computer
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programer, reading about the different computers, different ways of programing those electronic computers from Pin punch cards to, FORTRAN to BASIC programing language it was a blast from the past for me. I still own punch cards that my dad saved from the trash heap of change. Those punch cards served as late note pleas to allow me to enter class without a tardy, a pass from missing a day at school and gathering homework on those months that I needed to be monitored because I wasn't turning work in. Those punchcards meant to much to me and still do. I use them diligently, once they are gone, there are no more to gather... It is a reminder of a history gone.

Barby Canright was JPL's first computer before it was JPL and was just a nerdy boys rocket group consisting of 4 men and Barby. These men attended CALTECH but breathed rocketry. :0)

The women of the JPL computing division were intelligent, hard working and not equal to their male counterparts if doing other work at the lab. There in the Computing division they were top dog. They forecasted the paths of war missles, satellites and rockets to the moon. Also, helped solved design flaws (such as Appollo I's door restriction that kept Ed White, Cafferty and ???? From escaping during a horrific fire.)

These women were expected to quit their jobs when they got married and started a family. Most of the JPL ladies did as expected then returned because they were usually too smart to just throw dinner parties, take care of their children and run the daily household. They were going crazy not being involved.
Modern electronic computers were starting to come to use while the young JPL computers were adjusting to the possibility of being outsourced to the machines. These women made themselves non-expendable by being the first ones to learn the procedures, languages and foibles of those machines. Continuing their careers with advanced college learning, encouraged by each other to become faster, smarter, more reliable. These women to me were superstars!!!

Can you imagine the satisfaction that they felt knowing they were doing something that made a significant impact on the world through out the 40's to today? I am in awe of these women who paved the way for other women to be NASA engineers and Astronauts.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls might have been a little technical for the average reader, however I thoroughly enjoyed the technicality. The look into their private lives, their careers and the friendships that they held for lifetimes was refreshing and uplifting. Little girls, women of my age group (oh, heck, all women) need to hear these stories more often.

The book is a great catalyst for the continued conversation of the need for females to excel in STEM programs.

Author Nathalia Holt did a fantastic job sharing the early history of missles and Pre-NASA Rockets, through an engaging story carried over decades of success, disappointment, death and the frustration that was felt for the women working at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This book has feed my desire to visit the JPL my next jaunt down to Southern California.

If you love Rockets, NASA, and Space this book will not disappoint you.
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LibraryThing member bookbrig
I really liked this. It was a relatively quick read, but it was super interesting to learn about the progression of both the space missions and the tech the women used.
LibraryThing member p.d.r.lindsay
Loved the film, but this book is better because we get all the 'girls' and their stories from the earliest days as human calculators right up to rocket launch.

Author Nathalia Holt allows these women to tell their stories about how they were the mathematical people who worked out the details without
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which missiles and rockets could not have flown. They were calculators when machines to calculate hard barely been invented. With slide rule and log tables these women used their brains to work out the formulas needed to fly a rocket or missile.

Having faced the same problem as these women did: where do bright girls go if they don't want to be a teacher a nurse or a secretary? I chuckled at the book group's younger members asking 'Did that really happen? Even if you had been to university?' Yes it did, and women are still restricted in how far they can get career wise. These women wanted to use their mathematical and scientific skills and were able to by luck and being in the right place at the right time. How many women missed opportunities to fulfill their abilities because of those entrenched attitudes?

Well worth a read, and a good book for young women who might just grow up to be scientists and mathematicians.
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LibraryThing member bragan
A history of women at JPL (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory), from its origins in the 1940s, through many decades of exploring the solar system, up to the present day (or very nearly: the book was published in 2016). For much of this time, most of the women there were employed as computers,
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calculating complex engineering equations and rocket trajectories by hand with pencil and paper. If you've seen the movie Hidden Figures, or read the book it's based on, this is the same type of job the women featured there were doing elsewhere at NASA. (And, yes, not all of the women at JPL where white, either.) Later on, as electronic computers began to replace human ones, they became computer programmers, as well. And by now, of course, there are many female engineers working there, although still not in the same numbers as the men.

I wasn't always exactly engaged by the writing in this particular volume. It wanders back and forth between being a straightforward history and trying to go for a "narrative nonfiction" approach of dramatizing things from various women's POV, and the two things are grafted rather awkwardly together. (This seems to be a common structure in non-fiction these days, and too few writers, in my opinion, pull it off especially gracefully.) The subject matter is certainly interesting, though. Holt covers a lot of the space missions fairly quickly and not in immense depth, but as a general overview of what JPL has done in its history, it works well enough. And the lives and careers of these women provide a really vivid illustration of what life was like for working women in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, when equally qualified men and women were seldom hired for the same positions and a woman could be summarily fired for getting pregnant. These are worthwhile stories to hear and remember, and even if I have slightly mixed feelings about the writing here, I am unambiguously glad to see these intelligent, dedicated women getting the recognition they deserve.
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0316338923 / 9780316338929
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