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The unsung women heroes of America’s space program

June 30, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
They were living, breathing, walking, talking calculators who were key to America’s early space program. And they were women — and largely forgotten. At the time, the supercomputers that NASA now uses to crunch its numbers didn’t exist. Nathalia Holt looks to change the historic oversight in her new book, “Rise of the Rocket Girls.” Holt talked with Jeffrey Brown at the Los Angeles Book Festival.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now the next addition to our summer reading list.

It’s a look at some unsung American heroes in the space race, the women behind the scenes.

At the recent Los Angeles Book Festival, Jeffrey Brown sat down with Nathalia Holt, the author of “Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me, who were the rocket girls?

NATHALIA HOLT, Author, “Rise of the Rocket Girls”: They are these unsung heroes who have touched just about every NASA mission that you can think of.

And yet they were mostly forgotten by NASA and by the Jet Propulsion Lab, which is where they worked. These women worked as computers. And so, before all of the digital devices we have today…

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, wait a minute. Explain that, because I know they’re called literally computers.

NATHALIA HOLT: This is their job title.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

NATHALIA HOLT: You actually needed humans to be able to do the calculations.

And so this is what they started out working as. So, they only had pencil and paper, and these really loud mechanical calculators that couldn’t do very much. And, from that, they were able to calculate an incredible number of trajectories for spacecraft, propellants.

JEFFREY BROWN: So they are literally computing and called computers.

NATHALIA HOLT: Exactly, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before the age that we are now living in.

NATHALIA HOLT: But then, once the first IBMs came in, then they became the first computer programmers in the lab.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of backgrounds did they come from that brought them into this?

NATHALIA HOLT: So, they come from different backgrounds. Many of them have only had high school degrees. But they were exceptionally good at math. So, they were often the only girls in their math classes, but they would — they loved math. They would take as much as they could.

But they’re weren’t very many options for women then. Mostly, if you loved math, if you loved science, your options still were nurse, teacher, secretary. And so, by becoming a computer, they could get around this and have a job in science.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give us an example, someone that you came to know and love, because you told these individual stories, right?

NATHALIA HOLT: I did. I found these women and I loved speaking with them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

NATHALIA HOLT: A wonderful example is Barbara Paulson. Today, she is turning 88. She has a birthday. And she started in the lab when she was 19. She had her high school degree and loved math. And she had an incredible, long career. She had a 45-year career at NASA, working on all of these different missions.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of limitations do they run up against?

NATHALIA HOLT: These women, they were obviously paid less than the men, and their responsibilities increased as the time went by, but still they had many setbacks.

And, of course, there was sexism there, as there is today in science, so they had to cope with that. But, in general, they loved their careers, they loved their time at NASA, and really had such a big contribution.

JEFFREY BROWN: You described them sort of joining — sort of like forming a club. I suppose that they almost had to.

NATHALIA HOLT: They really relied on each other.

They had — so they became this all-woman group because of Macie Roberts. So she was the first supervisor of the computers. She was made supervisor in 1942, and so she is the one that decided it should be all women, even though men did apply, but she wanted it to be a close-knit group of girls.

JEFFREY BROWN: She kept out the men?

NATHALIA HOLT: She did, on purpose.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, that’s an interesting — so a reverse discrimination in a sense.

NATHALIA HOLT: Yes.

And then this actually continued for decades. Then their friends, as well as co-workers, they had just spent so much time together, often all night during missions. They were there for days sometimes in some of these missions.

And there were also some concerns that a male wouldn’t do as well taking directions from a female boss.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what kind of things were they working on?

NATHALIA HOLT: There are thrilling moments.

One of my favorite is during Explorer 1, which is the first American satellite. And here you have Barbara Paulson, who is in the control room that night. She has worked in the lab for a decade already. And so she had been hard at work making this moment possible, getting all of the rockets to this point.

And she is the one calculating the trajectory that night. So, when the first American satellite is a success, its because of her. She is the one that found out it’s actually in orbit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did she get her due? Did she get — did people understand it at the time?

NATHALIA HOLT: This is a very sad part of the book, is that, although she was celebrated then, and she had a room full of people who were so excited by what she had accomplished, what I found is that much of that was forgotten.

So, in 2008, NASA held a gala in celebration of Explorer 1 for the 50th anniversary. And none of the women who worked on that project, who were even in mission control that night, were invited. And this is a very sad thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is in 2008.

NATHALIA HOLT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the awareness has not changed at all?

NATHALIA HOLT: Yes, it is very sad.

But my hope is that, now, they will finally get the recognition that they deserve.

JEFFREY BROWN: We do a lot of talking on our program looking at the problem of young girls, young women, women getting into and then staying in, staying with sciences.

NATHALIA HOLT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see happening?

NATHALIA HOLT: It’s a desperate time for women in technology.

JEFFREY BROWN: A desperate time?

NATHALIA HOLT: Absolutely.

So, in 1987 — 1984 — excuse me — 37 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences were awarded to women. And today that number is 18 percent. So it’s a huge drop.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think that’s happened?

NATHALIA HOLT: Some of the reasons are education. Some of them have to do with the lack of role models that young women can see, they can see a reflection of themselves in computer science.

But it’s important that we address this, because even for the women in science today, we’re seeing that about half of the women leave mid-career.

What I like about the stories of these women, the Rocket Girls, is that they were able to get over many of these hurdles through — it wasn’t typical for women to be mothers and scientist at this time. And they were able to accomplish that.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about in the space program itself? The situation for women has — well, it has changed dramatically from the period you’re writing about.

NATHALIA HOLT: It has changed dramatically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

NATHALIA HOLT: Yes.

So what we are seeing is that for women astronauts, this is an amazing time. We’re saying half of the class of astronauts at NASA today are women.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read that half of the class, yes, yes. That’s striking.

NATHALIA HOLT: Yes.

And this is an incredible accomplishment. And we should all be very proud of this. But for the engineers who are part of the space agency, it is a different story. And it’s one that we need to make sure that we are bolstering these women and encouraging girls today to go into the sciences.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the “Rise of the Rocket Girls.”

Nathalia Holt, thank you so much.

NATHALIA HOLT: Thank you.

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