Rocket Girls and Hidden Figures

The Rise of the Rocket Girls launch itself right off the bookshelf and into my hands. Like many students of astronomy, I was painfully aware of the poor job our field has done in welcoming women, and women of color.

Written by Nathalia Holt and published in 2016, this book holds the stories of many women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

This piece of missing history is fascinating. I know a little about the space program, but the role of women computers was news to me.   I had seen the movie “Hidden figures” just a couple weeks before, so I as primed for another look into our space program.

Here are a few nuggets from the 337 page work:

Barby Canright began at JPL in 1939 working on Jets with the Suicide Squad

The contrast between the way the US treated the German scientists and the way scientists from Communist country is tragic. At the time we were giving Nazi war criminals more freedoms, our government was expelling those with even a hint of Communist association. (p. 74)

At JPL in the 50’s when they pushed the button to launch a rocket, the command “Missile away!” would be said. (p. 76)

JPL rented the massive IBM 701 computing machine for $11,900 a month. An instruction manual had not yet been written. (p. 91)

For the folks at JPL, the “giant leap” was getting into earth orbit, not in taking a step on the Moon. (p. 109)

Designing a nose cone that could withstand both launch and reentry was a challenge. And there is stuff in the way! Hundreds of tons of meteor dust falls on the Earth daily. Before it hits Earth, the dust must be near the Earth. For a capsule to survive reentry, clunky and blunt won the day. (p. 124)

After putting Laika into orbit, the Soviets bragged about the dog’s health. She had already died from overheating, and was orbiting over us every 103 minutes. (130)

French curves! (p. 140)

When JPL received the IBM 704, everyone called it ”the IBM” to differentiate this computer from the human computers. (p. 147)

When the Soviets missed the Moon with Luna I, instead putting it in orbit around the Sun, they boasted that their craft was now a planet. (p. 150)

Working on the trajectories for moon landers the JPL rocket girls worked on plans to send probes to Venus and Mars (p. 155)

In the early 1960’s pregnant Barbara Paulson was fired for “insurance purposes.” (p. 163)

When considering the mysterious, unknown surface of Venus, some imaginations ran wild with alien dinosaurs.

As Carl Sagan said “Observation: I can’t see a thing.   Conclusion: Dinosaurs!” (p. 184)

In 1962 Mariner 2 became the first probe to explore any planet. (p. 186)

The discovery of a dead moth in the Mark II computer gave a whole new meaning to “debugging.” (p. 209)

As the 1960s came to a close, the women at JPL officially became “engineers.” (p. 224)

Except for one poll right after the Apollo 11 moon landing, a majority of Americans didn’t believe the manned lunar program was worth the cost. It was seen as expensive and unnecessary. (p. 236)

The batteries aboard Voyager 1 and 2 will run out of power around the year 2025. (p. 255)

The space probe Galileo lasted for 58 minutes while it plunged into Jupiter. It sent back weather data (temperature and wind, (p, 270)

It was a bit difficult to follow the individual stories of these JPL women. I think Holt had a little trouble compiling the information and presenting it as a whole. I found the book to be worth my tie and energy to read.


Every other year, Greensboro picks a book and encourages us all to read. This year, the “One city One Book” choice is Hidden Figures. That’s the next book on my desk.




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