The lasting legacy of the "rocket girls" of JPL
June 15, 2016 9:11 AM   Subscribe

California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been central to the US missile and rocket development and operations for decades, and from the beginning that technology's success rested on a corps of expert mathematicians, people known as computers. And from the beginning they were all women, in a time when such opportunities were few and far between. You can find pictures of them, but names have not been well-recorded ... until now. Nathalia Holt found many of those women and wrote about their experiences in her book, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars.

Women have had key roles, with little recognition, in astronomy, the Manhattan Project, and the US space program from its beginning. This is in part because the humbler levels of scientific work were open, even welcoming, to women. Indeed, by the early twentieth century computing was thought of as women’s work and computers were assumed to be female. And likely due to this "humble" status and their gender, the women of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, JPL, and other similar institutions have been largely overlooked in recounts of the history of rocketry and space exploration.

Barbara Canright was the first woman on the pre-JPL team, when they were the "Suicide Squad" and received a grant to build a rocket jet back in 1939. She was the computer who provided the engineers their calculations and figures, calculated thrust-to-weight ratios for test scenarios of their jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) experiments, the lone woman in the team of engineers. Barby, as she was called, was joined by two more computers, Freeman Kincaid and Melba Nead. Melba was the third woman working with the group, along with Barby and the secretary, Dorothy Lewis. Soon after, JPL hired two more women, Virginia Prettyman and Macie Roberts. All work was done by hand, with the occasional assistance from a Friden calculator, much faster than a slide rule, but limited to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

Macie was the one who really shaped the computer group. When she was promoted to supervisor, she selected the new computers who would join the team, and picked women who would work well in the group. Soon, the computers were known as her group, as seen in this photo, circa 1955. One of her hires was Sue Finley, who first worked at Convair before coming to JPL, which was closer to her home. That was 1957, and she's been with JPL (and later NASA) ever since, with no plans on retiring yet.

The computers and engineers socialized, with formal events including beauty pageants like Miss Guided Missile (1955) and Queen of Outer Space (1964), a tradition that ended when JPL's affirmative action policy began in 1971. The computers became engineers, and some current female employees were retrained as computer scientists, programmers, and physicists, then promoted into higher-paying positions. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before that formal policy, JPL's computer group was more open to diversity and more supportive of working mothers, with Macie asking Helen Ling to come back to work a while after Helen had her baby, and Macie hired Janez Lawson, a highly qualified young lady with a degree in chemical engineering from UCLA, when she couldn't get a job as an engineer because she was an African-American woman, in 1952. Helen took Macie's place when Macie retired, continuing her legacy with the computer group.

The computers and engineers collaborated, refining the "star" design of a rocket motor to be more reliable (PDF, no mention of the women who worked on the calculations), the spin-rates for for the second and third stages of the Jupiter-C, and the Microlock tracking technology, developed in part by Marie Crowley (obituary, with slim reference to her time at JPL), to name a few feats.

The women in the computer group were early adopters of various IBM electronic computers, from the IBM 701, but when it came time to track Pioneer 3's initial ascent, instead everyone relied upon Sue Finley's fast work to be accurate in tracking the failed launch. They moved forward with advancing technology, including the Burroughs E101, a weird amalgam of manual calculator and computer, operated with a pinboard, and on into the wonderful world of Fortran (still in use by NASA, btw). By the 1960s, Helen Ling's group of computers were using IBM 1620s or French curves to plot spacecraft trajectories. But even as Mariner 2's trip was successful thanks in part to the work by the human computers, their jobs were in peril, due to the advances of the increased reliability and efficiency of the electronic computers.

To the benefit of the computers, machine computing was distrusted by the engineers, and the IBMs needed someone to program them to make them do anything, so the women of the computing group continued their work, in a slightly different capacity. Furthermore, computers were built into the satellites that JPL was launching, and someone had to program those, so the women worked on. The women also started getting credit for their work, thanks to their more open-minded male counterparts, as with Kathryn L. Thuleen's credit for work on the Mariner 5 Altitude-Control System (paywalled article), referenced in Spacecraft Mass Expulsion Torques (PDF), and Phyllis Buwalda was credited alongside geophysicist Marcia Neugebauer in the write-up on a feasibilty study of A Lunar Seismic Experiment (abstract, paywalled). The women wrote and debugged the code that sent satellites probing distant planets, and the women converted analog signals to digital details, doing the first image processing and producing the first televised image of Mars, ahead of the black and white images processed by the IBM (again, no mention of the women who ran the calculations to generate those colors).

Technology progressed, and so did the skill of the women formerly known as computers. They wrote code in High-order Assembly Language (HAL) that supported real-time programming. They moved forward, adopting Intel 4004 microprocessors in the 1970s, and joined the desktop computer revolution, picking up IBM Convertible PC "laptops" in the 1980s, allowing for work to continue while the women left the office, to allow further juggling of home life and work life with tight deadlines all around.

JPL and NASA also moved forward with further integration of women in all levels. At one point, Donna Shirley, manager of the Mars Exploration Program, looked around at her project team to realize she was surrounded by women, thanks in part to the legacy of Macie Roberts and Helen Ling. Yet, while 50 percent of NASA's latest class of astronauts are female, and NASA has a site that highlights the women who work there, that ratio is not representative of the agency as a whole, though JPL as a sub-set has a better gender balance. Meanwhile, the work of the "rocket girls" continues through space and send back data, a testament to their skills and efforts.
posted by filthy light thief (22 comments total) 185 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, thanks for this in-depth post! This is an era of women in computing I've always wanted to learn more about.
posted by town of cats at 9:24 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

*stands and claps* What a post!

And also: I thought I knew some of the history of women in computers and space, but this really shows me how much more there is to know. I can't wait to get started. :7) Thanks, flthy light thief!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:43 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Amazing post! Reminds me of my grandmother who worked for Rockwell on the shuttle program.
posted by -t at 9:44 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

No way I can process this whole thread right now, but I know what my daughter is getting in the mail as a housewarming gift next week. (She just moved to Littleton to work for LM Space Systems)
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:04 AM on June 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

I love you FLT

~ a woman engineer
posted by infini at 10:06 AM on June 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Reminds me of my grandmother who worked for Rockwell on the shuttle program.

Please share stories, if you can and don't mind!

I thought I knew some of the history of women in computers and space, but this really shows me how much more there is to know.

From making this post, I've found that very few women are credited, even when they're in photos of historic events. Heck, JPL even forgot to invite Barbara Paulson and Margie (Behrens) Brunn to the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Explorer 1 became America's first satellite to reach Earth orbit, even though they both lived a few miles from JPL.

Thanks for the kind words - I got a bit obsessed about finding more about these women online after reading Nathalia Holt's book (Amazon link), and wanting to 1) track down more details, and 2) share all this information. Most of the articles about Rocket Girls focused on the early days, but didn't track a more complete courseof the group's work, as Holt did in her book, or even highlight later achievements and identify the mark these women have left on systems and efforts still under way.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:10 AM on June 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

This is amazing. Thank you so much, filthy light thief!

-- another woman engineer
posted by blurker at 10:37 AM on June 15, 2016

Fantastic post! I had no idea I'd never heard about this. Good reading.
posted by ezust at 10:41 AM on June 15, 2016

And it's an interesting article, with the discussion on women in science and technology, and how Indian media and the public at large discusses this news (in short: critiques on clothing choices, instead of discussion of their achievements).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:52 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I read this book – it was a well-done and engaging read. It reminded me about all that stuff my mom told me about sexism when I was growing up and the ways in which women were openly discriminated against and marginalized. But mostly, I was agog at how the field has changed, how amazing it was that people were able to figure this stuff out. The dangerous experiments they did (so much failure!) and how you could be a bright person straight out of high school...high school with an aptitude for math and get a job. Wow. I was really into space as a kid and had the awesome experience of going to Space Camp (twice!) and this reignited my passion for the stars and space.

One of the legacy projects out of this group – Mission Juno – is set to arrive at Jupiter this July 4th. Bill Nye episodes about Juno.
posted by amanda at 10:54 AM on June 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's wonderful to see these women get recognition, but the high probability of egregious waste of talent entailed in hiring them only to do complicated yet routine calculation makes me very sad.
posted by jamjam at 11:02 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Stuff like this always makes me wonder how many more Barbara Canrights and Rosalind Franklins are lurking on the edges of history just because men chose -- through either carelessness or malice -- not to record their accomplishments.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:07 AM on June 15, 2016 [8 favorites]

the high probability of egregious waste of talent entailed in hiring them only to do complicated yet routine calculation makes me very sad.

From the book, I got the impression that they weren't just running calculations for the male engineers, but figuring out how to make rockets work in the beginning, then using those rockets to get into space, where they then figured out how to track and communicate with satellites.

I'm sure they could have had a larger impact on these projects if they were more involved, but I don't think they were just number crunchers. I tried to highlight some actual accomplishments identified in the book, and with online references where I could find them.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:19 AM on June 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Stuff like this always makes me wonder how many more Barbara Canrights and Rosalind Franklins are lurking on the edges of history just because men chose -- through either carelessness or malice -- not to record their accomplishments.

I agree - if not for Nathalia Holt interviewing these women while they were still alive, they might have been completely overlooked and their accomplishments forgotten.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:21 AM on June 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

One of my favorite pet topics. I bought Rocket Girls for one of my students and look forward to reading it myself. An excellent, excellent post on the topic.
posted by absalom at 12:21 PM on June 15, 2016

Thanks so much for this! I loved the book and it's great to see it get attention.
posted by teleri025 at 1:29 PM on June 15, 2016

I saw the headline over my wife's shoulder and though it had to be about Mary Sherman Morgan. (Another FPP worthy topic if someone wants to take a swing.)

Seriously, I wish the people who want to plug for women in science would just shut the hell up about Marie Curie. Nothing against her, but I can make a list of women scientists with major contributions as long as my arm but when March rolls around it's radium again and again.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:39 PM on June 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Kid Charlemagne: I saw the headline over my wife's shoulder and though it had to be about Mary Sherman Morgan.

From Wikipedia:
After spending the war years designing explosives for the military, she applied for a job at North American Aviation, and was employed in their Rocketdyne Division, based in Canoga Park, California. Soon after being hired, she was promoted to Theoretical Performance Specialist, a job that required her to mathematically calculate the expected performance of new rocket propellants. Out of 900 engineers, she was the only woman, and one of only a few without a college degree.
She was working on a different part of the Jupiter rockets than JPL, so the various "rocket girls" may have met, or heard of each-other, though I'm sure Mary's experience at North American Aviation's Rocketdyne Division was much different from the "computers" at JPL. There's a similarly titled book about her, Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist (Amazon link). That's next on my list to read :)
posted by filthy light thief at 9:53 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Math geeky woman here to say thanks FTL! So much reading to do.
posted by sic friat crustulum at 10:26 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I heard Nathalia Holt speak about this book at the DC launch - the video is here. She gives an overview of the story of the "rocket girls" (though not in as much depth as this amazing post), but also reflects on her writing process, and how having a daughter shaped her thinking.
There's also a very cool question from an audience member (at about 26 minutes into the video), who had his pre-teen daughter along - she's not visible in the video, but she was clearly incredibly excited to hear these stories.
Looking forward to reading both the book and these links!
posted by une_heure_pleine at 11:02 PM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I finished Rocket Girl, and I didn't like it as much as Rise of the Rocket Girls. While both appear to use some amount of creativity to fill in the gaps of insufficient information, George D. Morgan confessed to having made up a significant amount of his narrative and some characters, because details were lacking.

I recognize he had a harder situation, given that the primary actor, his mother, was deceased and not prone to keeping many records on her life. But my issue comes from how he re-created her story felt, as it felt more like a novelization of her life, where Nathalia Holt was able to talk with a good number of the (other) Rocket Girls to get their first-hand accounts (and likely proof the re-telling of their lives), and it felt more honest and real, if a bit more removed.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:35 AM on July 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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