“It’s about being an explorer, a treasure-hunter.” Sue Finlay is still passionate about her work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, just as she was in 1957, when she put her love of numbers to work. (See video here.)
She speaks about the early days spent with a Friedan calculator and a notebook, the complex calulations which required programming skills before there was a word for them. Originally, the term ‘computer’ was used to describe a person who computes, centuries before machines were developed to assist with that work.
Sue Finlay is amongst the group of women at the heart of Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls, who knew how to do this kind of work before a vocabulary existed to define it.
“It only took seconds for a rocket engine to be fired, but analyzing that one experiment could take a week or more for the human computers. Notebooks quickly accumulated, often six to eight of them for each experiment. Barby liked to stack them on her desk, forming a wall of paper. As the notebooks piled up, so did her feeling of accomplishment.”
To chart the rise of the rocket girls, Nathalia Holt looks back to the 1940s, to a time when minimum wage in California was 40 cents/hour, when a computer could earn 90 cents/hour.
A computer would set aside the traditional employment opportunities available to women, choosing not to be a secretary or a nurse or a teacher. But a computer would need to set aside some of the romanticized idea of being an explorer too.
“Lost in the drudgery of everyday calculations was the beauty that first drew her [Marie] to math. There was splendor in how numbers could describe nature so perfectly.”
In the life of a computer, much of the satisfaction of the work was rooted not so much in the beauty of Fibonacci numbers, but in knowing that one was working alongside other women who recognized this kind of beauty, the hard-working members of the team of women hired by Macie Roberts.
Many of these women also understood the demands of the second-shift, bearing the brunt of household chores and child-care in the evenings, after the sitter’s shift was done.
“Day after day, she would get home from the lab and rush to make dinner, give the kids a bath and get them to bed, then wash the dishes and do the laundry. At 10 p.m., she’d get into her pajamas and feel exhausted from head to foot. Being a working mother was always hard, but unlike Barbara and Helen, she didn’t have an equal partner at home. The man she chose at nineteen had no interest in helping out around the house. Margie sighed and wondered how much more she could take. She knew something had to give.”
Rise of the Rocket Girls considers the earliest days of the JPL, whose name was coined when the word ‘rocket’ carried negative connotations, observing that southern California had only 1,000 workers in the aerospace industry in 1933 but 300,000 in 1943.
Indeed, the aerospace industry gets a lot of ink in this work, and the final chapter brings readers from the 1970s into the present-day. Readers who are not familiar with sequence of scientific discoveries in the United States (some references are made to competitors’ efforts, but this is an American history) will find that missions begin to blur.
The images and photographs help to distinguish various projects, but particularly when some of the key women are not involved in specific projects, they feel like footnotes added to a timeline.
There is an attempt to develop a narrative around some statistics and achievements, however. The author describes the sounds in a room filled with women using calculators and slide rules, the thick white and red calluses from gripping a pencil too tightly and relentlessly, the pucker of a page of graph paper beneath a sweaty hand. The joyful and rare sight of snow in California in one winter is contrasted with the gloomy holidays when launches did not go as planned.
Helpful in arranging the timeline is the discussion of technological developments, when women would have depended upon them. From the Friedan calculator to the IBM701 computer (comprised of 11 separate components, weighing 20,516 pounds, and costing $11,900/month to rent) to pantyhose. (Yes, that’s right. And pantsuits, too.)
Readers familiar with American women’s history will not find anything new about sex roles and social conditioning an expectations in Nathalia Holt’s account. Many of the computers found it difficult to meet men who would not only tolerate but support their career ambitions. There were disruptions to their employment when children were born, and there were concerted movements to professionalize sectors of work in order to restrict access to male candidates.
These situations are not expressed as elements within systemic challenges that women faced in the industry, however, but as problems experienced by individual women. If the rocket girls were openly battling the patriarchy, that’s the stuff of another book.
(There is, however, some amusing content surrounding the annual beauty contests held at JPL, which were a “result of JPL’s progressive hiring practices”. It’s true: their competitors were not willing to hire women, so they were unable to host beauty pageants!)
In many ways it feels like the author has played it safe and although the injustice of McCarthyism is considered in the context of one individual’s expulsion from JPL, the situation is quickly resolved. The Nazi war criminal, Wernher von Braun, is described as a “legend”, a “superstar”, and “one of the world’s preeminent rocket scientists”. Nathalia Holt’s focus is consistently the JPL and the valuable contributions various individuals made to it and, in that context, it “was hard to believe von Braun had once been America’s enemy”. Some of the individual women expressed some misgivings, upon his arrival, but Holt’s reporting suggests that was fleeting, with the focus remaining on his enthusiasm for various projects. You can almost hear the rustle of pom-poms.
Nonetheless, Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls serves as an enticing reminder for contemporary readers that behind every man who has stepped down on another planet, a woman has filled notebooks with calculations that directed his ship to fly into space.