Meet The 'Rocket Girls,' The Women Who Charted The Course To Space | KUOW News and Information

Meet The 'Rocket Girls,' The Women Who Charted The Course To Space

Apr 5, 2016
Originally published on May 10, 2016 1:08 pm

In the 1940s, an elite team of mathematicians and scientists started working on a project that would carry the U.S. into space, then on to the moon and Mars. They would eventually become NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (or JPL), but here's what made them so unusual: Many of the people who charted the course to space exploration were women.

Nathalia Holt tells their story in her new book, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Holt tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that the women worked as "computers."

"In a time before the digital devices that we're used to today, it was humans that were doing the calculations," she says. "And so you needed these teams of people — many of whom were women, especially during World War II — and they were responsible for the math."

Barbara Paulson was one of those women. She tells Shapiro that while her sisters were preparing to be secretaries, she took a different path. She says, "I had had quite a bit of math in high school. ... I know my mother certainly wanted us all to graduate from college, but why I veered off into this ... I can't remember. ... But I did, and it helped me get the job that I did get at JPL."

Today, Holt says, "There is hardly a mission that you can find in NASA that these women haven't touched."


Interview Highlights

On how Holt first learned about the women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab

Holt: In 2010, I was expecting my first child. And my husband and I were just having a terrible time coming up with a name. We finally thought of Eleanor Frances. We googled the name, and the first Eleanor Frances that popped up was a woman named Eleanor Francis Helin. And there was this beautiful picture of her at NASA in the 1960s accepting an award. And I was stunned by this picture because I hadn't realized that women even worked at NASA at this time, much less as scientists. And so what I found is that there was this group of women who, starting in the 1940s, worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

On tracking down the Jet Propulsion Lab women

Holt: It was quite difficult to track down this group and find their stories. In fact, I think it was over 40 Barbara Paulsons I talked to before I found the right Barbara Paulson. ... But when I found the real Barbara Paulson, the one I was searching for, it was so wonderful. And right from the beginning, Barbara had these amazing stories and incredible memory.

On one of the first stories Paulson shared

Holt: I think it has to be the Explorer 1 [satellite]. That has to be right at the beginning. ...

Paulson: Well, Explorer 1 was launched Jan. 31, 1958. And that would've been after Sputnik had been launched. ... I was asked to graph the results coming back from the Explorer 1 satellite. And I worked most of the night, through the night, at JPL with my mechanical pencil and graph paper and light table that I was working on. And that was all the equipment that I had. ...

As I look back on so many things, I get more excited now than I did then. But it was exciting. I mean, it was great news that it was ... in orbit around the Earth.

On what Holt hopes her book will accomplish

Holt: My hope is that these women serve as role models, not just for my daughter of course, but for all of the women that are interested in science. It's a difficult time for women in technology right now. In 1984, 37 percent of all bachelor's degrees in computer science were awarded to women, and today that number has dropped to 18 percent. And even for women that are working in science today, it's about half of all women that leave midcareer. So I think these stories are important for inspiring and being role models that are so much needed for women today.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the author Nathalia Holt was pregnant with her first child, she was trying to think up the perfect name and googled Eleanor Frances. She found a photograph from the 1960s, an astronomer named Eleanor Francis Helin accepting an award from NASA. Holt dug deeper.

NATHALIA HOLT: And so what I found is that there was this group of women who, starting in the 1940s, worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

SHAPIRO: And that discovery led to the new book "Rise Of The Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles To The Moon to Mars." One of those rocket girls was Barbara Paulson who started at JPL in 1948. She and the author joined me to talk about the role that women played shaping the American space project. Nathalia Holt told me many of the rocket girls had the job title computers.

HOLT: In a time before the digital devices that we're used to today, it was humans that were doing the calculations. And so you needed these teams of people, many of whom were women, especially during World War II, and they were responsible for the math.

SHAPIRO: Barbara, you were one of those computers.

BARBARA PAULSON: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Now, in the 1940s, what made you believe you could be a scientist?

PAULSON: Well, I had had quite a bit of math in high school. Both of my sisters prepared to be secretaries, and I just took a different path completely. But why I veered off into this, that I can't remember.

SHAPIRO: Nathalia, when you started discovering this story of these women who were so essential to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, I mean, does it surprise you that we didn't know this story until now, that it's taken - I don't know - six, seven decades for this to be told?

HOLT: It really was surprising. It was quite difficult to track down this group and find their stories. In fact, I think it was over 40 Barbara Paulsons I talked to before I found the right Barbara Paulson.

SHAPIRO: You're kidding, really?

HOLT: (Laughtr).

PAULSON: I didn't know that either.

HOLT: (Laughter) Yes. No, it was quite difficult. But when I found the real Barbara Paulson, the one I was searching for, it was so wonderful. And right from the beginning, Barbara had these amazing stories and incredible memory and it was a wonderful thing finding the real Barbara Paulson.

SHAPIRO: Barbara, do you remember the very first story you told Nathalia that you were like, here's an anecdote you need to know before anything else?

HOLT: I think it has to be Explorer 1...

PAULSON: Oh, gosh, she took me by surprise.

HOLT: ...That has to be, right? In the beginning, I remember you told me that story very early.

PAULSON: Well, Explorer 1 was launched January 31 in 1958. That would've been after Sputnik had been launched.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. is trying to match the Soviet Union in the space race.

PAULSON: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Three, two, one, by command.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The missile is in flight, but the success of its mission is still in doubt. It will take another hour and a half to know whether the satellite is in orbit - the most tense and harrowing wait of all.

PAULSON: I was asked to graph the results coming back from the Explorer 1 satellite. and I worked most of the night, through the night, at JPL with my mechanical pencil and graph paper and light table that I was working on. And those were - that was all the equipment that I had.

SHAPIRO: And, Barbara, when you found out that the launch was successful, what was your reaction? Do you remember that moment?

PAULSON: I don't know if I'm an emotional person (laughter). I - well, it would - you know, as I look back on so many things, I get more excited now than I did then. But it was exciting. I mean, it was great news that it was - once in orbit around the Earth.

SHAPIRO: Nathalia, how would you describe the impact these women had in totality on the American space project?

HOLT: There is hardly a mission that you can find in NASA that these women haven't touched. They have been there right from the beginning, from the early days of American rocketry to this first American satellite that Barbara's described for us, and then all of these amazing projects - the first planetary probes, the first lunar probes. They were there for Voyager. And even today, we have Susan Finley, who is NASA's longest-serving woman, and she's still working there today at the lab.

SHAPIRO: You mention that you discovered this story when you were looking for a name for your daughter, who was born in 2010. Now that your daughter is 5 years old, what have you told her about these incredible women?

HOLT: She's heard a lot about this group of women. And my hope is that these women serve as role models, not just for my daughter of course but for all of the women that are interested in science. It's a difficult time for women in technology right now. It's - you know, so in 1984, 37 percent of all bachelor's degrees in computer science were awarded to women and today that number has dropped to 18 percent.

And even for women that are working in science today, it's about half of all women that leave midcareer. So I think these stories are important for inspiring and being role models that are so much needed for women today.

SHAPIRO: Nathalia Holt and Barbara Paulson, thank you both.

HOLT: Thank you so much.

PAULSON: Oh, thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: Nathalia Holt is author of "Rise Of The Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles To The Moon to Mars," and Barbara Paulson is one of those girls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.