Meet the Unsung "Rocket Girls" Who Helped Get NASA Into Space
Much is made of encouraging women and girls to join Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields traditionally dominated by the male gender, and rightly so. While women are indeed underrepresented, a new piece of history has emerged that suggests—in conjunction with many other stories like it—that numbers are only one part of the problem. The other part, it seems, is getting your story told.
Microbiologist and writer Nathalia Holt, author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, initially stumbled upon the story of NASA’s so-called “Rocket Girls” by complete accident. Years ago, Holt Googled the name “Eleanor Frances” (as you do with prospective partners, and in Holt’s case, prospective baby names), and discovered astronomer Eleanor Frances Helin, an early NASA employee and one of many women who helped get man to space, but whose stories have been kept out of the history books. Holt told Smithsonian that the agency itself couldn’t even identify female staff members in their own archival photos.
As Holt told NPR, these women worked as so-called "computers" in the '40s and '50s. They were among the team that made up NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and were helping to chart a course to the stars long before the agency itself even existed. Their work was revolutionary not only for what it accomplished, but it represented something of a revolution itself: At the time, only a small percentage of women worked outside the household at all.
Being a human computer might seem like a compliment, but in fact, it took decades for these women to even earn the title of engineer (and the salary that comes with it). As they fought for the respect of their male coworkers and the agency, a sisterhood emerged. Holt told Smithsonian:
"They called themselves 'Helen's Girls' for a long time because of one very influential supervisor named Helen Ling. Helen did an incredible job bringing women into NASA and was a powerhouse in bringing women engineers into the laboratory. They also called themselves the sisterhood because they were a close group that supported one another. They were really there for one another, and you can see that in the way that they went and had kids and came back: They looked out for each other and made phone calls to make sure women were coming back after having kids. It was a really special group. They really enjoyed each other's company and they really loved their careers at JPL."
It’s not all ancient history either: At the 50th anniversary of Explorer I in 2008, the women who had been in Mission Control at the time weren’t invited to the celebration. In telling the many incredible stories of these women, Holt’s book might just give these unsung “Rocket Girls” the recognition they deserve along with the achievements they already earned. After all, they were there every step of the way; as mankind made giant leaps, womankind was there behind the scenes. It's not rocket science.
To read more on the Rocket Girls, check out Holt’s book, and these two great interviews with the author over at Smithsonian and NPR. NASA also highlights the current women of the JPL on its website.