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book review

How women math experts helped send America into space

Tracking spacecraft position in the control room during the Venus flyby in 1962.
Tracking spacecraft position in the control room during the Venus flyby in 1962.NASA/JPL-Caltech

Before PCs or smartphones or even clunky mainframe IBMs, a little-known group of women known as “computers” were using paper and pencil to calculate thrust, velocity, and trajectories for the first American rockets.

These mathematical adepts worked for the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its predecessor, the scarily accident-prone “Suicide Squad.” While dreaming of space rather than war, they were indispensable to the construction of the first ballistic missiles in the 1940s and ultimately helped design spacecraft that would explore the moon and the rest of the cosmos.

Their intimate accounts of their accomplishments, family lives, and the sometimes unsettling mix of opportunity and discrimination they encountered form the basis of Nathalia Holt’s “Rise of the Rocket Girls.”

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Holt deserves credit for bringing this story to light, but the book would have benefited from a tighter edit. Careening between attempts to explain the arcane technical problems of rocket science and humdrum accounts of office friendships and marital challenges, Holt’s narrative — like the disastrous early rockets — fails to build enough momentum to soar.

That so many of the surviving “rocket girls” cooperated with Holt was a boon. With their help, the Boston-based microbiologist and author of “Cured: The People Who Defeated HIV” (2014) is able to offer a backstage view of the bumpy start of the Space Age.

Holt catalogs the mixed record of the organization’s early rockets and unmanned spacecraft, including the lunar, Mars, and Venus probes that went awry.

She also writes of the impact of McCarthyism on the lab, including the loss of its director; the time Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocketry expert, turned up in the lunchroom; and the effects of years of budget cutting and drift by NASA, which absorbed the lab in 1958.

In her treatment of the women themselves, however, Holt veers close to hagiography.

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That this group of “computers” should have been entirely female was anomalous, especially in an era when working women were most often secretaries, teachers, or nurses, and girls talented at math were viewed as oddities. But both supervisor Macie Roberts and her successor, the brilliant Helen Ling, decided to hire only women for these math jobs — by today’s standards, a lawsuit in the making.

“Macie saw men as a potential disruption to her group,” Holt writes. “She couldn’t imagine a man would listen to her . . . She labored to find a group of women who all got along, who were friends as well as colleagues.”

Holt mentions that the women made less money than similarly educated male colleagues. She never details the amount of the disparity nor its role in hiring practices. One wonders: Did men ever apply to be “computers” and get turned down?

When Roberts interviewed applicants, she reportedly would tell them: “In this job you need to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog.” Other vestiges of sexism persisted until the feminist revolution of the 1970s, including lab beauty contests for the titles of “Miss Guided Missile” and “Queen of Outer Space.”

In 1960, Barbara Paulson, a top computer, unexpectedly lost her job when she was seven months pregnant. Her mistake: asking for a better parking spot. Paulson, a key source for this book, was soon hired back.

In time, women such as Paulson and Ling did receive raises and promotions, as well as considerable technical training, and many became computer programmers and engineers. Meanwhile, they juggled work, children, and marriage with varying success, as some of the marriages collapsed under the strain.

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Through it all, Holt insists on their love for their jobs and one another. “They would laugh over foolish mistakes, tease each other over arithmetic slipups, and bond when they experienced the deep satisfaction of solving a particularly challenging problem,” she writes. “It didn’t feel like a job; it was more like being part of a secret society.”

To Holt, these bonds seem to matter as much as the lab’s historic accomplishments. After attending a bittersweet reunion of lab retirees, she writes: “Buried in those final goodbyes are friendships far more powerful than any rocket engine.”

RISE OF THE ROCKET GIRLS: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

By Nathalia Holt

Little, Brown, 337 pp., illustrated, $27


Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.