The history of women as vital contributors to advancements in early space exploration.
In this engaging history and group biography, science journalist Holt (Cured: How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV and Forever Changed Medical Science, 2014) reveals the significance of the young women mathematicians who staffed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Beginning in the 1940s, women who had been the only females in college mathematics and chemistry classes found themselves part of an eager team of scientists and engineers whose first project was to produce “a new weapon, a long-range jet-propelled missile that could carry a thousand-pound warhead for a hundred miles at a speed capable of eluding an enemy fighter aircraft.” Drawing on interviews with surviving team members, Holt traces the frustrations, failures, and successes of rocket development before computers came on the scene. Working with pencils, graph paper, and notebooks, it took one woman a day to calculate a single rocket’s trajectory, plotting the path in a hand-drawn picture. Sometimes they used a Friden calculator, a heavy, unwieldy mechanism that vibrated noisily. When the IBM 704 computer—weighing more than 30,000 pounds and costing $2 million—arrived in the late 1950s, the JPL staff was suspicious. “The engineers and computers preferred to do their calculations by hand,” writes the author, “not trusting the massive machines that had too many glitches to be trustworthy.” After Russia sent Sputnik into space, the JPL pressed for funds to develop a satellite, frustrated that Eisenhower’s administration “worried that the space race might turn into the space war.” They were jubilant when they were finally able to work on unmanned missions. Besides chronicling the development of America’s space program, Holt recounts the women’s private lives—marriages, babies, and the challenge of combining motherhood and work—gleaned from her interviewees’ vivid memories.
A fresh contribution to women’s history.