Presentation and Book by Natalia Holt
By: Kirstin Wolfe
Despite unequal pay and discrimination in the workplace, women have long contributed to math and science in key historical events. In her book “Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars,” Nathalia Holt chronicles contributions and stories from several of the key women involved in scientific and space history.
From the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), women were involved in projects that conquered new frontiers of science and Holt wanted to share their stories.
In a presentation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, on Thursday, November 17, Holt recounted experiences from collecting her research and what is included in her recently published book.
After an introduction from student, Zoe Crain who works with the Women’s and Diversity Center on campus, Holt jumped right in sharing the story of how her book came to be.
Holt’s interest in the subject stemmed from a baby name suggestion when she was expecting her first child. A suggestion of the name “Eleanor Francis” and a subsequent Google search sparked an interest in the history of groundbreaking women contributing to science.
So, in summer 2010 Holt began collecting information on women in the 1940’s and 50’s space projects that became a full-fledged book published April 2016.
From the reckless experiments carried out by a group dubbed the “Suicide Squad” on the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) campus stemmed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Testing rockets in an isolated canyon outside of Pasadena, California, JPL had humble starts.
At the time, rocket science was not considered “real science” or something that would beneficial to seriously pursue. However, JPL received its first United States government grant for rockets a short while later.
Like many young women of the period, Barbie Carnegie at JPL recognized that females were not prominent in math and science fields. Holt pointed out the belief that “gender made them better at detail oriented work” so women were employed to run calculations for scientific endeavors. Women were computers and men were the engineers, but the title of engineer would later be granted to women.
Macie Roberts, Barbara Paulson, and Helen Lang were all women who had important roles in getting females involved in science and space endeavors during the 1940’s and 50’s when they could not yet attend engineering schools.
Seeking out young educated women to get involved in science, these women broke down barriers and paved the way for others. According to Holt, a “culture of working motherhood in the lab” that had not been seen before was established as new mothers were brought into the field by Helen Lang.
Soon women claimed the title of programmers but not until 1969 were females allowed to hold the title of engineer and further their education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Women went on to make contributions in the Ranger 6, Ranger 7, Mariner 2, Venus, and Mars exploration programs, to name only a few.
After chronicling her research efforts, Holt was available to sign copies of her book for attendees, which included students and faculty members alike.
Covering topics from America’s first satellite to women becoming programmers then engineers, Holt shared valuable information from the research efforts for her book. Holt’s interviews of women who had worked with JPL, NASA, and other space projects are included “Rise of the Rocket Girls”.
The contributions of women to America’s space exploration programs may sometimes be overlooked, but Holt’s book put these important women at the forefront of a time period when only about twenty percent of women worked outside the home.